WashingtonSaudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to meet with United States (US) President Donald Trump in Washington on Tuesday.
Mutual rival Iran will be high on the agenda, but the 32-year-old strongman prince will also be looking to showcase his sweeping changes to Saudi society and an increasingly assertive foreign policy that includes the war in Yemen and an ongoing diplomatic feud with Qatar.
Prior to his US visit, he gave an interview to CBS News which was aired on Sunday. The following are excerpts from the interview the first to an American network:
The role of women
Prince Mohammed has implemented some reforms on women’s rights, loosening clothing restrictions, pushing for greater participation in the workforce, and, significantly, lifting a ban on women driving.
But guardianship laws, which require women to seek the permission of male relatives for a host of activities, remain in place.
We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a work place. Many of those ideas contradict the way of life during the time of the Prophet (pbuh), he said.
We are all human beings and there is no difference.
Roots of Saudi extremism
The prince acknowledged Saudi society was dominated by particularly harsh strain of conservative Islam, which he traces back to 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the seizure by extremists of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal, he said.
This is not the real Saudi Arabia. I would ask your viewers to use their smart phones to find out. And they can google Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 60s, and they will see the real Saudi Arabia easily in the pictures.
We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries.
“Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.
Osama bin Laden’s motive
Admitting that Osama bin Laden had tainted Saudi Arabia’s image in the West, Prince Mohammed claimed that was what the former Al Qaeda chief had aimed to do.
“Osama bin Laden recruited 15 Saudis in the 9/11 attacks with a clear objective,” he said. “According to the CIA documents and Congressional investigations, Osama bin Laden wanted to create a schism between the Middle East and the West, between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.”
He defended at length his anti-corruption purge which saw many of the Kingdom’s princes and tycoons detained for several weeks inside Riyadh’s luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel that is widely seen as an attempt to cement his grip on power.
What we did in Saudi Arabia was extremely necessary and legal,” he said.
He said he was able to recover more than $100 billion of ill-gotten wealth from the detainees, but added: The idea is not to get money, but to punish the corrupt and send a clear signal that whoever engages in corrupt deals will face the law.
A New York Times report published last week claimed that prominent Saudis held in the purge were subjected to coercion and physical abuse, describing fear and uncertainty even after their release.
Subsequently, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Saudi Arabia to “immediately investigate the claims that authorities physically mistreated or coerced prominent people detained in November 2017 and hold those responsible to account”.
His personal wealth
The prince has been accused of hypocrisy over his opulent lifestyle at a time his government is preaching greater austerity of its citizens and has imposed new taxes.
He was recently revealed as the owner of a French chateau described as the world’s most expensive home, according to a report in The New York Times.
But he insisted his wealth was a private matter. As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela.”
He added: But what I do as a person is to spend part of my personal income on charity. I spend at least 51 per cent on people and 49 on myself.
Ascent to the throne
As heir to the throne after his father King Salman dies, the young prince could be set to rule the Kingdom for the next half-century or more.
Asked what could stop him, he replied: Only death.”
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