Speakers discuss the FRONTLINE documentary “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia” as well as U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations. This film captures the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his policies over the past two years, including his handling of dissent, vision for Saudi Arabia’s future, and ties to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Watch the full documentary here: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/the-crown-prince-of-saudi-arabia/
ROBBINS: You ready? Great.
Wow, what a movie! That was great.
SMITH: It’s long. Long.
ROBBINS: A film. It’s a film.
So thank you all. We’re going to have a brief chat among ourselves and then turn it over to you all for questions because I’m sure you all have questions.
Just a reminder: This is an on-the-record conversation and so speak as freely as you want.
So Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, and an expert on Arab and Turkish politics, as well as U.S. Middle East policy. He’s also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine with an absolutely lovely writing voice, so if you’re not reading him, you should be. He’s a frequent contributor to other publications, and you can also find his work at CFR.org—and the author of several award-winning books, and I think you probably have a list of them with you right there at the table.
And Martin—or Marty—Smith has been producing documentaries for PBS FRONTLINE for three decades. Damn, you’re old. (Laughter.)
ROBBINS: I’ve been doing this as a journalist for three decades, too, so I think he and I have overlapped in many places over the years: covering revolution in Central America, the fall of communism, the Soviet Union, the Iraq Wars, the rise of al-Qaida and ISIS, and Assad’s Syria. And among his many awards are two duPont-Columbia Gold Batons, eight Emmys, three George Polk Awards for Investigative Journalism, which is pretty extraordinary.
So, to start with Marty. It really is a hell of a bit of journalism there that you’ve done, and so I’ve done some reporting in Saudi Arabia—always said I was the three things you really want to be in Saudi Arabia: a woman, a reporter, and a Jew. (Laughter.) But I would say it is one of the most opaque and frustrating places to work that I have ever worked in.
So how did you get inside that place, and more to the point, how did you get inside the crown prince’s box?
SMITH: Yeah, well. Yeah, it is an extraordinarily opaque place, and difficult to even photograph and have it be distinctive. Thank god for that Kingdom Tower building with the hole in it that signifies the city.
How did I get into the royal box? You know, I had gotten a letter. I’d been invited to this event. The crown prince is trying to put on these big sporting events. He now has women wrestlers—WWE—going very soon now. I just saw that on Twitter this afternoon. And so he’s putting together these large concerts with bands, rap artists, rock bands, and he—I got this letter saying I was invited to this Formula E race, and there would be all this other stuff there.
I got in touch with the royal court and said, well, will I be able to get into the royal box, and they wouldn’t really answer that; it was very vague. So we were there filming down on the tarmac with the race cars and what not. And I decided to wander away from the crew and see if I could find my way to the royal box. I knew where it was, and it was in this large structure next to the racetrack. And the guards stopped me, of course, and then I sat there and I watched the guards, and I realized that at a certain moment they were kind of like distracted and so I went by that level of security. (Laughter.) It helped that I snuck into a lot of Dodger games growing up in Los Angeles—(laughter)—and I was applying some of the same techniques.
Anyway, so I get past that, and I’m fully expecting somebody to put their hand on my shoulder and take me back, and that didn’t happen. And I walked about a hundred yards, and I got to this structure, and at the moment I got there, there were all these caterers coming up the stairs, and I just fell in behind them and tried to look like a catering supervisor. And, you know, the guards were there. It was rather extraordinary—I was surprised myself—and I walked in, and then I walked up the stairs, and got to a room, and found the crown prince.
ROBBINS: But there is a bigger question there, and it is really extraordinary, and as you said, the Ocean’s Eleven scene at the beginning there with all the rogues—there is a bigger question there. Why do you think that MBS wanted to talk to you? Why do you think Adel al-Jubeir wanted to talk to you? Why did all of these people want to talk to you?
SMITH: I just think it was the fact that I had been there for a long time, and I had produced a number of films over the years. We didn’t, you know, pull punches in previous films, but the films were not as, you know—weren’t like this. I mean, we had done—the previous film was on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and they were happy to see us punching Iran as much as we punched at them. We had done films on ISIS and their role in the war in Syria, and other things. But I think that they had just gotten the idea that somehow it would be OK. And it was a miscalculation, I think, on their part.
ROBBINS: And you—
SMITH: I really can’t—I can’t explain it. I had gotten to know members of the Saudi elite over many years: Adel al-Jubeir, been to his home. You know, I had connections.
