Analysis

Does the Saudi Crown Prince’s Rosy Rhetoric Indicate Real Change?

In the interview that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman granted to The Atlantic, there were many questions that were not asked

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud meets U.N. Secretary-General Guterres in New York on March 27, 2018.
\ Amir Levy/ REUTERS

AMMAN — The great excitement over the remarks of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is understandable. Finally, after more than a century since the Balfour Declaration, a leading member of the Saudi royal family has framed the rights of the Jews to a state in almost the same words as the British foreign minister’s statement of 1917. In a lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, which was published on Monday, Prince Mohammed said that both “the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”

But it should be noted that the English version still doesn’t include recognition of a state that has existed for 70 years, but rather of the right of the Israelis to have a land, as it is the right of the Palestinians to have one. In other words, in all of the prince’s remarks, he does not use the world “state” but rather “land” and “people.” Those who are amazed that the Saudi heir apparent is the first Arab leader to recognize Israel should look at the Saudi initiative, which became the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. That initiative states, among other things, that in exchange for a general withdrawal from all the territories (including the Golan Heights), the Arab countries commit to sign a peace agreement with Israel and normalize relations with it. Peace agreements are forged with countries that are recognized; that is, the Arab countries recognized Israel’s existence back then, not only Israel’s right to exist. Making peace and recognizing a country are not identical concepts. Israel recognizes the existence of many countries, but does not have peace agreements with all of them.

At the same time, Prince Mohammed was not asked, and therefore did not share his thoughts, about what is usually referred to as the “deal of the century” that the Trump administration is cooking up. (Or is it already ready in President Donald Trump’s kitchen?) Does the Saudi crown prince still insist on Israel’s full withdrawal from all the territories, as the Arab Initiative demanded? Would Saudi Arabia permit changes to the agreement? Would the prince be willing to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Does he have an opinion about the 1967 borders?

These questions might not have come up in the interview because it was agreed ahead of time not to bring them up. On the other hand, reports of security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel have gone completely public and senior Israeli officials have met and are meeting with Saudi representatives. In light of this and, as the crown prince himself concedes, when the two countries have shared interests, it would not be superfluous to also examine the nature of the cooperation between the two countries in terms of the hostility they share toward Iran. It appears that Saudi Arabia has no problem cooperating with Israel even without signing a peace treaty with it.

In the interview in The Atlantic, the crown prince said: “I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.”

Israel will of course be pleased with the comparison between the supreme Iranian leader and Hitler, and Israel apparently has also forgiven the prince for “forgetting” to mention the Holocaust as part of the comparison. But one may wonder what the value of the Israeli-Saudi interest is when it comes to Iran. Will this interest lead Israel to agree to Saudi Arabia’s launching its own nuclear program? Will Israel encourage the U.S. Congress to approve the sale of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes to Saudi Arabia, or will it continue to thwart the nuclear reactor deal between Washington and Riyadh?

The worrisome part of the interview with Mohammed bin Salman is the way he describes reality in Saudi Arabia. He is the youngest future monarch in the Middle East. He is also an art lover, or at least he enjoys purchasing art. He speaks English and is aware of international mores and one would expect him not to sell us a bill of goods. But it’s as if there is no Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, the ultra-conservative form of Islam. As if the Shi’ite minority lives peacefully in Saudi Arabia, although in reality the kingdom oppresses Shi’ites entirely. As if there no reason to demand that Saudi Arabia adhere to Western values, because after all, Texas and California don’t share the same values. Is an absolute monarchy all in all a good thing, because French absolutism is what helped the United States come into being?

It appears that if you’re a king or the son of a king, you don’t need to study a core curriculum. It’s enough to sign a purchase agreement for $35 billion with the United States and allow women to drive in order to be considered a liberal.

The Saudi prince is not gauged by the extent of his knowledge of history or his achievements on the human rights front. His diplomatic skills and the economic development strategy of his country are what will determine the kingdom’s future. So far, it’s difficult to attribute a real diplomatic achievement to him, not in the failed war with Yemen about which he doesn’t want to talk, nor about his attempts to establish a new regime in Lebanon. He’s withdrawing from Syria and even made clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad will continue in office as opposed to the kingdom’s traditional views on the matter, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen no Saudi involvement whatsoever.

The crown prince’s vision to diversify the kingdom’s sources of income and reduce its dependence on oil, as called for in the Saudi 2030 plan, is still awaiting proof, while meanwhile he has to deal with a budget deficit caused by plummeting oil prices and heavy expenditures on the war in Yemen. We should wish him success, because Saudi Arabia still carries great weight in shaping pro-Western policies in the Middle East. And if need be, it can wrestle quite a few Arab and Western arms. But anyone who sees Mohammed bin Salman’s statements as a sign that an Israeli flag will soon fly in Riyadh should examine whether Saudi Arabia really has a partner in Israel.