April 5, 2018
As Karl Vick writes in the April 16 issue of TIME, the United States hasn’t seen a visit from a foreign leader like the Crown Prince of Saudia’s ongoing three-week trip since Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev arrived in America nearly 60 years ago. The kingdom Mohammed bin Salman, 32, essentially rules—as iron-fisted regent of his ailing, 82-year-old father, King Salman—defines frenemy.
The Crown Prince’s U.S. itinerary is as wide-ranging as the American distrust of his homeland: 55% of Americans disapprove of Saudi Arabia, according to the latest Gallup survey.
He is in the United States to sell skeptical Americans on his audacious, risky plan to modernize Saudi Arabia and reassert its primacy in the Middle East. Over the course of three years since his father became King, MBS, as he is known, has brutally consolidated control over all the kingdom’s economic and security power centers. He has used his ascendancy to introduce modest liberalization and sharply escalate a wide-ranging proxy war with Iran across the region. And he proposes to wean the kingdom off oil exports and diversify its economy for a post-petroleum future.
On March 29, TIME interviewed the Crown Prince at New York City’s Plaza Hotel, which had been taken over by the Crown Prince’s traveling party. When told that the hotel had once been owned by President Donald Trump, who the Crown Prince had visited in Washington the week before, replied, “Really? Oh.” Ahead of planned visits to Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, the Crown Prince made his pitch during a 75-minute conversation.
The Crown Prince defended his handling of foreign affairs, urging President Trump to keep troops in Syria and backing Israel’s “right to live and coexist” with a Palestinian state. He laid out his ambitions for the Saudi economy all the while portraying himself as a man in a hurry.
“I don’t want to waste my time,” he says. “I am young.”
An edited and condensed transcript of the conversation follows.
TIME: How long have you been thinking about doing this [tour], and what’s your rationale behind this?
MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: When I started to think about doing a tour, we had a plan for Saudi Arabia. And we do whatever we should do to deliver and implement these plans. And to implement what we are doing, we have to have a lot of partners around the world. The United States of America is one of our oldest allies in the whole world, and we are the oldest ally of the United States of America in the Middle East. And the economic relationship between both countries is very deep.
You spent some time in Washington. How was that? It seems like you have a pretty good personal relationship with the President and his family.
Of course we have a good relationship with President Trump, with his team, with his family, with all the key people in his administration, and also we have a very good relationship with many members of Congress from both parties and a lot of people in the United States of America. And everyone believes in the importance of both countries to face the dangers facing us and also to continue growing and getting a better future for both countries.
Coming off of the previous administration, things had gotten pretty thorny at the end, specifically about the Yemen conflict.
Yeah. Well, we might disagree on some things that President Obama—some of President Obama’s views, but also we agree on a lot of things. So we worked together to fight terrorism with President Obama in the beginning of 2016 we had the same views of the Iranian regime and the danger of the Iranian regime. The only difference was in the tactics of how we should deal with that evil narrative of the Iranian regime. So it’s not a big difference. We are aligned 99 percent. The difference is only 1 percent. But, you know, people try to focus on the 1 percent and avoid the 99 percent that we agreed on.
You brought up Iran. You saw I’m sure that President Trump had recently named John Bolton to be his National Security Advisor. And he shares a lot of the views that you have specifically on Iran. What was your response was when he was named?
Well, we deal with the United States of America, whoever represents America, we will work with him. And we believe that our interest is aligned with those American interests. And I believe we can, we work with him of course. We don’t get into much in his view because it is his personal view. It’s not the views of the United States of America. I’m sure when he’s appointed he will represent the views of the United States of America, and we will deal with him and we will see what happens. But of course we will support him.
I’m really curious about how you came to your plan for Saudi Arabia.
We are now in the third Saudi Arabia which was established by King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, my grandfather. And the first Saudi Arabia was established before 300 years, so after the time of King Abdulaziz and King Saud the establishment of the third Saudi Arabia, King Faisal came with a really great young team, and among his team were King Khaled, King Fahd, King Abdullah, King Salman, Prince Sultan, Prince Nayef, and many other people. And they’ve transformed the country from mud houses to world standard modern cities, modern infrastructure, a country among the G20, among the top 20 economies around the world, a lot of things. And it’s too hard to convince them that there is something more to do because what happened in their time, in that 50, 60 years, it’s like what happened in the last 300, 400 years history of the United States of America. And they’ve seen the whole movement in their lifetime.
But for us as a young generation, we’ve not seen this, because we were born in that great modern city. We lived in an economy that is already among the top 20 economies of the world, and our eyes are focusing on what we are missing, what we can’t do. And we believe that Saudi Arabia until today used only 10 percent of its capacity, and we have 90 percent to go.
