Saudi Arabia is trying hard to rebrand its image and outlook these days.
Last September, the kingdom announced it would finally allow women to drive. A month later, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he wanted to emphasize “moderate Islam” in a kingdom long shaped by ultraconservative views. The crown prince, the heir to the Saudi throne, has even drafted an economic plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependence on oil revenue.
Now, in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the crown prince has acknowledged that Jewish people have a right to their own homeland — long a taboo in a country known as a fierce foe of Israel’s creation seven decades ago. The remarks, however, reflect something more than just a shift in policy within the Saudi royal court.
It underscores an important realignment taking place in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is seeking to build closer economic and security ties with Israel over their shared worries about Iran's reach in the region. That uneasiness has only been magnified by the political resilience of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, who gives allies Iran and Russia a critical steppingstone in the region.
The Saudi outreach began cautiously and quietly over the past decade as other Gulf nations, such as Qatar, broke the ice with Israel with occasional trade and academic exchanges. But now Saudi Arabia's leadership appears to be testing the ground for even deeper — and more open — cooperation with Israel.
“Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a lot of strong allies left who could confront Iran, which is why Israel has become its second-most important military ally, right after the United States,” said Sebastian Sons, an associate fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on Saudi Arabia.
“Overall, his remarks are the culmination of a long evolution of Saudi-Israeli ties,” said Sons.
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 acknowledgment 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 plan that has also long been supported by the United States, 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 before the 1967 Israeli-Arab 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 backchannel communications between both governments.
Still, Saudi Arabia was quick to reinforce its support for Palestinians. Even as the Atlantic interview was being digested, the official Saudi Press Agency put out a statement by King Salman — the crown prince's father — noting “the kingdom’s steadfast position toward the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital," the Reuters news agency reported.
The reference to Jerusalem points to thorny point for all sides. The Trump administration broke long-standing policies and acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel's capital. But Palestinians also insist that part of the city should be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
“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. Our prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend — he married her.”
“Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. 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 “a 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 efforts to portray a milder face as 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.
At the same time, Saudi leaders unleashed a wave of arrests and crackdowns that included some of the kingdom's most prominent business moguls. Saudi officials claimed it was part of an anti-corruption drive spearheaded by the crown prince. But it was widely seen by others as an attempt to choke off dissent and any challenge to the policies pushed by the crown prince and his backers.
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 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 ascendancy 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 efforts have still been limited. Women’s subordination to men remains unchanged, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen hasn't ended and repressions against Shiites inside Saudi Arabia continue — despite Mohammed’s assurances in the interview that all was well between Sunnis and Shiites in the country.
“Shiites in Saudi Arabia still face a lot of grave injustices. They are being marginalized politically and are excluded from the country's wealth. In recent years, security forces have also launched new crackdowns on the Shiite opposition in the country,” said Saudi Arabia researcher Sons.
The Saudi government also has repeatedly associated the Shiite opposition with Iran, a majority-Shiite country.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper last year, he blamed Saudi Arabia’s archenemy 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 with Iran, Israel might not be so bad after all.
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