In a 75-minute meeting at The Washington Post on Thursday, the last day of his four-day stay in Washington, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman fielded questions on a range of topics, from the war in Yemen to the Middle East peace process, Iran, his domestic reform agenda, and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear plans.
At The Post, he said his primary concern was being able to enrich and use Saudi Arabia’s own uranium for use in power reactors, rather than buying it abroad. His country has more than 5 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves, and “if we don’t use it, it’s like telling us don’t use oil”. The United States, he said, would be invited to put in place laws and structures to make sure enriched uranium is not misused.
Prince Mohammad spoke at length about the prospects for economic growth in the Middle East, saying it could be “the next Europe” if a series of problems can be resolved.
He denied US media reports that he had claimed presidential son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner was “in his pocket” or that, when the two met in Riyadh in October, he had sought or received a green light from Kushner for massive arrests of allegedly corrupt members of the royal family and Saudi businessmen that took place in the kingdom shortly afterward.
The detentions were solely a domestic issue and had been in the works for years, the prince said.
While “we work together as friends, more than partners,” Prince Mohammad said, his relationship with Kushner was within the normal context of government-to-government contacts. He noted that he also had good relations with Vice-President Pence and others in the White House.
Although the meeting, conducted in English, was held off the record, the Saudi embassy later agreed that specified portions could be used in an article about the session.
Prince Mohammad, 32, met with President Donald Trump on Tuesday in the Oval Office and over lunch. He also spoke with a number of congressional leaders. On Thursday, he visited Defence Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. The crown prince also serves as Saudi Arabia’s defence minister.
But the centrepiece of his nearly three-week tour of the United States will come in subsequent stops in Boston, New York, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Houston.
Even as Trump has said he is seeking increased investment and purchases of US military equipment and other products from Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammad has made clear that his primary mission here is to win US investor confidence in his country, along with technological and education assistance in his efforts to reform the ultraconservative kingdom.
China and Russia are vying with the United States to build components of new nuclear power plants in the kingdom, amid concerns here over a Saudi desire for uranium enrichment capability. In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast last Sunday, Prince Mohammad said that his country would build a nuclear weapon if Iran did.
One of those is the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Trump has Kushner to come up with a peace plan, and Kushner met here with Prince Mohammad this week, along with Jason Greenblatt, a Trump Organisation lawyer brought into the White House to help with the effort.
Once the US plan is ready, Kushner is said to want the Saudis and other leading Arab countries to help persuade the Palestinians to accept it.
The official Saudi position is that any peace agreement must recognise a Palestinian state within specified borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Arab leaders have said that Trump’s recent recognition of occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a move that Prince Mohammad called “painful” — has made a deal under US auspices far more difficult.
On the Yemen war, Prince Mohammad said that Saudi Arabia had not passed up “any opportunity” to improve the humanitarian situation. “There are not good options and bad options. The options are between bad and worse,” he said of the Yemen conflict with Iran-backed Al Houthi militia who overthrew the internationally-recognised government.
Discussing his reform efforts at home, including giving women the right to drive and have more rights outside the home, Mohammed said he has worked hard to convince conservative religious leaders such restrictions are not part of Islamic doctrine.
“I believe Islam is sensible, Islam is simple, and people are trying to hijack it,” he said. Lengthy discussions with clerics, he said, have been positive and are “why we have more allies in the religious establishment, day by day.”
— With inputs from Washington Post