So the plans and the vision is shaped around this missing 90 percent: How can we implement it as much, as soon as possible. And we are shaping our plan based on our strength. Not trying to copy things. We are not trying to build a Silicon Valley. There’s some media houses talking about Saudi Arabia building Silicon Valley in Saudi Arabia. This is not true. We are shaping our economy based on our strengths: oil downstream petrochemicals, materials, mobility, transportation, minerals, and gas. We have a lot of gas explorations in the Red Sea, we have local content, balance of payment. We spend $230 billion US a year outside Saudi Arabia. If we do nothing, it will go up in 2030 to between $300-400 billion US spent outside of Saudi Arabia.
The plan is to spend half of it in Saudi Arabia. We have many programs to do this. We have privatization. At the top of the pyramid we have the IPO of Aramco, pushing this money, pushing other government assets, pushing other assets, and other cash reserves into the public investment fund, and pushing it to be the biggest fund in the whole world, above $2 trillion. Two years ago, the size of public investment fund was $150 billion US. Today it’s $300 billion US. At the end of 2018 it will be around $400 billion US. In 2020, it will be something between $600-700 billion US, and in 2030 it will be above $2 trillion. We will invest half of this money to empower Saudi Arabia, and the other 50 percent we will invest it abroad to be sure that we are part of the emerging sectors around the world.
How much of your challenge is putting investment in the right places, and how much of it is changing the nature of education in Saudi Arabia and of cultural expectations around who does the work?
So first of all, our education, it’s not bad. It’s good. We are ranked 41 among education systems around the world. France is ranked 40, so we are almost like France, as to the quality of the education system. And no big country or big economy can be among the top 10. It’s too hard. Because if you see the top 10 best education systems, you will see Singapore and you will see small countries that they can easily focus on their education system. But our ambition is not to continue to be next to France. Our ambition is to be in the top 30 to 20 in the next coming years. Especially the method of education is changing in the world. So if we still want to keep even the rank 41 and do nothing, with the new change of the method of education and understanding of education, the next 10 years we’ll not be among the top 100. So we are working on that. We are watching that carefully and don’t want to maintain our position. We want to be in a better position in the next 12 years. This is talking about education.
In terms of culture and social aspects: We want to drive the best talent, to get the best talent to live and come abroad to work in Saudi Arabia, you have to have good social and cultural standards. You cannot have bad livability standards and cultural standards if you want to grow and to be much bigger economically. So this is a very important thing that we are trying to improve. And I believe in the last three years, Saudi Arabia did more than in the last 30 years. And that’s because it’s aligned with our interest as Saudis to be competitive in livability and cultural and social. And Islam it’s open. It’s not like what the extremists are trying to represent Islam after ’79.
So we are working hard in this area and we are trying to do our best. We have more than 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, most of them working and others families of those employees. And we believe it will not decrease, it will increase because we believe Saudi Arabia for its ambition it needs a lot of human resource and human power, so a lot of jobs will be created for Saudis and for foreign people to deliver what we are trying to build in Saudi Arabia.
Do you think you can get a culture of work?
Of course. We have to do that. We have to be competitive.
The Islam you describe is not necessarily the one that everyone associates with your country.
We believe the practice today in a few countries, among them Saudi Arabia, it’s not the practice of Islam. It’s the practice of the people who have hijacked Islam after ’79. And also it’s not the practice of the social life in Saudi Arabia even before ’79. And even it’s not aligned with the idea of Saudi Arabia that it’s a country following the religion of Islam from the first Saudi Arabia. You see the idea that the first Saudi Arabia tried to tackle. For Islam it’s totally different from what the extremists are trying to promote today. In the first Saudi Arabia, they are trying to let people not worship a palm tree, to worship god, because at that time people were worshipping a palm tree to have a kid. Extremists tried to promote that the first Saudi Arabia is coming to promote their ideas, that what they were building after ’79, especially that they’ve hijacked the education system and a lot of areas to manipulate that.
And this is what we are trying to show to the Saudi people and to challenge them with the practice of the First, Second, Third Saudi Arabia before ’79 and also the practice of the Prophet himself in his days. So if someone comes and says “women cannot participate in sport,” we tell them how about the Prophet raced with his wife. If someone comes and say “women cannot do business,” the wife of the Prophet, she is a businesswoman and he used to work for her as a Prophet. So also the Prophet’s practice, it is in our side. So I believe we can do it very fast. We are not wasting time. I don’t want to waste my time. I am young. I don’t want 70 percent of the Saudi population to waste their lives trying to get rid of this. We want to do it now. We want to spend 70 percent of our time building things, improving our economy, creating jobs, creating new things, making things happen.
Do you see it being dangerous in any way for your own well-being in terms of trying to make that break from the Wahhabists?
