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Podcast: Crown Prince MBS’s power & Saudi Arabia’s contradictions

Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman: GZERO World with Ian Bremmer podcast

TRANSCRIPT: Crown Prince MBS’s power & Saudi Arabia’s contradictions

Bernard Haykel: The thing that happened that I didn't expect is the lack of preparation by the American team. I'm very surprised that President Biden and his team went there and came back with so little from the Saudis, that they hadn't agreed to something in advance, and that this was a total win for the Saudis.

Ian Bremmer: Hello and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. This is where you'll find extended versions of my interviews on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today, President Joe Biden just finished a whirlwind tour of the Middle East with stops in Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Saudi Arabia. It was his first visit to the region since he took office. With gas prices and inflation hitting record highs recently, Biden was there in part to ask Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to increase Saudi oil production, helping bring down prices at the pump. That's a matter of great concern for American voters, but a fist bump with MBS comes with strings, even if the trip did further American interests. This week I speak with Princeton professor Bernard Haykel about whether Biden's visit was the right move. He's a renowned expert on Saudi affairs, and he also has the Crown Prince on speed dial. Let's do this.

Announcer: The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, places clients' needs first by providing responsive, relevant, and customized solutions. Visit to learn more. In a world upended by disruptive international events how can we rebuild? On season two of Global Reboot, a foreign policy podcast in partnership with the Doha Forum, FP editor-in-chief Ravi Agrawal engages with world leaders and policy experts to look at old problems in new ways and identify solutions to our world's greatest challenges. Listen to season two of Global Reboot, wherever you get your podcasts.

Ian Bremmer: Bernard Haykel, thanks so much for joining us.

Bernard Haykel: It's a pleasure.

Ian Bremmer: So much to talk about, the fair amount of controversy in the meeting between Biden and MBS. You know the Saudi Crown Prince personally very well. What happened that you did not actually expect?

Bernard Haykel: The thing that happened that I didn't expect is the lack of preparation by the American team. I'm very surprised that President Biden and his team went there and came back with so little from the Saudis, that they hadn't agreed to something in advance, and that this was a total win for the Saudis in terms of PR, in terms reaffirming the centrality of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. It's a complete victory for MBS, and for the Saudi government and Saudi state.

Ian Bremmer: Now, I mean, I understand that it's a big deal to get the American president to come and visit, but did I miss, were there announcements from the Americans that actually moved the ball from the Saudi perspective?

Bernard Haykel: I mean, basically the stuff on Iran that there's a commitment to never allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon, that America will help defend Saudi Arabia from attack on its territory, presumably from Iranian proxies, especially the Houthis in Yemen. All of that is music to Saudi Arabia's ears, and the Saudis were able to show that they have tremendous convening power. I mean, they were able to bring all the GCC leaders, the leaders of the countries of the Gulf, and the Iraqi Prime Minister, the King of Jordan, and the President of Egypt, and they just signaled that Saudi Arabia is simply the most important country in that region, and that you need it both for the stability of the region as well as for global energy stability.

Ian Bremmer: Yeah, I mean, if we were talking a few years ago, of course, the Qataris certainly wouldn't have been in that group. That's one of the bigger things that has changed is the fact that the GCC feels more unified, more aligned. Do you think that is stable?

Bernard Haykel: It's very hard to say that it's stable because these are highly personalistic regimes where individuals can wake up one morning and decide one thing that runs counter to the past. What I get from the Saudi leadership and also from the UAE, is that there's been a steep learning curve, and that playing the kinds of games that they played with boycotts of each other and so on are very counterproductive. For instance, now they've wired the electrical grid of Iraq to the GCC, or they're about to do that. That's a very good thing. It brings Iraq partially out of Iran's orbit and into the GCC orbit. I think there is some maturity there, and that's something that the Americans have encouraged, and I think rightfully so.

Ian Bremmer: Now we can get into the big geopolitics, but I want to ask you a little bit about Muhammad bin Salman himself because he has been one of the most controversial, provocative figures on the geopolitical stage globally.

Bernard Haykel: Yes.

Ian Bremmer: Some of that has been revolutionary in a positive sense. Some of that has been revolutionary in a very negative sense.

Bernard Haykel: Yes.

