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Is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman A Reformer Or Not?


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Riyadh. He is meeting with Saudi Arabia's leaders about the disappearance and likely death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi talked to NPR earlier this year. He told my colleague Jackie Northam that he was no fan of the direction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was taking Saudi Arabia.


JAMAL KHASHOGGI: He has no interest in political reform. He thinks he can do it alone, and he doesn't want really any counter opinion or anyone to share those changes in Saudi Arabia with him.

KELLY: Chilling words to hear now from that interview with our international affairs correspondent, Jackie Northam. And Jackie is with me now to talk more about the crown prince and whether he's a reformer or not. Hey, Jackie.


KELLY: So early on, a lot of people thought that he was headed down the path toward reform. And one of the big things that was cited was his decision to allow, finally, Saudi women to drive. People thought that looked promising. And there were other moves in a similar vein, right?

NORTHAM: Yeah, that's right. It was just over a year ago when Saudi Arabia announced it would allow women to drive again. And that ban was seen as a clear sign of repression in the kingdom. He also allowed women to go to work again. And he opened movie theaters after about a 30-year ban on that, too. And all of this happened very quickly. At the same time, his face and his name were all over TV and magazines and that, so he's seen as very dynamic compared to the rest of the older Saudi leaders who are known for making their decisions very slowly.

KELLY: He also has tried to open up the economy, making Saudi Arabia less dependent on oil.

NORTHAM: Yes, that's right, yeah. And that's not going very well at all. And here's where we really start to see the repressive side of the crown prince. He wanted to make fundamental changes to the economy and quickly. And as part of that, he wanted to fight corruption to - as a way to bring in foreign investment. But it was the way that he did it that's become emblematic of how he operates. Instead of using laws and courts, he rounded up more than 200 Saudi businessmen and princes and government ministers, and he held them at the Ritz Carlton hotel for more than three months until they paid hundreds of millions of dollars to get out.

Now, most people would say that's probably not a good way to attract foreign investment. In fact, it would probably do just the opposite, which it appears to have done.

KELLY: I'm thinking also of some of his recent moves on the international stage - the war in Yemen where Saudi Arabia has carried out a, I think safe to say, largely indiscriminate bombing campaign. And then there was the situation with the prime minister of Lebanon. Remind us what happened there.

NORTHAM: Yeah, Prime Minister Saad Hariri - he was visiting in Saudi Arabia, and he was detained by the crown prince. So think about it - detaining a sitting prime minister while he's visiting your country. That's helped build him a reputation for being reckless and a bully. And many of the analysts that I've talked to over the past few months thinks this is because he just doesn't think through or recognize the repercussions of what he's doing, and perhaps he doesn't have a great worldview. You know, he didn't travel abroad very much, unlike most other Saudi elites. And so perhaps he doesn't have a keen sense of geopolitics.

KELLY: May I circle back to that tape of your interview with Jamal Khashoggi where he said he doesn't think the crown prince really wants any counter opinion? Is the consensus that recent events might be proving that remark prophetic?

NORTHAM: Well, in fact, actually over the many months now, he's rounded up religious figures, economists, activists, including those who worked to get the female driving ban overturned. And he doesn't tolerate criticism, as you say, and that included from Jamal Khashoggi. You know, he saw the handwriting on the wall. He had to leave the country because of that. And now it's...

KELLY: Had to leave Saudi Arabia to come here.

NORTHAM: He had to - yeah, he had to leave Saudi Arabia to come here. And you know, given what's happened - his suspected murder - we'll have to wait and see whether the crown prince's repressive tendencies are even worse than what people were fearing.

KELLY: Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: NPR's Jackie Northam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.