Saudi Crown Prince: Iran’s supreme leader ‘makes Hitler look good’

From The Atlantic:

In a wide-ranging conversation, Prince Mohammed bin Salman also recognized the Jewish peoples’ right to “their own land.”

This much, at least, can be said for Mohammed bin Salman, the putatively reformist crown prince of Saudi Arabia: He has made all the right enemies. Among those who would celebrate his end are the leaders of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and the entire clerical and military leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a bonus, there are members of his own family, the sprawling, sclerotic, self-dealing House of Saud, who would like to see him gone—or at the very least, warehoused at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, where the 32-year-old prince recently imprisoned many of his enemies and cousins during an anti-corruption sweep of the kingdom.

The well-protected Prince Mohammed does not seem particularly worried about mortal threats, however. He was jovial to the point of ebullience when I met him at his brother’s compound outside Washington (his brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.). Prince Mohammed (who is known widely by his initials, MbS) seemed eager to download his heterodoxical, contentious views on a number of subjects—on women’s rights (he appears doubtful about the laws that force Saudi women to travel with male relatives); on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is, in the prince’s mind, worse than Hitler; and on Israel. He told me he recognizes the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state; no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.

Prince Mohammed, who is on a seemingly endless pilgrimage to the nodes of American power (he is in Hollywood this week) is an unfamiliar type for Middle East reporters accustomed to a certain style of Saudi leadership, which is to say, the functionally comatose model of authoritarian monarchism. Prince Mohammed’s father, the 82-year-old King Salman, is not overly infirm, but it is clear that his son is already in charge. And if the prince, his many handlers, and his partisans on Wall Street and in the White House (especially his fellow prince, Jared Kushner) are to be believed, he is in a genuine hurry to overturn the traditional Saudi order.

Prince Mohammed’s visit to the U.S. is mainly a hunting trip for investment, and an opportunity for him to sell his so-called Vision 2030, an elaborate, still mainly unexecuted plan to modernize the Kingdom and end its dependence on oil. But in our conversation, I tried to focus Prince Mohammed on some of the more challenging problems of the moment, including his country’s cold war with Iran; its often-brutal military intervention in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi; the status of women in a country that has practiced a form of gender apartheid for decades; Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians; and his country’s own past support for Muslim extremists of the type he now condemns. I did not ask him about corruption, in part because it is a difficult-to-define concept in a country named for its ruling family, the expropriation of national wealth being a defining feature of absolute monarchies. But it is worth noting that Prince Mohammed recently purchased a yacht allegedly worth half-a-billion dollars. When Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, asked the prince about this, and other purchases, he said, “My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself and I don’t try to draw attention to it. … As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela.”

Prince Mohammed dodges questions he doesn’t like, but he is still unusually direct for a Saudi leader. He reminded me in our meeting of Jordan’s King Abdullah II—a new-generation royal frustrated by do-nothing relatives, retrograde tribal politics, and fearful of both Shiite and Sunni extremism. (One difference, of course, is that Saudi Arabia is the linchpin of the Middle East; Jordan is not. If Prince Mohammed actually achieves what he says he wants to achieve, the Middle East will be a changed place.)

The prince, in my conversation with him, divided the Middle East into two warring camps: what he called the “triangle of evil,” consisting of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni terror groups; and an alliance of self-described moderate states that includes Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. About his bête noir, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Prince Mohammed 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.”

Another key—though sub rosa—member of Prince Mohammed’s alliance is Israel, a country about which Prince Mohammed did not have a bad word to say. In fact, when I asked him whether he believed the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, he said: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” According to the former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, moderate Arab leaders have spoken of the reality of Israel’s existence, but acknowledgement of any sort of “right” to Jewish ancestral land has been a red line no leader has crossed until now. (My meeting with Prince Mohammed took place before the recent fatal violence on the Gaza-Israel border, but I do not believe that the crown prince would have moderated his views in light of these events. The Saudis, like many Arab leaders, have tired of the Palestinians.)

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