Ian Bremmer: How do you make sense of that from a global perspective?

Bernard Haykel: Look, I mean, he represents a phenomenon that we see in other countries as well, a very strong nationalist populism, a strong authoritarian streak. I mean, we see this in India. We see this in Turkey and other places, as you well know. In his case, I think what's happened is that he really had to consolidate his power and centralize his power. In order to do that, he's had to emasculate large numbers of the royal family, including the key individual that was America's favorite, that is his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, who is the darling of the CIA and British intelligence and every other Western intelligence agency.

Ian Bremmer: Then was under house arrests for years. Right?

Bernard Haykel: Yeah. I mean, he's had his wings clipped, putting it politely, and many others have as well. He's also had to completely and radically change the business as usual in the country, which involved a tremendous amount of corruption and stealing from their treasury, from elites, including members of the royal family. He's had to also emasculate the very reactionary forces in the country, the Islamists, the hardcore Islamists, who are the only ones who can mobilize large numbers of people in the streets against him. That consolidation effort was extremely brutal and messy at times. It involved, of course, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I think now all of that is pretty much in the past. He's very much in power and will become the king unless he's assassinated. He can rest a bit easier and be more open in his way, and operating a bit more according to norms of international politics.

Ian Bremmer: Biden claimed that he brought up the Khashoggi issue with MBS. MBS in return said that he talked about Abu Ghraib and other American human rights abuses, the Israeli slaying of a Palestinian journalist recently, that they denied officially. Is this relationship ever going to have meaningful discussion on human rights?

Bernard Haykel: The problem with the issue of human rights is whenever you raise it with the Saudis, they see it as an intervention in their domestic sovereign affairs. They'll always turn around and say, who are you to tell us? You invaded Iraq, you did this, you did that. You drone people in Afghanistan. I think it's best if you have those conversations. I think those conversations ought to be had, that they be had sotto voce, not in public. You will get much more out of the Saudis if you speak to them privately and insist that these are issues that matter. Then in fact, they're not only just good for America, they're also good for Saudi Arabia.

Ian Bremmer: By the way, you'll note I did not ask you about the fist bump because I do not care about the fist bump, so there'll be no questions.

Bernard Haykel: Irrelevant.

Ian Bremmer: Can we at least say that MBS is less likely to directly order the assassination of American journalists going forward?

Bernard Haykel: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I don't think that they will ever do anything like that again. Look, frankly, I'm going to say this, I think in some ways the Khashoggi murder, tragic as it was, in a way saved a lot of other journalists from being killed. I mean, the blow back from that event was so serious and I think demoralizing for the Saudi leadership that they will never do that thing, they'll never do that again. I mean, that doesn't mean that they won't try to extradite people and put people in prison and all that, they will, but this kind of rogue operation I think is in the past.

Ian Bremmer: I want to get to the upside, but first, when you say it's all in the past, I mean, just in recent months, we've seen mass executions, some of which involve people that were arrested when they were children. I mean, this doesn't feel like it's all in the past.

Bernard Haykel: Well, it's still a very repressive and authoritarian regime. The individuals in question that we're talking about, there are some 81 of them, half of them were Al-Qaeda and ISIS individuals. I mean, some of them fairly high ranking people. No one will shed a tear in the United States, or shouldn't shed a tear for those guys. The other half are Shiite dissidents. There I think, yes, you're right, there are some people who certainly did not deserve execution, but this is a repressive regime, and he's engaged in a massive overhaul of the country. Look, I was there just this weekend on a beach in Jeddah. There were Saudis in bikinis everywhere. I mean, the change is just unbelievable, impossible to have predicted.

That's just the tip of the iceberg of the kinds of changes that have happened. You see women everywhere working in the workforce. You see women who are uncovered, unveiled, in positions of power and influence. You see young people who are super excited about him. I think that he's basically banking on the bulk of the population that's under 30, that's young, and that thinks he's a rockstar because of the things he's doing. Anyone over 40 hates him because he's taking away the entitlements and changing the modus operandi of the country.

Ian Bremmer: Most of the country is indeed very young.

Bernard Haykel: That's right. I mean, I counted. The ones over 65 are like 3% of the population. He frankly doesn't care about them.

