Mohammed bin Salman does not have an easy job. Sure — being a Saudi prince looks awesome, after all you’re disgustingly wealthy in a male dominated country and culture. But does trading jobs with Mohammed bin Salman really seem appealing? Dealing with the Iranians and expelling 7th century Salafism from your culture and county alone seems like a colossal hand-fulls.
One of his many tasks is rebranding the image of Saudi Arabia in the West which has gotten worse since the attacks on 9/11. That is likely the driving force behind bin Salman’s media blitz in the West and seems to be something that has gone rather smoothly. That is except for one exchange between him and Jeffrey Goldberg when Goldberg interviewed the Saudi Prince for The Atlantic. The exchange goes as follows:
Goldberg: Isn’t it true, though, that after 1979, but before 1979 as well, the more conservative factions in Saudi Arabia were taking oil money and using it to export a more intolerant, extremist version of Islam, Wahhabist ideology, which could be understood as a kind of companion ideology to Muslim Brotherhood thinking?
MbS: First of all, this Wahhabism—please define it for us. We’re not familiar with it. We don’t know about it.
Goldberg: What do you mean you don’t know about it?
MbS: What is Wahhabism?
Goldberg: You’re the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. You know what Wahhabism is.
MbS: No one can define this Wahhabism.
Goldberg: It’s a movement founded by Ibn abd al-Wahhab in the 1700s, very fundamentalist in nature, an austere Salafist-style interpretation—
“No one can define it” he says. Well, there are plenty of people walking around the planet identifying as “Wahhabi” so it had to come from somewhere and all rational observers agree it came from Saudi Arabia. If you read the interview, MbS later asserts what would be considered a new policy in his country which is that they are no longer recognizing Wahhabism. That is basic rebranding and it also simplifies the regional struggle between the Saudis (Sunni) and Iran (Shiite) which is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s number 1 concern.
But Americans don’t care about that nuance at all and besides it isn’t hard to sway them against Iran. It’s not that Americans aren’t smart enough to understand the dynamics it’s just that they do not care to inform themselves on the matter until gas prices spike. What they are informed on is why 9/11 happened and who committed the attack. Coming to America and pretending like you have never heard of the ideology that originated in your country that caused 9/11 is just going to piss off Americans and be counterproductive for MbS.
It’s an unforced error and bin Salman should own it. Something like, “Yes, Saudi Arabia exported Wahhabism throughout the world but that is no longer the policy.” It’s not a guarantee that all or even most Americans would buy that but at least they aren’t insulted by treating them like they’re idiots. MbS is likely spending a small fortune on consultants and PR firms, but the focus groups and money really failed him on that point.
To be brutally honest, it is going to be hard for the average American to feel comfortable being such close allies with Saudi Arabia. What is working in MbS’ favor is that Americans prefer reconciliation over sustained war and reconciliation begins with acknowledging one’s actions. The American phrase is “owning it” which implies one “owns” their transgressions in the hopes of moving on from them. The Saudi prince should not abandon these efforts but rather recalibrate his message and tone on major points.
First, own the past influence Wahhabism has had on Saudi domestic and foreign policy. Second, don’t oversell the domestic reforms in Saudi Arabia because rational people understand lasting reforms take time, but no one is going to buy changes are happening overnight. Rejecting Wahhabism should be commended as it is not without risk; Wahhabis tend to kill people who disagree with their interpretation of Islam, and MbS would be no exception in their rigid and warped minds. Finally, keep working towards a functional relationship with their regional neighbor Israel. It has been a quiet work in progress since 2016, but the more public these efforts are made the more criticism MbS will receive from those that seemed pleased with his domestic reforms.
MbS was 15 years-old when 9/11 happened. It’s believable that he didn’t even believe in or even fully understand what was happening at the time and just hit the wrong note with that answer on Wahhabism. Instead of trying to please everyone the prince should be prepared to disappoint everyone in someway or another. It would behoove the prince to take another whack at the question after hiring some more diverse consultants.