But finally, by the end of the trip, we got a long briefing, and I was still pressing for a sit-down with the crown prince, and they said, the word on you, Martin, is that you are too aggressive. And that was kind of the end of it on my last trip in April of ’19. So I can’t explain; you have to ask them.
ROBBINS: (Laughs.) Which I’m sure they’ll respond to me, so—
SMITH: Well, we could text them right now.
ROBBINS: Right, well, let’s—(laughter)—let’s do it. (Laughs.)
ROBBINS: After your own road trip across Saudi Arabia in late 2017, you wrote a piece titled, “Saudis are Hoping Mohammed bin Salman will Drain the Swamp.” And you described at the time considerable enthusiasm for MBS as someone who would take on the corrupt elite.
The rest of the world has soured considerably on MBS, and as we saw in Marty’s documentary, certainly an awareness among certain Saudis of exactly how repressive this place has become, and more repressive than it ever was. And I never heard anyone use the term “police state” before to describe what is going on in Saudi Arabia.
Do you think that there is still a significant core of people who see him as doing what they want done in Saudi Arabia?
COOK: It’s a great question, Carla, and before I answer it, I want to thank Marty for, first of all, the film, and for including me in it. It really is extraordinary. I was thrilled to be asked to sit in a hotel room and ask questions—answer questions, and then I was thrilled to actually see the final product because it really is rather extraordinary and perfect for this moment.
What Carla is referring to is in 2017 I went on a rather extraordinary boondoggle in Saudi Arabia, actually, at the behest of The New York Times. I was asked to be an expert resource for a group of people, and we traveled from Jeddah to Al-‘Ula, which is an extraordinary town in the northwest; to Ha’il, the capital of the Rashid dynasty, which were the rivals of the al-Saud; then to Riyadh, and then to the three cities on the east coast—Dammam, Dhahran, and Khobar.
And what I relate in this article is that I didn’t speak to any Saudi elites, or westerners, or journalists while I was there; I just spoke to the drivers and the people in the hotels because this was rather extraordinary. This was, you know, the ascendancy of Mohammed bin Salman, and I knew what elites thought of Mohammed bin Salman. But we really had no idea what average Saudis believed. And since there is no polling in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t feel, you know, too bad about doing my kind of taxi-driver research. But I was pretty aggressive about it; you know, grabbing the cooks in the hotel when they were standing around doing nothing—hey, what do you think of everything? And there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm.
I was there during the whole incident at the Ritz. In fact, I was on my way to Riyadh when that was all going down, and I worried that they were going to arrest more people, and I was going to get kicked out of the Intercontinental—(laughter)—because they needed more rooms to use as jail cells.
And the people that I encountered along the way—and I asked them about this—said, these guys must have done something wrong, and therefore, it is appropriate for Mohammed bin Salman and the new order in Saudi Arabia to be punishing them for their misdeeds. That was, I think, a sentiment that I heard from everybody that I spoke to, and there was a lot of anger at the kind of official corruption that had gone on. Where did the billions of dollars that went towards revamping the education system go? It went to line the pockets of people.
And I think there was a tremendous amount—and so this was extraordinary enthusiasm for what he was doing. This was coming on the heels of reining in the religious police. They hated religious police who—their independent agency was closed down and was folded into the Ministry of Interior. And if you know anything about Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Interior is the biggest ministry in the entire country. So they now had to fight for their resources. They had to ask women nicely to wear hijab, and women didn’t have to say yes. This was—all of these things—the concerts, the WWE—were very, very popular with people. There was an expectation of social reform, and one of the things that is seared into my mind is that a young man said to me, people have it wrong; if there isn’t reform here, there is going to be an uprising. There has to be reform here. And this is the way he has to do it. He has to break these vested interests.
And of course, that was late 2017, and a number of events have happened since, including arresting his natural constituency because Mohammed bin Salman may be a reformer, but he’s not a political reformer. He’s an economic reformer, he’s a social reformer, but whatever change comes has to come from him. So people demanding changes from below, people making claims on the Saudi state are haram, as they say—must be dealt with in the severest terms.
Now I haven’t been back. I plan to go back, but through my contacts with many Saudis and younger Saudis—his constituency, people in their thirties and forties; those are the people that I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to—he remains very, very popular.