Ian Bremmer: Do you think that Saudi Arabia has cracked this problem in terms of the need to Saudiization? I mean, historically, it's really hard to get young Saudis and many young people in the Gulf to actually work. There's an enormous amount of entitlement, diversification of the Saudi economy. Even five years ago, I'd have leaders from Saudi Arabia tell me that diversification meant petrochemicals as opposed to just taking oil out of the ground. I mean, are they really, do you believe that he has passed the point of no return on that?

Bernard Haykel: I mean, he has no choice. He has to get away from oil because that's just, it's unsustainable relying on oil in the way the country has. Now, whether he has the human capital, he's able to change the culture of the country, that's not something that can be done overnight. That's going to take a generation, maybe two, so the jury's out on that. It's not unique. By the way, the problem is not unique to the Saudis. You see it in all rentier states across the world, in Latin America and everywhere. He really has a very, very hard task to overcome.

Ian Bremmer: It's not unique. It's not unique in Saudi Arabia, but in some ways it's most dramatic. It's a large population. It's a huge amount of oil wealth. It is very cheap to get out of the ground. I mean, so it's easier to sit on your laurels if you're a Saudi.

Bernard Haykel: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the test will be right now, because right now he's raking it in. The country's raking it in because of the price of oil. Typically, what happens in the past in Saudi political and economic history, is when times are good and oil is flowing, you kick the can down the road and you don't make the changes that need to be made. That involves taxation, that involves removing the subsidies and all kinds of other entitlements. Now, this is where we'll see. If he holds the line and doesn't succumb to the easy, throw money at people to keep them quiet, if he doesn't succumb to that, then he's serious.

Ian Bremmer: Now, let's go back to the Biden trip itself. You say that the Americans didn't get anything from the Saudis. It was hard to read specifics out of the meeting, the trip itself. I mean, the Saudis said that they were prepared to move towards their maximum capability of 13 million barrels a day within five years, but I didn't see any direct near term commitments that were being made by the kingdom.

Bernard Haykel: That's absolutely right. In fact, if they really were serious about making a commitment to Biden, they could go up to 11.8 million barrels from about 10.5, right now, million barrels a day. They're going to go up to 11 in August, which is already something that was baked into the OPEC plus agreement that they made with the Russians. They could go beyond that if they wanted to, and they're not going to because it requires a lot of investment, a lot of preparation, and it's unsustainable for more than maybe six months to go up to 11.8. They're not going to do that because that would mean rupturing the agreement with the Russians, and the agreement with the Russians has worked really well for the Saudis. You have to remember, that agreement was established to fight US Shale in 2016.

Ian Bremmer: Now, the one concrete decision that was made, it's small, but it's symbolically important, and there've been a number of them from around the region. Of course, Biden's plane came directly from Israel, and the Saudis have said that they're opening airspace to everyone that's licensed, meaning that the Israelis can now fly through Saudi airspace. That actually seems like a real policy shift.

Bernard Haykel: Well, I would describe it as crumbs, giving crumbs to Biden, because that was already baked into the Abraham Accords, into the agreements that they had made with the Trump administration. If you remember, Israeli airplanes could fly and were flying over Saudi Arabia to go to the UAE and to Bahrain and to India. Those are the three countries that they'd given permission to. They just now opened it up in return for an Israeli agreement, which again was also baked in earlier for the Tiran Island, which is that island that is between Saudi Arabia and Sinai Egypt. All of that had been agreed to before. I see it as cosmetic. I don't see it as substantive.

Ian Bremmer: Of course, it does not include the Israelis and the Saudis having an agreement to open diplomatic relations formally. The Saudis have been saying privately they weren't ready to do that. Why aren't they ready to do that? There's so much engagement happening between the two countries.

Bernard Haykel: I think there's a sense that the Saudi public, and you have to remember, although it's an absolute monarchy, it has a finger on the pulse of its own public. It is a tribal political structure, and they feel that their public is not ready for that yet. I think they will not do it until something is given to the Palestinians, something that is respectable, which is based on a Saudi proposal called the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Look, the Saudi Israeli relationship is going to get warmer and warmer as the Iranians increasingly decide that both these countries and the regimes of both these countries need to be toppled. Iran has been the single most important factor in bringing these countries together, and that's not changing.