What’s Wahhabist? You’ve got to explain what’s Wahhabist. Because there is nothing called Wahhabist. And this is one of the ideas of the extremists after ’79 to put the Wahhabist things, to let the Saudis be part of something that they are not part of it. So I need someone to explain to me what are the teachings of Wahhabism. There is nothing called Wahhabist. In Saudi Arabia we have Sunni and Shiite sects. We have four schools of thought of Sunni, we have a lot of schools of thought of Shiite, and they are living normally in Saudi Arabia. They are living as Saudis in Saudi Arabia. And our laws are derived from the Qur’an and the practices of the prophet. These laws do not specify any one specific sect or school of thought.
There is member of the cabinet, the council of ministers in Saudi Arabia who is Shiite. There are members of the parliament who are Shiite. The CEO of Aramco, the biggest company in the whole world is Shiite. The most important university in the whole Middle East, west of Saudi Arabia, KAUST, who’s the head of it? Shiite. So we don’t differentiate among Saudis based on sects. We live in Saudi Arabia as Saudis in Saudi Arabia.
So the idea of Wahhabism, it’s promoted by two sides. Extremists who want Saudi Arabia to be hijacked by the idea that they are not promoting something new, that they wanted something old, that this is the foundation of Saudi Arabia so we have to stick to it. So this is one. Two, by the Iranian regime to isolate us from the whole Muslim world by claiming that we are coming with a different sect in Saudi Arabia. And if you look at the council of clerics which is like the fatwa board you will find it comprised of people who might be closer to the Hanbali school of thought and others who are closer to the Hanafi school of thought or the Shafai’i or the Maliki. We encourage this mix of different schools in Saudi Arabia.
Do you have any concern about trying to break away there?
Fears from what?
No. We are doing the right things. No reasonable person can argue with what’s right and what’s true and what’s of interest. So what we are doing is Islam, what we are doing the prophet’s practice, what we are doing our ancestors practiced in the First, Second, Third Saudi Arabia before ’79. Second, what we are doing is in the interest of the whole people and public. And the majority of humans, the big majority of humans, they are realistic. And of course if we work well, people understand that. And of course without people’s support we wouldn’t be able to do what we have been doing in the last three years. Actually we thought it would take more than 10 years to do it. But why we do it in three years? Because people support the movement.
I’ll give you an example. The last national day. You know, people in Saudi Arabia they weren’t used to celebrating the national day because a lot of extremists told them it was forbidden to celebrate the national day. When the Saudi officials programmed the national day planning in each city and town in Saudi Arabia, extremists attack that, that this is against Islam, no one will go, it’s against the will of the people. And the national day, the people are seen and we have millions in the street celebrating the national day. So it’s clear that the people are supporting that. Without the support of the people, no way, no way we would achieve anything.
Can you see the country progressing to less than an absolute monarchy in the future? King Abdullah of Jordan says he’d like to be a constitutional monarch someday?
What we should focus on is the end, not the means, and these ends are the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom to work and security. These are the ends that everyone agrees on, that we agree on in Saudi Arabia in our own way. We should take the means that get us to this end.
And just to remind Americans, if it’s not about absolute monarchy, you will not have the United States of America today. Three hundred years who helped in the independence of America? It was the absolute monarchy of France. Without their help, this will be a different country, different area, different history.
So what we should focus on in any kind of regime that it could be a risk for the United States of America, like the Soviet Union, then you have to deal with it. But if there is any kind of regime that could create opportunity and progress with the United States of America or other countries, that means it’s a regime representing what their people think is working. And we can see it in 2011 [with the Arab Spring], the regimes and the establishment of countries that didn’t fit with the people, what happened to them?
You not only represent the skipping a generation, but also only one family. So it looks to people like you might be more precarious, maybe less stable. And yet you’ve made very strong moves.
No, actually, first of all, the king has the right to choose the crown prince and the deputy crown prince, and he cannot become the crown prince and the deputy crown prince without the vote among 34 voters representing King Abdulaziz’ sons. So I get the highest vote in the history of Saudi Arabia, more than anyone before me. I got 31 from 34 votes of the Allegiance Council. So this is the highest. The second highest is 22 in Saudi Arabia. So historically I made a record in approval votes among the royal family. And their roles end when they vote. I become officially crown prince or deputy crown prince.
Second, I am not working alone. I’m working with all of my generation of really smart people from the royal family. We have for example more than 13 princes working in 13 regions at my age, at my generation, and also in the cabinet we have a few of them working very hard, and also in different positions in different government departments we have a lot. So I’m working with more than 40 people from the royal family from different lines to make things happen in Saudi Arabia.
I want to get back to the Iran deal. Did you talk to the White House about that and possible decertification? And also you mentioned before that if Iran sprints for a weapon that Saudi will as well. Have you directed your government to do some research on what that would take and how quickly you could obtain one?
Well, I can’t speak about that, but I can tell you that the Iranians, they’re the cause of problems in the Middle East, but they are not a big threat to Saudi Arabia. But if you don’t watch it, it could turn into a threat. They are the main cause of problems, but they are not a threat to Saudi Arabia.
