Reactions to the MBS interview

Saudi crown prince on the economy, religion and foreign policy

From Reuters:

Major Chinese investors are in talks to buy a stake in Saudi Aramco, several sources told Reuters on Wednesday, as Saudi Arabia's state oil firm prepares to sell another slice of its business to international investors.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hinted at this deal during his television interview on Tuesday. “There are discussions happening right now about a 1% acquisition by one of the leading energy companies in the world”, he said. “This could be very important in strengthening Aramco’s sales in the country where this company is based. I can’t reveal its name, but it is a very huge country”.

That was one of the few newsy bits to come out of the 90-minute interview, which was timed to mark the fifth anniversary of launching “Vision 2030”, a major plan to transform Saudi Arabia and wean it off its dependence on oil revenues. You can read my recap here. The bulk of the interview was dedicated to highlighting progress made towards achieving the plan’s goals, and the crown prince was bullish on the government performance.

Ziad Daoud, chief emerging markets economist at Bloomberg, notes that reality suggests that the programme has so far fallen short of its targets. “Relative to its 2020 goals, the economy has regressed on most metrics -- including the unemployment rate and foreign direct investment,” he said.

The crown prince said Covid-19 has hindered progress: “Nobody was expecting coronavirus and we’re trying to take the needed policies to reduce the impact of this pandemic and to maintain our opportunities for sustainable growth.” Observers argue that many of these figures did not look very different before the pandemic as the rate of economic growth was sluggish, but female participation in the workforce is a bright spot.

Of course, you would not know by reading or watching the coverage of the interview in local Saudi media where the tone was uniformly congratulatory and celebratory. “The era of the depending on oil for all the kingdom’s needs is over”, al-Riyadh said on its front page. “Crown Prince: We Broke All Records in 2020”, financial daily al-Eqtisadiah shouted across eight columns. Al-Jazirah said the world paused its clocks to listen to the crown prince, and Asharq al-Awsat said “‘Vision’ figures are outpacing dreams”. The same enthusiasm was on display on social media, which was also full of praise, including one tweet that said the interview was so pleasing to the eye because the setting featured “beautiful” visual symmetry.

Jameel al-Theyabi, editor-in-chief of Jeddah-based daily Okazcalled the interview “historic” and said the crown prince’s answers showed his “encyclopedic knowledge”:

The calm thinking of the crown prince confirms his ability to tackle the major issues, especially the hot topics and crises, and that the real influence that the kingdom seeks is what guarantees its interests, and not to antagonise any side nor inflict aggression on any party.

Prince Mohammad has been patient in the face of lies and fabrications, overcoming difficulties and challenges, to see achievements being realised one after another within five years since the launch of the kingdom’s ambitious vision, and to the point that some of the 2030 targets have been reached ahead of schedule.

Al-Jazirah’s top editor Khalid al-Malik, who has been asking the government to intervene to save local newspapers from going bankrupt, used almost identical words (“historic” and “talk of the hour”) to describe it, and then asked for such interviews to become a regular feature:

Before I comment on the topics and issues in which Mohammed bin Salman answered the questions of [anchor Abdullah] al-Modifer, I wonder: Why does His Highness not have a monthly interview where he informs citizens of the developments, and talks to them about everything that has happened in the discourse taking place in the kingdom as it is now a workshop in every field and in all domains, which makes an occasional interview of its godfather and thinking mind not enough, while achievements and developments are on the rise, political positions are updated, and the citizen is eager to get to know details from the man of strong will and ability.

To start, the prince was —as usual— clear and transparent, not lacking in information or presentation. He had all the details, numbers and statistics covered. Therefore, his answers were convincing, his opinions sound, his ambitions without limits, his confidence and his hopes for the future extraordinary, which made his speech and opinions of interest at home and abroad.

Columnist Mohammed al-Saaed likened the interview to a “State of the Union” address and said it could be summarised as the crown prince seeking to minimise risks and maximise gains for his country:

The vision as we understood it and as presented was not only an economic programme, certainly full of dreams, promises and projects, but at the same time it began to mature and bear fruit despite its short life.

If we recall how the vision started and the scale of scepticism from those who were jealous, envious and obstructive, and how the prince himself made economic trips to the strongholds of the tech industry and tourism in the world to promote his project which bewildered many investors and international companies because for the first time someone is telling them there is some hope in the war-torn Middle East.

For decades, the region was classified as just an oil well and a gas pipeline that supply the world with energy, but it was never described as an engine for the global economy, which is what the prince has done by building huge engines that will undoubtedly contribute to transforming the region into a new Europe.

In addition to questions about the economy, the prince was asked about his take on the concept of moderation. At first the prince said he was not in a position to explain such a broad concept, then added that it comes down to adhering to the Saudi constitution —Quran, Sunnah and the Basic Law— and how to apply it in an inclusive manner.

The follow-up question was about the role of Sharia in the state when it comes to laws, the public domain and personal freedoms. This prompted a long answer about the application of Sharia and the interpretation of religious texts. There are many hadiths, or sayings of Prophet Mohammed, that have questionable chains of narration and they should not be considered when it comes to legislation, the prince said.

His comments suggested a liberal and tolerant understanding of how to apply Sharia, and it stood in sharp contrast with another answer later in the interview about how to tackle extremism. The prince cited a prophetic saying that urges the faithful to kill extremists. This was seized upon by Saudi opposition figures as a justification for killing dissidents by labelling them extremists.

Since designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group in 2014, Saudi Arabia has viewed a wide spectrum of Islamists as a threat and called most of them extremists. The crown prince sought to explain the kingdom’s current approach towards Islamist movements by putting it in historical context:

We were in a very difficult phase, let’s say from the 1950s to the 1970s, [facing] the pan-Arabist, socialists, communists projects and others in the region, which gave an opportunity for a lot of extremist groups to somehow enter the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and reach different positions in the state, the economy, etc. That resulted in unfortunate outcomes and we saw their impact in the previous years. Today, we cannot grow, attract capital, offer tourism, or move forward with the existence of extremist ideology in Saudi Arabia. If you want million of jobs, decline of unemployment, economic growth and better income, then you must uproot this project…

He concluded by saying that “any person who espouses an extremist ideology, even if he is not a terrorist, he is still a criminal who must be held accountable before the law”. The next logical question might have been: So, where do you draw the line between extremism and freedom of expression in a modern society, and how do you respond to criticism that Saudi Arabia is using its anti-terrorism laws to silence peaceful dissent? Alas, the anchor decided to move on to the topic of foreign policy.

The crown prince downplayed differences with the United States under the Biden administration and said Saudi Arabia wants to have good relations with Iran. The Iranian government on Thursday welcomed what it called a change of tone from the kingdom and said it hoped they could work together to secure peace, amid reports that the two rivals have begun talks aimed at reducing tension in the region.

There was no question in the interview about Turkey, but there might be movement on that front too after a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said earlier this week that his country respects the outcome of the Saudi trial into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “We will seek ways to repair the relationship with a more positive agenda with Saudi Arabia as well,” Ibrahim Kalin told Reuters, adding that he hoped the kingdom would lift an informal ban imposed on Turkish goods since last year.