Young Saudi Crown Prince 'Leading A Revolution From Above,' Scholar Says10:53
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Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counterterrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on Nov. 26, 2017. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counterterrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on Nov. 26, 2017. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, about Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Interview Highlights

On goals Mohammed bin Salman has been charged with achieving

"He's been entrusted by [King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud] to accomplish two broad aims: The first is to build up the country's military capabilities so that it becomes less dependent on the United States, which has historically been its protector. The second goal that he has been entrusted with is to reform the economy, to diversify it away from its near-total dependence on oil revenues and to build up the private sector and to create employment in the private sector rather than in the public sector, which is where most Saudis work today."

On moves he's made to liberalize the country

"He's a young person who leads a population that is extremely young — 70 percent of all Saudis are under the age of 30. And he feels that the policies of the past, which included promoting very conservative social mores, a form of Islam that was extremely restrictive, is bad for the country, is bad for the economy. It makes young people not like to stick around. They wanna go on vacation overseas, and he wants to be able to build up as much as possible the capacity within the country to keep people happy, and so he started a ministry for entertainment.

"He also realizes that women are the better half of the population in terms of human capital. They are the better educated, the harder working, and so if he wants to build up the private sector and diversify the economy, he's going to have to rely more on women than on men. And he's done many other things. I mean, he has broken with a great number of traditional policies of the Saudi royal family. In effect, he's leading a revolution from above — so far bloodless, thank God."

On whether a purge of Saudi elites accused of corruption marked a consolidation of power

"He had already consolidated power by the time this purge had happened, so I think it is really about ending a culture of corruption that involved taking kickbacks on every contract that the government signed. That doesn't mean that corruption will be ended in the country, but it will certainly be restricted very significantly — or at least so he hopes — and in so doing, that the country will be able to sustain itself economically and not incur budget deficits like it has been for the last several years."

"In effect, he's leading a revolution from above — so far bloodless, thank God."

Bernard Haykel

On reports about his lavish spending, and what differentiates him from those he's cracking down on

"As someone who will be the king ... he's not a Gandhi, he's not an ascetic and he feels that he's entitled to spend that kind of money, and he's a rich man. He doesn't see it as corruption. In fact, he sees his own personal behavior as a form of entitlement that comes with being crown prince and being king."

On what Prince Mohammed hopes to accomplish in Yemen

"In Yemen, he sees Iran as having taken advantage of the chaos that had enveloped the country, beginning sort of in the middle 2000s, and that Iran had developed a connection to a proxy militia in Yemen, and that what the Iranians wanted to do in Yemen was to build up a force like they have built up in Lebanon with Hezbollah, with which to threaten the kingdom, especially with the use of ballistic missiles and sort of militia, paramilitary, cross-border activity. And he feels that this is a national security threat to the kingdom and he won't permit that to happen. So he got engaged primarily as a way of stopping Iran from, as he sees it, meddling in Yemeni politics, and he sees Yemen very much as his backyard, in the way that for example the United States would see Mexico. It has cost the Yemeni population a tremendous amount. But Yemen was already actually on the verge of implosion before the Saudis got involved. The Saudi involvement certainly has made things much worse."

"He makes you feel like you're the center of his universe when he's speaking to you, which is a kind of a trait that I think you're born with, and it's uncommon in the Saudi royal family."

Bernard Haykel

On Prince Mohammed's relationship with President Trump and the U.S.

"I think it's a fairly good relationship. As you know, President Trump's first visit overseas to Saudi Arabia, to Riyadh, where he was feted and was given the royal treatment, and he seemed to appreciate that greatly. I think to understand the relationship with President Trump, you have to understand that the Saudi relationship with President Obama was extremely bad. It probably was the nadir, the very lowest point, in U.S.-Saudi relations. They were very thrilled — the Saudis, that is — to see a new president in the United States who did not want to open up to Iran as they thought President Obama wanted to do."

On his characteristics

"He's extremely charismatic, and he's a natural-born politician. I mean, he makes you feel like you're the center of his universe when he's speaking to you, which is a kind of a trait that I think you're born with, and it's uncommon in the Saudi royal family. I felt the same way when I once met President Clinton. But he's also a force of nature, I mean he seems to be on all the time. He does a lot of his communications through WhatsApp, including with other leaders around the world. He's very connected to the internet. He follows Twitter intensely.

"But you also get a sense when you meet with him that this is a person who can be extremely tough. He has a toughness, kind of a take-no-prisoners aspect to him that is quite palpable. He's also very big, he's physically very imposing. You kind of understand why he was chosen by his father when you meet him, because he has this intensity and this toughness, but also kind of a raw intelligence, and this politician's touch that I mentioned earlier. So it's quite a compelling combination. And as a politician in Saudi Arabia, the young seem to like him greatly and identify with him. And you have to understand that that's because he comes after 30 years of sclerotic rule, with kings who are in their 80s, and where nothing seemed to ever happen in the country. So he's extremely popular as I speak now. Of course that can change if he doesn't deliver on these economic promises. And I think people do identify that he's a breath of fresh air, and something hopeful for the country."

This segment aired on December 28, 2017.

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