Why? Simple. Iran is not among the five largest economies in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia’s economy is double the size of the Iranian economy. It’s growing at least two times or three times faster than the Iranian economy. UAE’s economy is bigger than the Iranian economy. Egyptian economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Turkey’s economy is larger than the Iranian economy…There are a lot of economies in the Muslim world larger than the Iranian economy.
Same thing goes for the army. They are not among the top five armies in the Middle East. So they are far away. But the regime’s problem is that they hijack the country. They use the country’s assets for their own ideological sake. And they’ve seen that every day from ’79 to today, that they are spreading their ideology. Even in the United States of America. And when they do that, the hidden Imam he will appear from hiding to rule the whole world: United States of America, Japan, the whole world. And they are believing in this and they are saying this loud and clear. And if they are not saying this, the Supreme Leader can prove me wrong after this interview to say I don’t believe in what I’m saying.
They are doing that from ’79, and if you see any problem in the Middle East, you will find Iran. Iraq? Iran’s there. Yemen? Iran is there. Syria? Iran is there. Lebanon? Iran’s there. Where is the stable country? Egypt? Iran is not there. Sudan? Iran’s not there. Jordan? Kuwait? Iran is not there. Bahrain? Iran’s not there. So all the stable countries they are stable because Iran didn’t engage in it.
And it’s not between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It’s between Iran and Saudi Arabia and UAE and Egypt and Kuwait and Bahrain and Yemen, a lot of countries around the world. So what we want to be sure of is that whatever they want to do, they do it within their borders. We drove them out of Africa heavily, more than 95 percent. Same thing goes for Asia. Same thing goes for Yemen. And we can see in Iraq 70,000 Iraqis raising the Saudi and Iraqi flag at the game between the two national teams: Iraqi team and Saudi Arabia.
So they’re almost pushed back inside Iran. We hope that the Iranian people and Iran as a nation have better future without those leaders. And if that changes, of course Iran will be close to us as it used to be before ’79. But if that doesn’t change, they can enjoy themselves for a very long time ’til they change.
And you have to defend your country and be prepared in that case.
So have you begun to look into obtaining a weapon?
You mean nuclear?
No, regarding nuclear weapons, we have not started to do anything, and we will not start to do anything until we see Iran announce that they have a nuclear weapon. So this will not happen until that happens. And of course we are preparing our army. We have a very strong army, well-equipped army, the best in quality and mixing of quality and size of armies in the Middle East. You may find bigger armies in the region but their equipment is very low in quality. You will find only one army they has better technology than us, but we are much bigger in scale, five times. So one considering quality and size Saudi Arabia has the best army but what we want to make sure of is that whatever happens of course it’s there.
But what we want to be assured is that whatever happens, the Saudi people shouldn’t feel it. The economy shouldn’t be harmed or even feel it. So we are trying to be sure that we are far away from whatever escalation happens, it doesn’t affect the normal social life and the normal economic life in Saudi Arabia. We have that, but we want to be far away assured on that.
So would you use ground troops in Yemen?
Yemen, it’s a battle between Yemeni people, Yemeni government trying to get rid of the terrorists who hijacked their country and their normal life. And it’s their battle. Whatever they ask us in Saudi Arabia or the other 12 countries in the coalition, we’ll provide. Until today they didn’t ask for soldiers on the ground.
So you would consider it?
If it’s needed, if they ask for it, we will help them and we will answer the call of the legitimate elected Yemeni president recognized by all the countries around the world, supported by the Security Council.
The UN has said that 10,000-some civilians have been killed in this conflict, and members of Congress and independent humanitarian groups have said that air strikes carried out by your country have risen to the level of war crimes. How you would respond to those criticisms?
Well, first of all, in any military operation mistakes happen. We cannot fight any military operation around the whole world, even United States of America, even Russia, all the countries, without mistakes. The question is are these mistakes are accidents or by mistake or intentional. Of course any mistakes made by Saudi Arabia or the coalition are unintended mistakes.
And we’re working with other countries around the world to increase our rules of engagement to be sure that there are no civilian casualities in these military operations. We are the biggest donor in the history of Yemen. We are still doing our best to be sure that the humanitarian need in Yemen and the interests of the people, health care, education, whatever, it’s supported. And any initiative made from the UN or any other groups around the world, immediately we help and we try to do our best to push positively in that side.
But sometimes in the Middle East, not all the choices it will be between good and bad choices. Sometimes we are between bad and worse choice. But let me tell you one important thing. The humanitarian problem in Yemen didn’t start in 2015. It started in 2014 when the Houthis started to move. But what if the coalition and the Security Council didn’t answer the call of the Yemeni president and the Yemeni legitimate government? You would see Yemen divided between two terrorist groups: the Houthis, the new Hezbollah in the north, and Al Qaeda in the south, they are trying to take advantage of what’s happening there and they are trying to grow in 2015. So you will see Yemen split between those two terrorist groups.
