Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said he will not let the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi hinder the vision he has for his country, a visiting Evangelical delegation relayed.
“The crown prince called it a heinous act,” Joel Rosenberg, who led the delegation of Evangelical Christians from the US on November 1, told The Jerusalem Post, adding how the Saudi leader is reshaping the Middle East. “He said it was a terrible mistake.”
According to Rosenberg, the Saudi leader was convincing in seeking to put the perpetrators in prison.
“He also wants to keep moving. He doesn’t want it [the killing] to implode his ability to take his country where it wants to go.”
MBS was willing to discuss the killing and understood concerns over it, but wanted to stress that the tragedy would not cause him to stop his reforms. “My enemies are exploiting this to the fullest,” he said.
Saudi foreign minister pledges full probe into Khashoggi killing, October 23, 2018 (Reuters)
The crown prince also said the head of Egyptian intelligence recently came to Riyadh, and a terrorist cell with Saudi citizens had been caught in northern Sinai. “They were planning to assassinate me,” MBS told the delegation.
“We must fight the extremists and defeat them or they will stop us and the reforms we are making to make life better for the people of Saudi Arabia,” he said during the historic meeting at the Royal Palace in Riyadh. “We are fighting extremists in the ideological war and we are fighting terrorists in a physical war,” he said, sketching out a plan to bolster an alliance in the region with the US and other Saudi allies.
The visit came at a time of great change in the region. Rosenberg arrived in Riyadh a week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from Oman and days after Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev was in the United Arab Emirates. It also came in wake of the Manama Dialogue summit where Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had praised the US for defeating ISIS and confronting Iran.
The crown prince sat for hours with the delegation of Christian leaders. For Rosenberg, a dual US-Israel citizen, it was the culmination of a series of similar discussions. He has met multiple times with Jordan’s King Abdullah, with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and also with the Crown Prince of the UAE Mohammed Bin Zayed. The trip to Riyadh included Mike Evans, a member of US President Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Counsel, Jerry Johnson, CEO of the National Religious Broadcaster, former congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and others.
Although the meeting came after the murder of Khashoggi in October, the delegation was planned beforehand. Khashoggi was killed in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate, allegedly at the hands of a team sent from Riyadh. Rosenberg said that the murder weighed on the delegation. “We prayed about it and we discussed it. We concluded this is the first time in the history of the country they were inviting Evangelical Christians to begin a dialogue.”
Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads, seeking broad economic reforms. It is also being tested by changes in the region, including the chaos unleashed by the rise and defeat of ISIS and Iran’s increasing power. Iran has allies among the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and also works with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a country whose Sunni leaders have been historically close to Riyadh.
“They feel so burned by the Obama team. They are working hard to rebuild a strategic relationship,” said Rosenberg, referring to the former US president’s Iran deal. The crown prince has been the main force behind Saudi’s reforms and its regional stance over the last several years. He has also been criticized for Riyadh’s role in Yemen, and for breaking relations with Qatar in 2017. The Khashoggi killing has brought unprecedented criticism of the Saudi Kingdom from the US, Europe and elsewhere.
Rosenberg’s trip to Riyadh came after he met with the UAE’s Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba, who invited him to bring a delegation to the UAE. Otaiba suggested the group meet with the Saudis as well, who said: “We immediately accepted his invitation. He kept his word. He reached out to the Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Khalid Bin-Salman, the younger brother of MBS and son of the king.”
The crown prince of Saudi Arabia speaks fluent English, Rosenberg said. He began his meeting by discussing two historic figures in the Middle East, former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iranian revolution figure Ayatollah Khomeini.
“He said they had ruined the region and caused enormous problems for Saudi Arabia,” said Rosenberg, who was born in 1967 and never imagined being invited to Saudi Arabia. Nasser was a formative leader in Arab nationalism while Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution represented the region’s religious revival in the 1980s. In Riyadh’s eyes it appears that both movements threatened the stability of Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia fought in Yemen against groups backed by Nasser, today it is fighting against rebels backed by Iran.
“This is a tough neighborhood. We have a lot of enemies – Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others. The Iranians are extremists. The Muslim Brotherhood are extremists. There are many extremists, but we will not let them win,” the crown prince told the delegation. He provided a keen sense of his regional outlook. For one, he believes the Iranians are trying to export their revolution and Riyadh will not accept it. He used the word “tough neighborhood,” which dovetails with Israel’s own view of the region. He also sought to emphasize that Saudi Arabia has confronted the extremists in its midst.
“In 2015, according to our polling, 30% of Saudis were extremists, 10% were open-minded.” The rest were in the middle. Today only 5% are extremists and up to 40% are “open minded.” Today, the terrorists are on the run in Saudi Arabia, and economic reforms are supposed to make sure they never raise their heads again.
The crown prince’s outlook is closely tied to the views of MBZ in the UAE, Sisi in Egypt and Abdullah in Jordan. Together these states represent not only powerful Sunni Arab states, but also those that have confronted the Muslim Brotherhood and Political Islam. They have an outlook that views religious extremism as anathema to the region, and wants stability after the years of chaos and terror that followed the Arab Spring. MBS is a key part of this, but some in the West view him as moving too fast or leading the kingdom in the wrong direction. His meeting with the Evangelicals may help sketch out his policies to the 60 million Evangelicals in the US and hundreds of millions worldwide. But it also shows Saudis that he is open to meeting with Christian groups.
Rosenberg and the delegation spoke to the crown prince about Israel. They said they love Israel and the Palestinians. “It’s fair to say that 60 million Evangelicals in the US are looking to see who will be the next Arab leader to make peace with Israel.” Rosenberg declined to discuss MBS’s views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Rosenberg characterized MBS as a “once in a lifetime leader,” in the region. But the delegation also raised an issue important to Christians. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia, and leaders asked if permission would be granted to build one as part of a reform. “I will not do that now,” the Saudi leader said. Nevertheless, he sought answers from Islamic clerics on this issue.
The crown prince is seeking to signal to Saudis and others in the world that Christians and Jews are not enemies of the kingdom. Today, Riyadh sees Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists as the enemies. This is a major change from the 1980s and 1990s when the kingdom was accused of exporting extremism and when those born in Saudi Arabia, like Osama Bin Laden, were leaders of terrorist groups.
“I think MBS wakes up everyday trying to figure out how to transform the economy,” Rosenberg said. Outspoken and tall, he conveys confidence that Riyadh will invest in a regional security infrastructure to confront Iran and Riyadh’s adversaries. “I think he wakes up everyday looking how to be a bold transformer and not end up like Sadat or Rabin. That’s my impression,” said Rosenberg, referencing the Egyptian reformer Anwar Sadat who was assassinated in 1981 and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who was murdered in 1995.
Saudi Arabia may have flaws, Rosenberg conceded, but it is an ally of the US that is trying to be a good friend, whereas Turkey, Russia and Iran oppose the US. Rosenberg emerged from the visit with a reinforced view of a region divided between a Russia-Iran-Turkey-Qatar axis and another made up of other Sunni Arab states, the US and Israel.
The Saudis showed the delegation other points of progress in the kingdom during the three-day visit. At Etidal, a center in Riyadh that combats extremism, they peered inside the hi-tech war room that tracks “violent extremists, hate speech online and counters it. They track every interview and tweet and Facebook message,” Rosenberg said. Jerusalem might even be seeing a multi-faith “peace caravan” come there soon.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, met with the delegation and said that an interfaith group should come to the Holy City.
“Next year in Jerusalem, we’d love to welcome them,” said Rosenberg.