Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to change US perceptions of Saudi Arabia

Prince Mohammed pitches kingdom as a tourist destination and praises US ties

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks to Fox News in Neom, Saudi Arabia. SPA / Reuters
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's interview with Fox News generated lots of big news, but it was his remarks beyond the headlines that could perhaps have a more lasting impact on US viewers.

For decades, Americans' perceptions of Saudi Arabia have been defined through a narrow prism that has highlighted a small set of issues: arms sales, oil prices, human rights concerns and – more recently – the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In his 36-minute interview, Prince Mohammed spoke in English to address all of these matters, while at the same time stressing that Saudi Arabia is focused on the future, that he wants American tourists to come to visit and that Riyadh is keen to keep the US as its key security partner.

“The Crown Prince achieved what he wanted to achieve in addressing an American and western audience more broadly, [in terms of getting] Saudi Arabia to be viewed as a growing, evolving, modern state,” said Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Counci.

“He did a good job of trying to show a changing and developing Saudi Arabia.”

Fox News, a conservative outlet, often tops nightly viewership rankings in the US, and the Crown Prince's comments on getting “closer” to a deal to establish relations with Israel were flashed around the globe.

For millions of Americans, it was their first time seeing him speak in English and answer questions from a US journalist. Fox said it was the first time Prince Mohammed had ever done a media interview completely in English.

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, said it was noteworthy that Prince Mohammed had admitted to making “mistakes”, particularly around the Khashoggi killing.

The Crown Prince also said that it was “shamedly” true that Saudi courts had sentenced a man to death over his posts on X, formerly Twitter, and his activity on YouTube. He said it was time to change “bad laws” on such issues and added that he hoped a higher court judge would look at the conviction in a “totally different” way.

When asked about Khashoggi's killing, he said those responsible were in prison and Saudi Arabia has reformed the security system to “be sure that these kind of mistakes” do not happen again.

“That's something I thought ought to be noted,” Mr Haykel said. “There's something kind of quite distinctive about him in that regard. He kind of admits that there are lots of things that are wrong and that we're fixing them.”

Khashoggi was killed on October 2, 2018, after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Riyadh said the murder was an unsanctioned operation by security officials and the kingdom has since reformed the leadership of its top intelligence agencies in an attempt to prevent such an incident from happening again.

The Crown Prince's interview, in which he also said Saudi Arabia would seek to get a nuclear bomb if Iran did, shows how far his relations with US President Joe Biden have improved over the past year or so.

The awkward fist bump during a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2022 was switched for a warm handshake at the G20 in India, and Prince Mohammed praised the mental acuity of the 80-year-old Mr Biden – a subject of constant speculation in the US.

“I don't think that there's necessarily a huge amount of love between the two, but they've got to a place that's far different than 14 months ago. It's not just a working relationship, but an amicable, warm enough relationship to be able to actually be able to progress on a lot of issues,” Mr Panikoff said.

On the key issue of security, the Crown Prince pointed out that the kingdom was the top purchaser of US weapons and suggested that, while Saudi Arabia has other countries it could buy arms from, he wanted to keep US defence relationship going.

“You don't want to see Saudi Arabia shifting their armament from America to other places,” he said. “It will save effort and headache from the Saudi side of not switching to other places.”

The Crown Prince “is clearly sending a signal that America is the top strategic ally and he wants to have a very good relationship the United States”, Mr Haykel said.

“Then if that doesn't work out, then he would turn to other arms suppliers, which is not his preference.”

Another takeaway, Mr Haykel said, was that the interview showed Prince Mohammed to be a practical “nationalist”.

“He doesn't really care how outsiders think about him, as long as his own people and his own economy are flourishing,” the expert said.

During the interview, Prince Mohammed said he hoped that between 100 million and 150 million people would visit the kingdom by 2030. He was asked about critics who have accused Saudi Arabia of investing heavily in golf and other sports in attempted “sportswashing”, or spending to improve the kingdom's political image abroad.

Prince Mohammed said he was not concerned by such claims and if sports investments continue to increase Saudi Arabia's gross domestic product significantly, then his country would “continue to do sportswashing”.

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Updated: September 21, 2023, 7:14 PM