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A new and improved Saudi Arabia?

The Saudi crown prince presents himself as modernizing the influential Muslim country

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19. Saudi Press Agency via Associated Press

A new and improved Saudi Arabia?
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In an important interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) met with Fox News’ Bret Baier on Sept. 20.

MBS is currently the most influential leader in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is a major player in world affairs due to its heavyweight influence in oil production, which is crucial in geopolitical calculations, especially with the war in Ukraine and the tension between the West and China.

This is MBS’ first interview with a major American news network since 2019. It reveals what he thinks about Israel, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, and the USA, among others.

What are its major highlights? And what do they reveal about MBS and Saudi Arabia in relation to the Unites States?

Four major themes emerged from the interview: First, to set the tone for the entire interview, MBS presents himself as the leader of a national transition into a modern-day Saudi Arabia, as he states that he isn’t “proud of all of our laws in Saudi Arabia.” While he doesn’t specify these laws, he speaks of the success of his Saudi Vision 2030 plan and teases for his forthcoming announcement of Saudi 2040 in the near future.

Second, to distance himself and Saudi Arabia from any association with violence and terrorism, MBS speaks about two controversial events. He laments the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi—whose death the CIA concluded was ordered by MBS—as “painful” and “a mistake.” MBS also dismisses the fact that 15 out of the 19 terrorists who took part in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens, and insists that al-Qaeda hurt Saudi Arabia like they did other countries. Osama bin Laden, says MBS, is “our enemy and he’s the American enemy.” Here MBS distances himself and his country from its recent militant past and advances his modern progressive agenda.

Third, he speaks of Iran. In implied disapprovals of western nations flirting with Iran around nuclear deals, MBS criticizes Iran’s aspiration for nuclear weapons. He asserts that no one should now seek such weapons as we don’t want another Hiroshima. Still, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, says MBS, then Saudi Arabia would “have to get one, for security reasons, for balancing power.”

Fourth, to settle the speculations about any possible Saudi-Israel normalization deal, MBS says that “every day we get closer,” but he wants to see “a good life for the Palestinians.” MBS reveals President Biden’s strong desire to accomplish a such a deal, and rightly states that it would be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.”

The crown prince knows the cards he and his country possess in the political game.

What does this important interview reveal about MBS and Saudi Arabia?

MBS is undoubtedly aware of the pivotal geopolitical and economical role of Saudi Arabia in world affairs. This strengthens him greatly—his tone is bold, assertive, and confident. He knows the cards he and his country possess in the political game. Despite the CIA’s conclusion that he played a role in an unlawful killing and how Biden labeled Saudi Arabia as a pariah, MBS managed to emerge as an undefeated leader—a crucial political partner.

MBS presents himself as a Muslim reformer and visionary political leader.

He paints Bin Laden and other militant Muslims as radicals who distorted Islam, and he highlights himself as the Muslim reformer of the day. He takes up the mantle of a true Muslim who leads Islam’s ship to a new era, in which the religion isn’t rigid as in days past but fits squarely within a multi-religious world. To be sure, he doesn’t present himself as an inventor of a new Islam, but as a restorer of a faith distorted by others. Of course, without particularities, he is presented as a better Muslim than the bad guys.

Simultaneously, he cherishes being viewed as the leader of the thriving modern Saudi Arabia who has plans to deal with friends and opponents. While he is willing to proceed in a reconciled relationship with his religious rivals in Iran, he is clear: If they obtain nukes, Saudi Arabia will, too.

As for Israel, a deal of normalization is on the table, but it must be worth it for Saudi Arabia. While MBS explicitly conveys that a deal must provide a good life for the Palestinians, he doesn’t say what that actually entails. This detail aims to disperse any accusation against him of forsaking the Muslim Palestinian cause by embracing Israel. In reality, it appears that he wants a remarkable return for Saudi Arabia, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported that he aspires to “formally make Saudi Arabia a U.S. ally and give it easier access to American weaponry.”

MBS knows very well the cards in his hands. Any deal with Israel must receive his fingerprints and give him credit. He has nothing to lose and, without the demands he wants, a deal under Biden and Netanyahu isn’t worth it.

The question is how far the Unites States is willing to go to accomplish a normalization.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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