Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sat down this week for a remarkably candid interview.
“Saudi crown prince says in rare interview ‘every day we get closer’ to normalization with Israel,” Will Weissert reported the good news for the Associated Press this week.
“Saudi Arabia is discussing a major agreement with the United States to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a U.S. defense pact and aid in developing its own civilian nuclear program,” wrote Weissert in a tone of surprise.
In a rare interview, Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman sat down with Fox News’s Bret Baier this week. The U.S. media establishment is still reeling from the revelations contained therein.
The interview was rare, but it wasn’t the first.
“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Talks to TIME About the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s Plans, and President Trump,” reported TIME Magazine in 2018.
“Did you order the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?” the Saudi Crown Prince was asked by Norah O’Donnell during an interview in 2019.
“Absolutely not,” replied the Prince without breaking stride. “This was a heinous crime. But I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.”
While the Prince continued to deny any personal involvement with the killing, he also continued to take responsibility — which remains the case today. Iran also remains as stubbornly intractable a problem as ever it was.
“What kind of effect would a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran have on the region?” O’Donnell asked the Prince in 2019.
“The region represents about 30% of the world’s energy supplies, about 20% of global trade passages, and about 4% of the world GDP” Prince bin Salman answered. “Imagine all of these three things stop. This means a total collapse of the global economy, and not just Saudi Arabia or the Middle East countries.”
It wasn’t the last time MBS would field questions about Khashoggi and Iran.
“ABSOLUTE POWER,” declared Graeme Wood for The Atlantic on March 3, 2022. “Asked about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Mohammed bin Salman said, ‘If that’s the way we did things, Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.’”
Wood’s assertion that “Among those who share a dark appraisal of MBS is President Joe Biden, who has so far refused to speak with him,” was subsequently — and soon — undermined by President Joe Biden’s infamous visit and fist-bump with the Prince.
Fast-forward to 2023, and the Saudi Crown Prince appears to be on a charm offensive unlike anything the West has seen before. The news that Saudi Arabia is ready to go public with support for Israel is news indeed.
“The Biden administration has for several months been in talks with Saudi Arabia on the matter, according to US officials,” wrote Nadeen Ebrahim for CNN on September 21, 2023. “A deal would represent a significant foreign policy victory for the president and has the potential to enhance Israel’s acceptance in the Muslim world, particularly considering Saudi Arabia’s role as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites.”
“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman reminded Bret Baier during his interview this week. “We need to solve that part. And we have a good negotiations strategy til now.”
“We’ve got to see where we go,” the Prince continued. “We hope that we will reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians and get Israel as a player in the Middle East.”
Prince Mohammed bin Salman also faced tough questions about Saudi Arabia’s laws, human rights violations, and accusations of “sportswashing”.
“Sportswashing” is a term used to describe a practice in which governments or organizations with controversial or poor human rights records attempt to improve their public image and divert attention away from their negative actions by investing in or associating themselves with high-profile sporting events, teams, or athletes.
The goal of sportswashing is to use the positive public perception associated with sports to distract from, or even justify, their actions or policies that may be criticized on human rights, political, or ethical grounds.
The Prince was quick to dismiss such accusations.
“Saudi Arabia’s MBS Says in Interview That ‘Sportswashing’ Efforts Will Continue,” reported Bob Harig for Sports Illustrated. “The country’s Public Investment Fund backs LIV Golf and the Crown Prince said he doesn’t ‘care’ about sportswashing accusations as long as they are profitable.”
“The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia said in an interview that he believes the proposed alliance between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, and Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia can be “a game changer” and that he doesn’t “care” that the country’s efforts are viewed as sportswashing,” reported Harig.
“Well if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1 percent, then we’ll continue doing sportwashing,” said the Prince. “I don’t care. I have 1 percent growth in GDP from sport and I’m aiming for another 1-and-a-half percent, call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that 1-and-a-half percent.”
Sportswashing aside, this latest diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors represents a major geopolitical change in the region.
Not since the Abraham Accords in 2020 has there been such a buzz.
The Abraham Accords, initiated by the United States in 2020, marked a watershed moment in Middle Eastern diplomacy. The first breakthrough occurred when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel agreed to normalize diplomatic relations in August 2020, a move not seen in the region for decades.
Building on the UAE-Israel deal, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan swiftly followed suit in normalizing relations with Israel. These agreements set a precedent and demonstrated a willingness among Arab nations to engage with Israel diplomatically.
The role of Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords has thus far been a matter of speculation and diplomatic analysis. While Saudi Arabia did not formally join the Accords, several factors suggest that the Accords may have been influenced by Saudi Arabia’s position.
Saudi Arabia is a prominent and influential player in the Middle East. Its support or lack thereof can have a significant impact on the actions of other Arab nations.
The Accords represented a major departure from the traditional Arab stance towards Israel. Given Saudi Arabia’s regional stature, it’s plausible that other signatory nations sought to align themselves with its policies and regional vision.
Diplomatic initiatives of this magnitude often involve behind-the-scenes coordination and discussions among key regional players. Saudi Arabia, as a pivotal Arab nation, may have been part of these discussions, even if it did not formally sign the Accords.
While there’s no concrete evidence to confirm Saudi Arabia’s direct involvement or approval of the Accords, its regional influence and its role in shaping the broader geopolitical landscape of the Middle East make its stance a critical factor to consider.
The Accords reflect a complex web of regional interests, diplomatic maneuvers, and evolving alliances that extend beyond the formal signatories.
Now that Saudi support for Israel is out of the bag, a new era of diplomacy in the Middle East has begun.
Could regional peace be far behind?
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)