By Nicholas Kristof
Dec. 15, 2018
It’s awkward to find yourself in a police state interviewing people about their leader’s penchant for starving children, torturing women or dismembering critics.
The result is nervous smiles. And long pauses in the conversation.
It’s sad because on this visit, I found Saudi Arabia truly is changing under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. You feel a dynamism on the ground in Riyadh, and young Saudis are thrilled that the country finally has a bold leader trying to modernize the economy.
One businesswoman, Naha Said Kattan, told me that she’s grateful to Prince Mohammed that she could drive herself to our interview. I told her that I was delighted for her, but that it was difficult to celebrate while the prince also imprisons women’s rights leaders and reportedly has had four flogged, tortured and sexually harassed, with one attempting suicide as a result.
Another awkward silence.
I’ve been fiercely critical of the “mad prince,” so I was a bit surprised to receive a Saudi visa — apparently because I was travelling with a United Nations delegation returning from Yemen. In a reflection of the mood today, American friends seemed less concerned about my safety in rebel-held Yemen than in Riyadh.
In fact, I’ve felt reasonably safe in Saudi Arabia. Officials were respectful and courteous even when I was painfully frank. But people also seemed more afraid to speak to a journalist than before, and mingled with the oppressiveness, there was an aggrieved nationalism in the air.
Public opinion is difficult to judge in any police state in which journalists are closely watched. But my best guess is that the support here for the prince is real, with people welcoming his youthful leadership as a breath of fresh air; even in Arabic he is sometimes referred to affectionately by his English initials, M.B.S. But I refer to “M.B.S.,” following the dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as “Mr. Bone Saw.”
Bravo to the U.S. Senate for its historic votes to hold M.B.S. accountable for Khashoggi’s murder and to end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Saudi officials are paying very close attention.
Senior Saudis privately accept that M.B.S. ordered Khashoggi’s death but insist that the Saudi-U.S. relationship is more important than one man’s life. For the sake of stability in the region, they say, America should stand by Saudi Arabia.
To which my answer is: The problem is not only that M.B.S. is a murderer, but also that he has destabilized the region, starved Yemeni children and undermined the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States alike. Everything he touches, he breaks.
President Trump and Jared Kushner have placed their bets on the prince, and in a narrow sense they may be right. King Faisal managed to oust his incompetent predecessor, King Saud, in 1964, but I saw no sign that M.B.S. is in jeopardy of losing power.
My most interesting interaction was with a group of young professionals who believe that I am getting it all wrong.
“I don’t know why the media focuses on the bad side,” protested Tariq Buhilaigah, a consultant in Riyadh. Sure there have been missteps, he said, but the most important things going on are the modernization of the country and the diversification of the economy away from oil.
Felwa AlBazie, who is preparing to get her driver’s license, said she doesn’t know why the women’s rights activists are detained but added, “The big picture I’m seeing is that every woman in life benefits from driving, and women and men benefit from social progress.”
But modernity isn’t just about cappuccinos and iPhone apps; it’s also about human dignity and the rule of law. While M.B.S. is bringing social progress, he’s also reckless, oppressive and brutal, and I am sceptical of his economic competence. He hasn’t even been able to organize an initial public offering for Aramco.
Trump’s bizarre defence of the prince reflects what has been wrong with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It has become all transactional. The Saudis have treated us like body guards, and we have treated them like gas station attendants.
I suspect the real reason Trump and Kushner embrace M.B.S., aside from the hope that he will back their Middle East peace plan, is business: the belief that Saudis will invest in their personal real estate projects for decades to come.
The truth is that as Saudi Arabia’s significance as an oil producer diminishes, we need Saudi Arabia less. In 25 years, if we’re freed from the tyranny of imported oil, we may not need it at all.
Some Saudis kept trying to suggest to me that if we block weapons sales to Riyadh, the kingdom will turn to Moscow. That’s absurd. It needs our spare parts and, more important, it buys our weapons because they come with an implicit guarantee that we will bail the Saudis out militarily if they get in trouble with Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s armed forces can’t even defeat a militia in Yemen, so how could they stand up to Iran? That’s why we have leverage over Saudi Arabia, not the other way around.
Let’s use that leverage. The next step should be a suspension of arms sales until Saudi Arabia ends its war on Yemen, for that war has made us complicit in mass starvation.
Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer