Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman's interview on Wednesday night with Bret Baier of Fox News didn’t break news or produce controversy.
The crown prince’s remarks, covering a range of issues both domestic and foreign, were quite familiar to those who have followed him since his unchallenged rise to power in 2017. But that wasn’t the point of his appearance on one of America’s top networks.
The purpose was for him to speak directly to the American people in English, through a television channel that averages more than a million viewers every month, and for Fox News to have an exclusive with an increasingly relevant world leader whose country matters a great deal to the United States given its unmatched influence in the global energy markets.
During the interview, Mohammed bin Salman looked quite comfortable and well-prepared, bombarding Baier with numbers about his country’s economic growth.
I will limit my commentary to three issue areas the crown prince discussed during his chat, appearing in chronological order: 1) the relationship with Israel; 2) the relationship with the United States; 3) the relationship with Iran.
The purpose of the interview was for the Saudi crown prince — an increasingly relevant world leader — to speak directly to the American people in English.
Relationship with Israel
Mohammed bin Salman reaffirmed his country's commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This shouldn't be surprising because this has been a longstanding Saudi policy.
It doesn't matter how Mohammed bin Salman or any other Saudi leader 'feels' about the Palestinians; what is most relevant is the fact that the kingdom has a 'responsibility' toward the Palestinians given its unique status and authority in the Muslim world and Saudi King Salman's role as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Saudi Arabia is not the UAE, nor is it Bahrain; it cannot join the Abraham Accords without clear and substantive concessions from the Israelis toward the Palestinians.
What is a bit curious about the crown prince's words on the Palestinian issue is that he did not specifically tie normalisation with Israel to a two-state solution or to an outcome that gives the Palestinians a state of their own.
He said: "We have good negotiations…we hope that it will reach a place that will ease the lives of the Palestinians." Was it deliberate, signalling a change in Saudi policy? If that is the case, this is a huge deal because it means that Saudi-Israeli normalisation may be closer than assumed.
In fact, that's precisely what he said: "Every day, we get closer."
But most likely, there is no change because, as recently as May 2023, the crown prince said during his address at the Arab League Summit that "(Saudi Arabia) will not delay in providing assistance to the Palestinian people in recovering their lands, restoring their legitimate rights and establishing an independent state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital."
His foreign affairs minister, Faisal Bin Farhan, also repeated just a couple of days ago that "there is no way to resolve the conflict other than by ensuring the establishment of an independent Palestinian state."
Relationship with the United States
When Baier asked the crown prince if he wanted an Article 5-like defence arrangement with the United States, the Saudi leader replied that Saudi Arabia "has some sort of that."
Then he went on to explain how the kingdom has been a top buyer of American weapons for several decades and how this benefits the US defence industry and the US economy, without giving his view on what he wanted this US defence pact to look like.
The Saudi crown prince went on to explain how the kingdom has been a top buyer of American weapons for several decades and how this benefits the US defence industry and the US economy.
Does he want something written and formal in nature, or is there room for negotiation and an outcome that upgrades bilateral defence ties but falls short of a legal commitment?
This segment of the interview was disappointingly rather thin, even though it is a major condition of Saudi Arabia.
Relationship with Iran
There is no question that the Saudi outlook toward Iran has dramatically shifted. Today, Saudi Arabia seeks de-escalation with Iran and a new relationship that can foster opportunities for cooperation on multiple regional issues, including the war in Yemen.
Riyadh realises that absent calm, the economic transformation plan will fail. Having a stable relationship with Iran is absolutely necessary, hence the historic Saudi-Iranian normalisation deal from several months ago, with the help of China.
When asked how he would respond if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, Mohamed Bin Salman repeated what he revealed in March 2018, that if that happened, Saudi Arabia would follow suit rather quickly.
From a balance-of-power perspective, one can see why the crown prince would very publicly and transparently clarify Saudi Arabia's intentions. Saudi Arabia hopes this would deter Iran from getting the bomb, or at least make it known to the Iranian leadership that it would have to deal with a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi position is neither reckless nor irresponsible. That's exactly what Pakistan did soon after India produced a nuclear weapon. It's a typical action-reaction process in security relations.
From a political perspective, threatening to obtain the bomb, even if Iran does it first, when one of your conditions to normalise with Israel is the development of a civilian nuclear programme with the help of the United States, is not something that will sit well with Americans.
The United States worries deeply about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, and if it does assist Saudi Arabia in enriching uranium on its own soil – on which Riyadh insists – the risk is that the latter could easily switch to a weaponised programme given the dual-use nature of nuclear technology, according to officials in DC.
But given that this matter is existential to Saudi Arabia, it is willing to accept whatever political costs that might result from its decision.
After all, even though Saudi Arabia prefers to work with the United States on nuclear development, it knows that it could go to other countries, including China, if Washington restricts or denies cooperation. So, Riyadh has options.
Even though Saudi Arabia prefers to work with the United States on nuclear development, it knows that it could go to other countries, including China, if Washington restricts or denies cooperation. So, Riyadh has options.
A new page
The interview hit the mark, at least from the Saudi point of view.
American audiences who probably didn't know much about Saudi Arabia had a chance to learn about the monumental changes the kingdom has undergone in recent years under the crown prince's leadership.
If Americans begin to see Saudi Arabia in a more positive light, this could be critical as the Biden administration potentially brings the issue of dealmaking with Saudi Arabia to the floor of the Senate.
If Saudi Arabia is to receive a defence pact, more powerful weapons, and assistance in building a civilian nuclear programme from Washington, the American people will have to be behind all those things.
Getting to know the new Saudi Arabia and its ambitious reformist leader through an American screen could certainly help.