Time: March 21, 2018
WASHINGTON: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Washington with the broadcast of his first interview with a western television network still being digested in America.
CBS anchorwoman Norah O’Donnell had told Arab News beforehand, and with a degree of understatement, that she thought the 60 Minutes interview would be “newsworthy.”
The 26-minute segment was seen by about 10 million people on Sunday night and was among one of the most viewed features that the program has published online.
The interview was wide-ranging and tackled a number of big and difficult issues, both domestic and geopolitical.
From the anti-corruption crackdown, to women’s rights in the Kingdom, the war in Yemen and the threat from Iran, the broadcast provided plenty for the American audience to consider ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with their president.
For analysts and policy experts, the interview offered a window into how the Saudi delegation may be approaching the visit and the discussions that will be held with Donald Trump and his administration.
“His interview on 60 Minutes was clearly intended to kick off his US stay and struck many of the themes we expect to hear repeatedly over the course of his visit,” said Gerald Feierstein, the former US Ambassador to Yemen and director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute.
“How Americans respond will help determine the extent to which the US will be a strong partner, especially in investing in a rising Saudi private sector.”
During the interview, the crown prince talked openly about the anti-corruption crackdown, in which a number of businessman, princes and former government ministers were detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh in November. He said the move was “extremely necessary” because about $20 billion of state funds was “disappearing” every year.
On foreign policy, he said Iran was a clear and present danger to the Middle East and that if Tehran acquired a nuclear weapon then Saudi Arabia would too.
Iranian ideology had infiltrated parts of Yemen, where the war and the humanitarian situation there were “truly very painful,” the crown prince said.
But it is his radical social reforms at home that are expected to attract particular interest during his US trip. In the interview, he talked at length about reinstating a more moderate Islam, allowing women to drive, opening up the entertainment industry and removing extremist influence from the education system.
The crown prince showed a willingness to “address rather directly a number of hot-button issues that Americans still have questions about,” including terrorism, women’s status and Yemen, Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Arab News.
“It’s important for Americans to hear from him on these issues; he’s set to be king for decades of a very close strategic partner of the United States,” she said.
“He seemed to be employing the same approach of reaching out to the youth demographic that he’s pursued at home when he appealed to TV viewers to check their smartphones for old photos of the ‘real’ Saudi Arabia.”
The crown prince was referring to the country before 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution, which he said sparked the shift in Saudi Arabia toward the adoption of a hard-line interpretation of Islam.
While the meeting with Trump will be regarded as the highlight of the visit, it is already clear that the crown prince and the US president have a strong and growing relationship.
What will be equally interesting will be how he is received on the other legs of the tour, which will include meetings with business leaders in New York, technology entrepreneurs on the West Coast, and religious leaders.
Feierstein said Crown Prince Mohammed’s challenge during his US tour “is convincing Americans that he represents a new, dynamic face of Saudi Arabia that is reforming economically and socially.”