Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has fashioned himself as a reformer in one of the Middle East’s richest countries, and he has shown that nothing and no one will keep him from power – including his own family. But as determined and ambitious as the young prince is, he is just as willing to challenge the traditional norms of the Saudi royal family…and even some of political Islam’s most cherished positions. He is also close to the Trump administration, having forged a friendship not only with the president but with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
These factors combined this week when bin Salman sat down for an interview with The Atlantic and made at least one statement that landed like a bombshell in the lap of other Middle Eastern leaders.
“I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation,” he said. “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
Saudi Arabia does not have open diplomatic relations with Israel and most Arab nations refuse to acknowledge Israel as a country on the map, much less their population’s right to stay in disputed territory. Most of Saudi Arabia’s Middle Eastern neighbors would just as soon see Israel wiped out in favor of a Palestinian land, and bin Salman’s fresh, peaceful approach has to unnerve others in the region.
In the interview, the prince then made waves by going after one of his most frequent targets – the supreme leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei.
“Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do,” bin Salman said. “Hitler tried to conquer Europe. This is bad. But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East. In the 1920s and 1930s, no one saw Hitler as a danger. Only a few people. Until it happened.”
Americans have never known quite what to make of Saudi Arabia, which presents itself as a valuable ally while presiding over one of the worst human-rights records in the world. Its national devotion to an extremely orthodox version of Islam and its unclear but nonetheless disturbing connection to the 9/11 attacks have many in this country wondering why we value their friendship so highly.
But that is the point of the crown prince’s visit to the U.S. He’s on a mission to change our perception of Saudi Arabia, to shore up the U.S./Saudi alliance, and to prove that he is serious about reform. As part of that mission, he is declaring himself aligned with the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East, which includes tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and pushing for a two-state solution in Israel. This approach won’t win him any friends in the region, but if he enjoys the full support of the United States, this young King-to-be may not much care.