In wide-ranging interviews that started with what amounts to a wild goose chase, two Atlantic journalists sat down with the notorious crown prince of Saudi Arabia, 36-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, and got him to touch his softer side.
MBS, as he is widely known, has not spoken with the Western press in more than two years, so it remains curious why he would do so now. But he told The Atlantic during two separate interviews that he feels like he is the real victim of the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate office in Istanbul in 2018.
Never mind that the CIA, a UN investigation, and most of the world hold the pariah prince personally responsible for what is believed to be the torture, dismemberment, and disappearance of Khashoggi’s body. MBS told them that it is he who is the true victim, and that the injustice was toward him, insisting “the Khashoggi incident was the worst thing ever to happen to me, because it could have ruined all of my plans.”
When asked during the first interview, at the royal’s secluded COVID hideout, whether he had ordered the killing, he laughed off the journalists’ question, saying instead that he barely knew who the dissident journalist—whose life was under constant threat by his own government—was. And besides, if they had a hit list of, say, 1,000 enemies of the kingdom, Khashoggi wasn’t important enough to even make the list. “I never read a Khashoggi article in my life,” he said, before darkly insisting that if he’d have ordered it, the job would have been cleaner. “If that’s the way we did things, Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list. If you’re going to go for another operation like that, for another person, it’s got to be professional and it’s got to be one of the top 1,000.”
He went on to insist that the whole incident was painful. “It hurt me and it hurt Saudi Arabia, from a feelings perspective,” he said. “I understand the anger, especially among journalists. I respect their feelings. But we also have feelings here, pain here.”
In the second interview with the crown prince, this time in Riyadh, he went further to say how his rights had been violated in what he apparently referred to as the “Khashoggi affair,” rather than referring to it as a murder. “I feel that human-rights law wasn’t applied to me,” he told The Atlantic. “Article XI of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that any person is innocent until proven guilty.”
MBS also had little love for President Joe Biden, who has refused to meet him over the “Khashoggi affair.” He was asked if Biden “misunderstands something about him,” to which the crown prince said, “Simply, I do not care.” He then insisted that alienating the kingdom would harm Biden more than himself. “It’s up to him to think about the interests of America,” he said, apparently with a shrug to the journalists. “Go for it.”
He then described the kingdom’s budding relationship with China, who he said appreciated the unique opportunities the kingdom offers. “Where is the potential in the world today?” he said. “It’s in Saudi Arabia. And if you want to miss it, I believe other people in the East are going to be super happy.”
In comments to the Saudi news agency SPA published by Reuters on Thursday, MBS took things further to alienate the U.S., even suggesting that the kingdom’s $800 billion investment in U.S. interests are expendable. “In the same way we have the possibility of boosting our interests, we have the possibility of reducing them,” he told the news agency.
The extensive Atlantic profile also touched on what amounts to a greatest-hits list of MBS scandals, including holding several of his family members for months in a Ritz-Carlton hotel on charges of corruption. While it was imprisonment with little due process, MBS described it to the Atlantic as something different. “But to him it was an elegant, and by the way nonviolent, solution to the problem of vampires feasting on the kingdom’s annual budget,” they write.
The profile, while highly suspicious of MBS’ claims of victimhood over Khashoggi, humanizes him with details of his breakfast routine with his children and his favorite U.S. TV program to binge-watch (Game of Thrones) and his least favorite (House of Cards). And it does give him due credit for modernizing the kingdom, especially in giving women more freedom, including the right to drive.
But he refused to address Loujain al-Hathloul, the most famous of Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights activists, who served time from 2018 to 2021 on “terrorism charges” where her family says she was regularly electrocuted, beaten, and threatened with being “chopped up and thrown in a sewer, never to be found” which the Saudi government denies. She is prohibited from speaking out publicly or traveling abroad as part of her probation.