Ian Bremmer: What do you think the implications are for the Saudis if and when the Americans and Iranians make it clear that they cannot come back to the nuclear deal?

Bernard Haykel: I don't think the Saudis or the Israelis for that matter are very keen on the JCPOA, on the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, because they feel that there aren't substantial teeth. There isn't enough there. In fact, with the withdrawal of the sanctions, the Iranians will get lots of money and then they'll spread more mayhem through proxies in the region. I think what happens even when the JCPOA is not signed and it's deemed a dead deal, they'll keep a very close eye on the Iranians. If the Iranians develop a nuclear weapon, they'll want the Americans to attack them or the Israelis to attack them. I mean, I think both Israel and Saudi Arabia, frankly, would like America to do the heavy lifting when it comes to Iran, because they on their own and even together would not really be able to stop Iran's nuclear program, nor are they able to stop the rockets and drones that the Iranians have perfected.

Ian Bremmer: Now, part of that, when you talk about Iranian drones, I immediately think about Yemen. Of course, there've been attacks on Saudi Arabia directly from the Houthis supported by Iran in Yemen. There is a ceasefire that's been mostly holding right now. There are talks about extending it for six months. Do you think the Saudis are going to be constructive on that issue going forward?

Bernard Haykel: Yeah, absolutely. I think the Saudis want to see Yemen more ended. The way they've structured this agreement, the ceasefire, is they've also helped replace the government in Yemen. They've created a new presidential council. Without getting into the details, basically the Saudis want to see the war in Yemen over. They're willing to accept the Houthis in power in some sort of arrangement or with other forces in the country. The real threat, I mean, the Houthis are certainly a threat to the Saudis with their missiles and drones. But the single most important event in recent Saudi history happened in September 2019 when the Iranians directly attacked the largest Saudi oil installation in Abqaiq. The Iranian targeting of that installation was so precise and so deliberate, and clearly not intended to do maximal damage.

Ian Bremmer: It didn't do much damage at all. They had it back on shorter.

Bernard Haykel: Yeah, that's right, and that was intentional. The Iranians sent a message that they could basically stop the Saudi oil production anytime they want, and that really put the fear of God in them.

Ian Bremmer: One thing I guess you could argue that even though there weren't many concrete accomplishments from the meeting, that the Saudis are moving in a direction broadly that is more aligned with US national interests, both in the region and more broadly in terms of the countries that they engage with. I mean, to the extent that's the case, you would expect that there would be a warming of relations between the two countries?

Bernard Haykel: Yeah, I mean, I think the Saudis are a status quo power. They're not a revolutionary power like Iran is. They're very keen on stability in the region, and this has very concrete implications. Right now, for instance, as you know, the price of wheat and barley and so on has gone through the roof because of the war in Ukraine. What the Saudis are willing and able to do alongside the other GCC countries is to give money, lots of money, to the Egyptians and to the Jordanians and to the Sudanese and other countries that need money to buy food stuffs to feed their own people, including Yemen, by the way. The single largest threat to stability in the region are bread riots across the region. This is where the Saudis can play a hugely important role in subsidizing the food because bread is subsidized in these countries.

I think the Saudis are on the same page with the Americans here, and this meeting basically puts a lot of the virtue signaling that was going on before over values and human rights, it basically puts an end to it and says, look, we have core strategic interests in this region. This country is really important for the United States. We have to go back to business as usual.

Ian Bremmer: Bernard Haykel, thanks so much for joining us.

Bernard Haykel: It's a real pleasure. Thank you.

Ian Bremmer: That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast. Like what you heard? Come check us out at and sign up for our newsletter, Signal.

Announcer: The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, places clients' needs first by providing responsive, relevant, and customized solutions. Visit to learn more. In a world upended by disruptive international events, how can we rebuild? On season two of Global Reboot, a foreign policy podcast in partnership with the Doha Forum, FP editor-in-chief, Ravi Agrawal engages with world leaders and policy experts to look at old problems in new ways and identify solutions to our world's greatest challenges. Listen to season two of Global Reboot wherever you get your podcasts.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform, to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

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