Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman said that a normalization deal with Israel is getting “closer” as the negotiations continue on a Saudi civilian nuclear program.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned on Wednesday that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, “we have to get one,” in the most direct public indication so far that the kingdom will not stand by if Tehran breaks the nuclear weapon threshold.
In a wide-ranging interview with Fox News that aired on Wednesday night, the crown prince widely called MBS denied that Israeli-Saudi normalization talks are ongoing and making progress.
The hour-long interview, the first for MBS in English, was designed to address a Western audience. His emphasis on Iran and Israel come as Riyadh is asking Washington for security guarantees to serve as a prerequisite for reaching an agreement with Israel. Saudi Arabia does not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel since the country was established in 1948. Among its requirements is the establishment of a civilian nuclear program on its soil, including uranium enrichment, according to multiple media reports. Riyadh also wants a mutual defense pact with the United States and significant arms deals. Iran and Saudi Arabia, longtime regional foes, agreed to normalize relations in March.
The Saudi crown prince, Bin Salman, says in an interview with the Fox News: If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, we must obtain one as well. pic.twitter.com/yg9QIJHuGV — Amichai Stein (@AmichaiStein1) September 20, 2023
But Saudi Arabia’s strongman also linked any normalization with Israel to a breakthrough on the Palestinian file. “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part.” He didn’t specify the scope of such settlement but noted, “We hope that will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, get Israel as a player in the Middle East.”
“If we have a breakthrough of reaching a deal that gives the Palestinians their needs and makes the region calm, we’re going to work with whoever is there,” he said.
The crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, warned of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, saying that it would be necessary “for security reasons and balancing power in the Middle East, but we don’t want to see that.”
Asked about what the kingdom would do if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, he said, “If they get one, we have to get one.”
He rejected reports earlier in the week that his country had suspended negotiations with the United States for normalizing ties with Israel, stressing they were untrue. In rare public comments in English, the crown prince said, “Every day we get closer.”
The kingdom has been criticized for human rights violations as well as restrictions on free speech. Saudi Arabia has been accused of investing in sports and hosting high-profile sporting events to shore up its international reputation.
Quizzed on accusations that the Gulf kingdom is engaging in “sportswashing” after Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund bought stakes in different sports clubs and leagues, including in golf, soccer and mixed martial arts, the prince said he did not care about the criticism.
“If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we’ll continue doing sportswashing,” he said.
Asked by Fox’s Bret Baeir about the 9/11 attacks in which 15 of the hijackers were Saudi citizens, the crown prince struck a sympathetic tone on the issue.
“Well, I’m very sorry that anyone losing every one of his family. No one want to lose his family, especially in a way like like that. Yes, there’s 15 Saudi and that being planned by Osama bin Laden, that’s well known,” he said.
He reiterated that bin Laden and al-Qaeda had been set on attacking the kingdom as well, saying, “He’s our enemy and he’s the American enemy.”
On Jamal Khashoggi
The crown prince was also asked about the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in 2018, which US intelligence concluded that the Saudi leader personally ordered. He has denied having direct knowledge of the plot against the journalist but in 2019 said he accepted responsibility because it happened under his leadership.
MBS said that “anyone involved” in the killing is serving time in prison and must “face the law.”
He called the incident that took place five years ago “painful” and “a mistake” and said he would reform the country’s security system to ensure “everyone is safe.”
On the subject of Saudi Arabia’s decision to extend its oil output cut of 1 million barrels per day into a third month, the crown prince said the move is meant to stabilize the markets and not to help Russia wage its war in Ukraine.
“We just watch supply, demand. If there is shortage of supply our role in OPEC+ is to fill that shortage. If there is oversupply our role of OPEC+ is to measure that for the stability of the market,” he said.
The crown prince said Saudi Arabia had cordial relations with both Russia and Ukraine and that Riyadh is working hard to resolve the crisis. Last month, Saudi Arabia hosted talks in the city of Jeddah to end the war. The talks included China, India, the United States and Ukraine, but notably not Russia.
IMEC and Biden
The crown prince spoke positively about relations with US President Joe Biden, citing new progress made at the G20 summit, where the two leaders shook hands for the first time.
The crown prince said that logistics and working together with many countries including the United States were important, and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor announced at the summit in New Delhi earlier this month would help solve that.
“The project will cut the [transfer] time of goods from India to Europe by three to six days. It will cut time, save money and is more safe and more efficient. So, why not?” he said.
New York talks
MBS’ comments come hours after Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed cautious optimism about a coming agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Speaking at the beginning of his meeting with Biden in New York, Netanyahu said, “I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And I think such a peace would go a long way for us to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Along with security guarantees and a nuclear program, another of Riyadh’s conditions for a normalization deal with Israel includes concessions to the Palestinians.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Israeli officials were working with the Biden administration to form a plan enabling Saudi Arabia to start its own civil nuclear program.
Citing unnamed senior Israeli and American officials, the report read, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed top Israeli nuclear and security specialists to cooperate with US negotiators as they try to reach a compromise that could allow Saudi Arabia to become the second country in [West Asia], after Iran, to openly enrich uranium.”
Interviewed by Israel’s Army Radio on Thursday, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who is currently in New York as well, said that a framework for forging diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia could be in place by early 2024.
“The gaps can be bridged. It will take time. But there is progress,” Cohen said, adding, “I think there is certainly a likelihood that in the first quarter of 2024, four or five months hence, we will be able to be in at a point where the details are finalized.”
Retired diplomat Nimrod Barkan had headed the Foreign Ministry’s Center for Policy Research, where he dealt extensively with Israeli’s nuclear policy. Referring to the possibility of the Saudis establishing a civil nuclear program, Barkan told Al-Monitor that much depends on what exactly the Americans are going to offer to the Saudis.
He explained, “If the Americans agree for the Saudis to establish a nuclear plant focused on the production of electricity — a sort of plant which is difficult to transform into a plutonium-production plant — then there are chances that Israel could agree to that.”
The ambassador said that in such case, if the Saudis ever decide to go attempt the transformation, “Israel will have time to react, one way or another. But if the Saudis insist on a reactor also capable of producing nuclear-weapon material, Israel could not agree.”