It would have been much, much worse than Iraq. Because in Iraq in 2013 you have ISIS occupying half of Iraq and in the other half you have a legitimate government with an army and it took five years to get rid of those bad guys. And during these five years, we saw millions of refugees and a lot of operations, terrorist operations around the world.
So imagine kicking them out from Iraq and giving them better haven in Yemen without any ally, without any government, without any army to help us inside Yemen, how much will it take? It will take more than 5 years. It will take more than 10 years. It will take around 20 years. And it will take a coalition of more than 60 countries, a coalition more than that. And it will block 13 percent of the world trade through Bab-el-Mandeb [the straight between Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula]. And this 13 percent, they’ve tried to block it, the terrorist group, and they couldn’t because of the work of the coalition. 13 percent of world trade, what does that mean? That means 13 percent of American trade, 13 percent of China trade, 13 percent of everyone’s trade. That means it could harm the world economy.
So seeing that, should we wait ’til it happens? So we prove it, then we engage. Then it will be tough. There won’t be any problem for the next 20 years? Or should we act? That’s why there’s intelligence in Saudi Arabia. That’s why there is CIA in US of America. That’s why there’s intelligence everywhere: to read the future, to see what’s happening, to see the scenarios and to avoid it from happening. And this is what happened in Yemen. We try our best to push for positive solution. We know it will not end without political solution. But until that day comes, we have no choice but to continue the military operation.
The air strikes are intended to get them to the negotiating table, and you’ve been pounding them for three years to do just that. And it seems that increasingly they’re lobbing ballistic missiles towards your capital. So what does it take to end this conflict? I mean, you’re saying 20 years. That’s a generation of Saudis that will perpetually be at war.
No, no. I’m saying 20 years if we didn’t act. And it will not take us 20 years. It will take the whole world 20 years. The Houthis don’t care about interests, they don’t care about Yemen interests. They only care about their ideology, the Iranian ideology, the Hizbollah ideology. Or they want to die. This is what they care about. So that’s why it’s hard to negotiate with them, to settle with them. The UN announced that, and the envoy announced that very clearly, that who was running away from the negotiation table is the Houthis. It’s not the Yemeni government and the other Yemeni party. But of course we have to open the window for them if they want to come back and negotiate.
But today, and I’m saying that loud, that we are working through intelligence to divide the Houthis themselves. So we want to give opportunity. If there is in the second line of leaders, or the third line, or people among the Houthis who want to have different future, we will help them to split from the first line of ideological leaders of Houthis.
How much do Saudi Arabia’s interests align with Israel’s interests? Would there be room for Israel in your development plan?
Well, it seems that we have a common enemy, and it seems that we have a lot of potential areas to have economic cooperation. And we cannot have a relation with Israel before solving the peace issue, the Palestinians, because both of them they have the right to live and coexist. And since that day happen, we will watch. We will try to support a peace solution. And when it happens, of course next day we’ll have good and normal relations with Israel and it will be the best for everyone.
Is the story true Abu Mazen was summoned to you to be told to take it or leave it, this is the best you would do?
We have great relation with Abu Mazen. And … and I believe Abu Mazen answered that rumor himself, that it’s not true.
It’s not true. What is right in there?
Actually King Salman told him that there is a saying in Saudi Arabia. We say the people of Mecca know best their ways. So always King Salman reminds him and tells him, you know, Abu Mazen, the people of Mecca know best their ways. And we say the people of Palestine know best their ways. So we told him that whatever you think is good for you, we will support it. Whatever we hear from our allies, from the Americans we will try to explain it, we will try to support it, to make things happen. But if it doesn’t work for you, that means it doesn’t work.
But what Trump has done with Jerusalem, it kind of leaves you as the new broker.
Actually we are trying to do our best. I try to focus positively and I try to focus on what’s the opportunity, what’s next, how you take things in a better situation, not how to argue with any mistakes.
Syria for a minute. What is the realistic end to that tragedy?
I don’t know if some people will be angry if I answer that question, but I don’t lie. I believe lying to people is really shameful, especially that in the year 2018, it’s almost impossible to hide something from people. I believe Bashar is staying for now. And Syria has been part of the Russian influence in the Middle East for a very long time. But I believe Syria’s interest is not to let the Iranians do whatever they want in Syria for the mid-term and long-term because if Syria changes ideologically, then Bashar, will be a puppet for Iran.
So better for him is to have his regime strengthened in Syria, and also it’s good for Russia. Russia, better for them is to have direct strength and they empower Bashar and have direct influence in Syria and not through Iran. So these interests could reduce the Iranian influence significantly, but we don’t know how much of a percentage. But Bashar for the time being is not leaving. I don’t believe Bashar will leave without a war, and I don’t believe that anyone wants to launch this war because it will get conflict between the United States of America and Russia and no one wants to see that.
So you’d like to see the fighting stop because it’s already a foregone conclusion.
