Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman offered a strong defence of his economic and social reforms in the Kingdom in his first interview with an American television broadcaster, vowing to continue a transformative agenda that “only death” can barricade.
In a wide-ranging interview with CBS' 60 Minutes aired on Sunday night, Prince Mohammed, 32, offered a new vision for Saudi Arabia that turns the page on the harsh interpretation of Islam practice in the Kingdom since 1979. He called citizens of his generation "victims" that "suffered from this a great deal".
The Saudi Crown Prince was particularly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, of extremism and the schism with the West created by Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden through the orchestration of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Asked by journalist Norah O’Donnell about education reforms in the country toward espousing a more moderate form and curriculum about Islam, the Saudi Crown prince said: “Saudi schools have been invaded by many elements from the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, surely to a great extent.”
“Even now, there are some elements left. It will be a short while until they are all eradicated completely.”
He added that “no country in the world would accept that its educational system be invaded by any radical group”.
The counter-extremism push was vivid in how he approached the subject of women’s rights. The Crown Prince, who last year ended a ban on women driving, reopened cinemas and allowed families and women to attend sports stadiums, spoke in sentimental terms about Saudi Arabia pre-1979.
“We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars," he explained. "There were movie theatres in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”
1979 was a seminal year for the region, with the Islamic revolution in Iran and the siege of Makkah in Saudi Arabia. Both events triggered a hard turn to the religious right in the Kingdom.
“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” the Saudi leader told CBS. “Many of those ideas contradict the way of life during the time of the Prophet and the Caliphs.”
Prince Mohammed embraced a Saudi woman’s right to wear “what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear”.
He said: “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men. This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover.”
The Saudi Crown Prince defended the Ritz-Carlton hotel arrests of princes, high-ranking ministers and businessmen that were made between November and February in an anti-corruption campaign. “What we did in Saudi Arabia was extremely necessary. All actions taken were in accordance with existing and published laws.”
He said the money that the government restored, exceeded US$100 billion (Dh367bn). “But the real objective was not this amount or any other amount... but to punish the corrupt and send a clear signal that whoever engages in corrupt deals will face the law.”
Asked about his personal fortune, he said: “As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela. I’m a member of the ruling family... we own very large lots of land, and my personal life is the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago. But what I do as a person is to spend part of my personal income on charity.”
The Crown Prince said he spends 51 per cent of his fortune on people and 49 per cent on himself.
The foreign policy part of the CBS interview was mostly focused on Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition is engaged in a war against the Iran-backed Houthi militias, and the country has suffered civil war since 2015.
Asked about the humanitarian toll, Prince Mohammed said: “It is truly very painful, and I hope that this militia [Houthis] ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”
He said that the “Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen” and justified Saudi Arabia’s military involvement. “I can’t imagine that the United States will accept one day to have a militia in Mexico launching missiles on Washington DC, New York and LA while Americans are watching these missiles and doing nothing” he said.
Prince Mohammed said Iran played a destructive role in Yemen. “The Iranian regime is based on pure ideology. Many of the Al Qaeda operatives are protected in Iran and it refuses to surrender them to justice, and continues to refuse to extradite them to the United States” he said, accusing Iran of harbouring the son of Osama bin Laden. “He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran.”
In comments aired before the interview, the Saudi Crown Prince stood by his comparison of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler.
He said: “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy.”
On a more personal side on what he learned from his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Prince Mohammed cited the love of history. “The King always says, 'If you read the history of a thousand years, you have the experience of a thousand years.'”
Asked if he would run the country for 50 years or if anything could prevent him, Saudi’s Crown Prince answered in two words: “Only death”.
Prince Mohammed is due to arrive in the United States on an official visit on Monday. He will meet President Donald Trump on Tuesday, and convene with senior cabinet members of the administration as well as Congressional leaders in Washington. Later in the week he will head to Boston, then New York, then the West Coast (Washington State and California), where he will meet the leaders of tech and film industries. The Saudi Crown Prince is expected to end his two-and-half-week long trip in Houston, Texas.