Riyadh — In a wide-ranging late-night interview at his palace here, Saudi Arabia's young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman described a new wave of reforms as part of the "shock" therapy needed to modernize the kingdom's cultural and political life.
"MBS," as the headstrong 32-year-old crown prince is known, began the conversation just before midnight Monday, at the end of a day that had brought new royal decrees shaking up the Saudi military and government bureaucracy and appointing a woman to a Cabinet ministry, Dr. Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah as deputy minister for labor. For more than two hours, he discussed his campaigns against corruption and Muslim extremism, as well as his strategy for the region.
The crown prince said he has public support, not just from restless younger Saudis but from a chastened royal family. He rejected criticism of his domestic and regional policies, which some have described as risky, and argued that the changes are essential to finance the kingdom's development and combat its enemies, such as Iran. Asked whether he might release human-rights activists before his visit to the U.S. in late March, he said Saudi standards were different than American ones, and "if it works, don't fix it," but he added later through an aide that he would consider reforms in this area, as in others.
During my brief visit to the kingdom, it was impossible to assess how well MBS' reforms are working. Certainly, there's a cultural ferment: Women tell visitors what kind of cars they plan to buy when they're allowed to drive in June; new gyms for women are opening; women entrepreneurs are operating food trucks; and women sports fans are attending public soccer games.
Conservative dissent may exist underground, but a September 2017 independent poll by IPSOS of Saudi millennials found that 74 percent were optimistic about the future; topping their worries were high prices, unemployment and corruption.
MBS spoke entirely in English; in two previous interviews with me, he had taken questions in English and answered in Arabic. He dismissed concerns among some supporters in the U.S. that he's fighting on too many fronts and taking too many chances — arguing that the breadth and pace of change are necessary for success.
The crown prince said the shakeup announced Monday night by his aging father, King Salman, was an effort to install "high energy" people who could achieve modernization targets. "We want to work with believers," he said. The decrees appoint younger royals to key governorates, including Prince Turki bin Talal as deputy governor of Asir. This appointment suggests royal-family accord, since his brother, Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, was among 381 arrested on corruption charges. (He was later released).
MBS sacked the defense chief of staff and appointed other new military leaders, changes he said had been planned for several years to get better results for Saudi defense spending; he said the kingdom, with the world's fourth-largest defense budget, has only the 20th or 30th best army. He described ambitious new plans to mobilize Yemeni tribes against the Houthis and their Iranian backers in Yemen, a war that has dragged on longer than the Saudis hoped.
MBS said his anti-corruption putsch in November was an example of the shock therapy the kingdom needed, because of endemic corruption. "You have a body that has cancer everywhere, the cancer of corruption. You need to have chemo, the shock of chemo, or the cancer will eat the body." The kingdom couldn't meet budget targets without halting this looting, he said.
The crown prince said he remembers corruption personally, as people tried to use his name and connections starting in his late teens. "The corrupted princes were a minority, but the bad actors got more attention. It harmed the energy of the royal family." All but 56 of those arrested have now been freed after paying restitution: "Most of them know they have made big mistakes, and they have settled."
MBS said that a "shock" was also needed to check Islamic extremism in the kingdom. He said his reforms, giving greater rights to women and less to the religious police, were simply an effort to re-establish the practices that applied in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
The crown prince said he had been unfairly criticized for pressuring Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign in November. "Now he's in a better position" in Lebanon, relative to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, MBS said. Hariri is visiting the kingdom soon for talks.
MBS' enthusiasts sometimes liken his bid to consolidate power to that of Abdul-Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. But MBS dismissed this comparison, adding a contemporary twist: "You can't create a new 'smartphone.' Steve Jobs already did it. What we are trying to bring here is something new."
David Ignatius writes a foreign affairs column. He has also written eight spy novels. "Body of Lies" was made into a 2008 film starring Leonard DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He began writing his column in 1998. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.