I think it’s almost there. Now we have territory controlled by Bashar, other territory controlled by the Syrian people supported by the United States of America. And we are trying to focus in Saudi Arabia how can we help people through aid and we don’t send it directly, we send it through the UN, we send it through the United States of America and through our allies, and we hope things stop as soon as possible. Because people are suffering there.
So the President said I think today, that they’re going to pull out American troops from Syria. Is that something that you applaud?
Well, we believe the American troops should stay for at least the mid-term if not the long-term because United States of America need to have cards to negotiate and to apply pressure. If you get these troops out, you lose this card. Two, you need to have a checkpoint in the corridor between Iran and Hizbollah. If you take those troops out from east Syria, you will lose that checkpoint and this corridor could escalate other things around the region.
So that’s something you fear, that direct corridor.
Of course. But we will handle it – but it will be tougher.
I wanted to go back to Yemen. Under the Trump Administration, you mentioned targeting being improved. So what has been the change under this administration that has enabled you to either improve your targeting, your intelligence gathering and that sort of thing?
We don’t get a lot of support from the United States of America and we don’t ask for a lot of support from United States of America. We are doing this ourselves by the coalition from the Middle East and we believe we are doing it in the interests of the whole world, most of the countries around the world, economically, security, as we explained in the beginning of this interview.
Sure. But there is a U.S. role of course.
They are watching what’s happening there. We are fighting together Al Qaeda. We have a lot of operation going in Saudi Arabia to do that, a lot of planning, a lot of programs, and we are increasing our work to hit Al Qaeda heavily in Yemen. And there is a lot of areas, a lot of cities people can’t walk freely. There are cities now that are under the ruling of the legitimate government for the first time in 15 years that used to be under the control of Al Qaeda. So Al Qaeda they take a lot of hits in the last three years, more than what they took in the last 15 years, and they are almost disappearing and hiding in the caves and different areas in Yemen. And the role that we are focusing in with the United States of America is to work more and more against Al Qaeda in Yemen and do more and more and be sure that we erase them totally as soon as possible.
The extremism question. What can be done to reverse that? I understand what you’re trying to do inside your kingdom. What about outside?
Yeah. First of all, Saudi doesn’t spread any extremist ideology. Saudi Arabia is the biggest victim of the extremist ideology. If I am Osama bin Laden or any extremist or any terrorist, and I want to spread my ideology and I want to recruit, where will I recruit? Should I go to Morocco to recruit and spread my ideology or should I do it in Malaysia? Definitely not. If I want to spread my ideology I will have to go to Saudi Arabia. I have to go to the Qibla of Muslims. I have to go to the country that hosts the holy mosque. Because if I spread it there, it will reach everywhere.
And this is what happened after ’79. All those extremist groups, terrorists targeting our country to recruit more from our country, to spread their ideology in our country because they want it to be spread around the world. And that’s happened and we’ve paid the first country and the biggest debt in that. The first operations around the world happened in Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the ’90s. And Osama bin Laden is manipulating the people in the beginning of the ’90s. And we’ve asked that Osama bin Laden, should get arrested. He was outside Saudi Arabia. He should have been arrested. And The Independent answered us in ’93 that Osama bin Laden was a freedom fighter practicing free speech. You can go back to this article in The Independent in ’93, Osama bin Laden! That was before 9/11, 10 years before 9/11. We were saying that he was a dangerous guy. He was a terrorist. That he had to be arrested immediately. We had terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia. We had terrorist attacks in Egypt in the ’90s but we were accused of repressing freedom of speech until 9/11 happened. So it’s very clear that we are the victims, and it’s very clear that we are on the front line because they cannot continue recruiting people and spreading ideology if they cannot do it in Saudi Arabia, if we stood up and fight the war. And we are doing that today in Saudi Arabia.
So there’s a lot of things to do. One, fighting terrorists, get them, kill them or arrest them. Two, fighting extremists. So all the extremist organizations in Saudi Arabia, we treat them as terrorist organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood. They are very dangerous, and they are classified in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and a lot of countries in the Middle East as a terrorist organization.
So the person, he doesn’t get from normal to terrorist. He gets from normal to a little bit conservative, to a little bit extreme then more extreme ’til he’s ready to turn into a terrorist. And the Muslim Brotherhood network, it’s part of this movement. So if you see Osama bin Laden, he used to be in the Muslim Brotherhood…If you see Baghdadi the leader of ISIS, he used to be from the Muslim Brotherhood. Actually if you see any terrorist, you will find that he used to be from the Muslim Brotherhood.
And you know what’s the biggest danger? They’re not in the Middle East because they know that the Middle East is taking good strategy against them in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, and a lot of countries. Their main target is to radicalize Muslim communities in Europe. They hope that Europe in 30 years will turn to a Muslim brotherhood continent, and they want to control the Muslims, in Europe by manipulating the Muslim Brotherhood. So this will be much more dangerous than the Cold War, than ISIS, than Al Qaeda, than whatever we’ve seen in the last hundred years of history.
