Saudi Arabia appears to be in the middle of an attempt to rebrand the kingdom as progressive and, judging from the headlines since last year, the strategy appears to be working, at least to some extent.
Most recently, in an interview with The Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has acknowledged that Jewish people have a right to their own homeland – long a taboo for the conservative kingdom that was long known as a fierce foe of Israel’s creation.
While Saudi Arabia in the past has talked about recognizing Israel in the context of a peace deal with the Palestinians, the crown prince’s straight up acknowledgement that the Jews have a right to a homeland is the clearest statement to date.
On a practical level, Saudi Arabia has de-facto acknowledged that right since at least 2002 when it began sponsoring an initiative to foster a two-state solution – a solution that has also long been supported by the United States, even though with different premises. But officially, Saudi Arabia does not recognize the state of Israel.
While Saudi officials made Israel’s withdrawal to its territory prior to the 1967 Six Day war a precondition for closer relations in the past, that fundamental demand was not explicitly repeated by the crown prince in the Atlantic interview published on Monday.
“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. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations,” he told The Atlantic.
The timing for the acknowledgment does not appear to be a coincidence, as it follows months of diplomatic gestures, including the opening of Saudi Arabia’s airspace to commercial Israel-bound flights and the acknowledgment of back-channel communications between both governments.
After decades of threatening rhetoric, Saudi officials appear increasingly willing to strike a carefully conciliatory tone as they seek a new ally to confront their common arch enemy Iran and build stronger economic ties.
“Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a place that has produced a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda. Do you think you have a problem with anti-Semitism in your country?” Goldberg asked later in the Atlantic interview, to which Mohammed responded: “Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews.”
“You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people. But the normal sort of problems,” said Mohammed, adding that there were “lot of interests we share,” including economically.
The crown prince’s economic reasoning laid out in the interview will likely play into the hands of critics who have long suspected the kingdom’s progressive rebranding to be primarily a marketing ploy. When the crown prince announced a more “moderate Islam” last year, critics cautioned that the declaration might have more to do with boosting the kingdom’s economy rather than reversing decades-old practices.
Mohammed, 32, has attempted to position himself as a favorite for the kingdom’s younger citizens, who are less religious than older generations and are facing disproportionately high unemployment rates. The Saudi leader is currently pursuing a major reform plan, named Saudi Vision 2030, to revitalize the kingdom’s economy.
The need for reforms may already have reversed at least some of the leadership’s previous ultraconservative stances, including the driving ban for women. The step was widely interpreted as a sign that the modernizers within the Saudi government may have gained ascendance over the conservative hard-liners. Saudi Arabia’s hard-liners have been under mounting pressure to agree to such proposals, as the kingdom has become increasingly engulfed in economic woes.
But the reforms have still been limited. Women’s subordination to men remains unchanged and repressions against Shiites have continued – despite Mohammed’s assurances in the interview that all was well between Sunnis and Shiites in the country.
In fact, Crown Prince Mohammed has repeatedly stirred tensions against Iran, a majority-Shiite country. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper last year, he blamed Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy Shiite Iran for Saudi Arabia’s turn toward Wahhabism, an ultraconservative branch of Islam, which is being promoted by Riyadh both domestically and abroad. Religious scholars say that the Saudi state is deeply rooted in and has long been intimately entwined with Sunni Wahhabism. That same Islam was widely promoted in Muslim countries around the world, thanks to the Saudi state’s deep pockets.
In the Atlantic interview published on Monday evening, Mohammed nevertheless doubled down on his criticism, saying that “the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good.”
One possible interpretation of his remarks? In comparison to Iran, Israel might not be so bad after all.