So fighting extremism is not only by going against them, spreading moderation, this is part of it. But there is also a lot of things that have to be done: recognizing those groups, putting laws to fight those groups, spreading what do you think it will take us to make people as a terrorist. That doesn’t mean freedom of speech. You have to pay attention because this is the route of taking people to terrorism.
So there is a lot of things that have to be tackled a different way. We are trying to do our part in Saudi Arabia and our laws and our achievements in the security planning, security strategy and also in our media strategy and our education system, we did a lot. In the last three years we did a lot, also before that, and we are doing more in the future, and also we are doing a lot of things with a lot of countries around the world. But we feel that the Western countries, they are only trying to fight those extremists by just announcing opportunity of moderation and openness in the West. If you want to fight them, you have to put them as a criminal in your laws.
Is that what’s happening in Saudi?
Yeah. The Muslim Brotherhood have been classified as a terrorist organization for many years.
We have the Muslim Brotherhood including the Saruris. So a lot of documentaries around the world, are calling the Saruris as Wahhabis — actually we call them in Saudi Arabia Saruris. So those ahead a little bit within the Muslim Brotherhood, viewing things more extremely in the Middle East. So we have the Muslim Brotherhood including the Saruris. But in our law they are criminals and whenever we have enough evidence against any one of them, they will face a court.
What do you think has been the biggest American mistake in the Middle East in the last 15, 20 years?
First of all, mistakes happen. Mistakes will not stop because we are human. So a country will make mistakes, individual will make mistakes. Our mission is how to minimize these mistakes as much as we can. I believe two big mistakes. Getting into Iraq, it’s a big mistake. I believe the United States of America should stop after they finish the job in Afghanistan and they should have focused on how to turn Afghanistan from an inferior state to a normal state. So this is one mistake. The other mistake is taking the American forces out of Iraq and disbanding the Iraqi army.
So these are the two biggest mistakes that created other things today in the Middle East.
I want to go back to the internal. I was wondering if you were making any moves in respect to ending or rolling back public beheadings and executions.
You mean executing extremist people?
I believe until today the United States of America and a lot of states, they have capital punishment. We’ve tried to minimize that so we have clear laws that we can change, like if a person kills a person, they have to be executed in our law. But there are few areas that we can change it from execution to life in prison. His Majesty, the King, doesn’t wake up and just sign whatever he wants to sign. He works by the law, by the book. So there are laws also how the king functions as a king or as a prime minister.
So we are working for two years through the government and also the Saudi parliament to build new laws in that area. And we believe it will take one year, maybe a little bit more, to have it finished.
So it is an initiative.
Yeah, of course it’s an initiative. But we will not get it 100 percent, but to reduce it big time.
And in the same realm of law, human rights groups point to people who they consider political activists who are put in jail or bloggers. Are you sensitive to that subject? You talk about the ideal of freedom of speech
We used to call them — in the ’90s, they used to call Osama bin Laden the same thing and he turned out to be the biggest danger for the whole world. And they call them today the same thing, and we call them the Muslim Brotherhood Party or the Saruris Party or people that are linked to agencies and working for different countries. And in each case, when the investigation ends, we announce the details publicly.
Is there — the delay with the IPO, why have you delayed that and are you still considering putting it on the New York Stock Exchange?
We do not delay it. We said we will be ready to IPO around 2018. And we are ready. We did all the laws. We did all the steps that are making us ready to IPO it. Now it’s a matter of choosing the right time. So we believe oil prices will get higher in this year and also get higher in 2019, so we are trying to pick the right time. But we are ready to IPO it now if the time is right.
Are you still considering putting it on the New York Stock Exchange?
We are looking into all options, and the team who’s working in Aramco IPO keep telling me, “Don’t say anything about that.”
I was wondering with all these initiatives that you have, the solar initiative and some of the reforms at home, I was wondering how dependent that is on the finite nature of oil.
So how big of a role does it play?
I don’t believe it will harm the role of oil. Let’s talk a little bit about oil then we will talk about the initiative, if it’s okay. First of all, oil demand is rising and according to Aramco’s estimate`s they believe that demand will continue to grow until 2040. But according to the most conservative estimates from around the world they believe that it will continue growing till 2030. And to continue raising to 2030 an amount 1.5 percent every year. And after that it will decline.
So today the demand is around 100 million barrels per day. In 2030 it will be around 120 million barrels per day. In 2040 it will go back to something around 100 million barrels per day. Then in 2050, ’60 it will be something around 80, 70 million barrels per day. 85 percent — 85 million barrels from this demand approximately it’s going to fuel. 30-40 million barrels for cars fuel and the rest is fuel for airplanes and ships.
What’s changing today, it’s the cars, because of the electric car, but the effect we will not see it until after 2030. But the ships and the planes it seems it will continue for quite a long amount of time because no one today is talking about electric planes or ships. When they start talking about it, we will see it materialize after 20 years.
From the other side, the 50 million barrels or less of demand for petrochemicals and materials, it’s increasing every year 3.5 percent. So it will be in 2030 around 20 million barrels. And in 2050, 2060, it will be around 50 million barrels. So this is a new demand for oil.
Just to give example, every one of you is wearing part of these petrochemicals and materials. In your buttons and your pen and your shoes and your phones you have some of these materials, and more will come such as carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is one of the best materials around the world. It’s expensive, but we are investing in that. That will lower the price so we will see it used in planes, in ships, and in cars. So there is a new growing demand and continuity of demand.
The other side is the supply. A lot of supply will disappear in the next 20 years. After five years, China will produce nothing. Today they produce around 4 million barrels per day. They will produce nothing in five years. And other countries after 10 years, a lot of countries disappear. A lot of the supply coming from the United States of America will disappear after ten years.
After 18 years, the whole Russian supply will disappear, 11 million barrels. It will turn to zero after 18 years. So it seems that we are not only keeping the 10 million barrels we’re producing, it seems that we will produce much, much, much — a lot of barrels in the future. So it’s very clear the sustainability of oil if we take the conservative estimates not Aramco’s estimates.
So solar energy doesn’t harm oil because it’s not used for fuel to airplanes or ships and it will not go against the growing of the petrochemical demand. Actually we believe that pushing in that direction, it will help that the oil play more of a good role to protect the environment because if you produce plastic, you shouldn’t throw it away. You should treat it and recycle it in an environmentally friendly way, better than producing oil for cars.
The opportunity now, what we are doing in Saudi Arabia is in solar energy is that we believe that we are the only country that can make a breakthrough in this field and solar manufacturing field is Saudi Arabia because we have all the elements of success. So a lot of countries have sun: Algeria, India, name it. We have sun. But not all countries have the local demand. So fewer countries have local demand. No country can have a demand of 150 gigawatts, 200 gigawatts. It’s us, India, and a few countries. Other countries in the Middle East couldn’t even reach 30 gigawatts of demand. So the huge demand push for things to make it happen.
Three, we have more than that. We have the whole supply chain for manufacturing solar panels in Saudi Arabia. Four, we have the whole kind of material for that. So we have silica, a lot of silica, but it’s not like the silica in Algeria and Africa and other countries, even UAE and other countries. The silica in the north side of Saudi Arabia, it’s purity can reach 99.7%. The other silica around the world, it doesn’t even reach 90 percent. So the silica in Saudi Arabia costs nothing to manufacture it and to build it. It costs nothing. So this is not just material. It’s also cheap and high quality material.
And the other countries who have a lot of silica, much lower quality and expensive…we will have the other kind of material. So part of the material, the cables, the cable cover, and we have a lot of cable in Saudi Arabia, a lot. To manufacture this to do the solar panel, you need a lot of gas, and we have a lot of discovery of gas in the Red Sea.
So the mix of the materials, supply chain, demand, sun are all available in Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t exist anywhere around the world. So if we say, “We cancel the project. We will not do the 200 gigawatts,” no one will do it. So we worked very hard in the last few months to gather the best partners for that from different areas from the world, from America, from China, from Japan, and now we are in the final stage to shape the new Aramco Saudi Arabia. Maybe since the biggest partner is Japan, we could maybe call it Jaramco or something like that.
So this it will help Saudi Arabia to save $40 billion every year. It will increase Saudi Arabia GDP by $20 billion. It will create 100,000 jobs, and it will help us to export because we will export for the whole world the cheapest solar panel and the highest efficient solar panel. So we are helping the whole world to produce energy, continuous energy cheaper than they ever have. And we are taking the risk to push all of our demand in that area.
One personal question. How did you get interested in da Vinci?
Da Vinci, we announced that it’s not accurate.
It’s not true?
What’s happening, I don’t know how many times we have to announce that. [The New York Times reported on Dec. 8, 2017, that the Crown Prince was the original purchaser at auction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. The Louvre Abu Dhabi said the painting was acquired by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.]
People saw the “60 Minutes” and they thought you were agreeing with everything that had been reported.
In my interview with “60 Minutes” I said that being rich is not crime. The crime is to be corrupt. And if I am corrupt please show me the proof. No one has proof. And if I’m corrupted, please show me the proof. And it seems that no one is showing us that. And it is well known that King Salman and his sons and his team, they are super-clean. Everyone in Saudi Arabia knows that. And also we can give you the track record of the family, al-Saud family before the establishment of Saudi Arabia and also the track record of King Salman since he’s born. And also my track record it’s winning business in Saudi Arabia.
Actually I love art. I believe any human with good taste must admire art and there are a lot of good artists around the world I can’t say that this is my favorite.
This article was first published in Time
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