People like the fact that you can be in a mall in Jeddah and a New Orleans jazz band will come marching past you. They are living a life that—Saudi Arabia is not a closed society. It’s not like North Korea where they don’t know what’s going on in the world. They’ve been educated at Harvard and Berkeley. They know how they want to live, and they want those things. And Mohammed bin Salman is their vehicle to get it. He has done some quite obviously terrible things, but I think Saudis who support him don’t quite yet realize or understand why people in the West have been so horrified by what has gone on in Saudi Arabia.
One of the points that they make—and this is the last point—is that these activists who have been arrested, they—from the perspective of people who support Mohammed bin Salman, they say, they have a bigger following in Washington, D.C., than they do in Riyadh; that Mohammed bin Salman’s support—broad social support far outweighs any of these people who have been—who have been put away. Even if they believe that they haven’t, you know, done anything wrong and they shouldn’t have been arrested, they recognize that, for them, for the way in which they want to live, Mohammed bin Salman is their best hope.
ROBBINS: So Marty, when we were watching this—and there were these—a video of President Trump visiting, and sort of extraordinary moments with the sword dance, and the bling, and all that—you know, things that we’ve all seen, you know, twenty times before, but we still giggle every time we see it—what’s the Saudi perception of the United States? And do they feel as if they’ve played us really well? Or do they just feel relieved that they seem to have this unconditional support no matter how poorly things go?
It’s such a great image and spectacle. They totally got what they—the projection of Trump’s, you know, seven stories high on it. They seem to totally get how to do it.
SMITH: Look, anything was better than Obama as they saw it, and so Trump comes in, and Trump is willing to have their back vis-à-vis Iran. He is going to continue their support for the war in Yemen. He is someone who is willing to—I mean, we’re talking about the Saudi elite, and I want to address the point you were making because the Saudi elite does feel that either they played him well, or he’s one of them. And they are comfortable with him, his values, his projections. So he’s a good deal all around for the Saudi elite.
I think the problem I have with—I mean, you went around and you talked to people, and cab drivers, and cooks, and all of that. I think it’s increasingly hard to know what their true opinions are, as they have caught wind of repression.
Certainly they are happy about social reforms, and I think what we have done in the West is we have confused social reforms with reform more broadly which, to us, means political rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, due process—these kinds of things. I think Saudis—certainly Saudis outside the country know that they don’t have those rights, and I think there has to be an increasing awareness within Saudi Arabia that there are certain lines that they can’t cross. And they’re not going to talk to you about it.
When I would go out into the Duriyah (ph) Mall, a brand new, kind of very impressive mall outside of Riyadh and talk to people, and you’d, say, take ten people—ten young people and maybe six of them would agree to talk to you; four would say, forget it, I’m not going to take that risk. And then those are the six that are going to answer questions about how wonderful the crown prince is. Then if you ask them about Jamal Khashoggi, they say, well, that’s politics; I’m not going to get into that—you know, don’t go there—and things shut down immediately.
So there isn’t—it is very hard to do the kind of vox pop, man-on-the-street interviews and have a sense that you know how they feel about us, and the West, and everything else. It is a place where they are aware—they have been to Berkeley, they’ve been out of the country. At the same time, there’s no free press. So they are inundated with a kind of—you know, good news about the crown prince. As long as you want movie theaters, amusement parks; as long as you want—and these are good things; I’m not against them—but if that’s your aspiration, and you’re not a writer, you’re not even a poet or somebody who wants to have some free speech—as long as that’s not what you want, you’re fine, and you like what you’re seeing.
ROBBINS: And yeah, I think—for those of you who haven’t been to Saudi Arabia—and certainly Saudi Arabia before—you have to understand the level of sensory deprivation that existed before this. I mean, there were no movie theaters.
I remember once when I was there during the Gulf War, and it suddenly got cold—I got there in August—and I went shopping in a Benetton, and discovered to my shock that there were no dressing rooms in shopping malls because that would have been too—you know, too shocking. And I made the mistake of holding a sweater up to myself to see if it would fit, and had the religious police coming, like something out of Monty Python, to wisk my—you know, to wisk my—because that was—I mean, that was the level of the—
COOK: I was a fan of the—
ROBBINS: —the level of the social repression.
COOK: I was a fan of the Great Mosque channel, the Mecca channel where it’s—
COOK: —just people going around the Kaaba twenty-four hours a day.
ROBBINS: And so—
SMITH: It’s their equivalent of the yule log.
COOK: Right, right.
ROBBINS: So you can—I mean, you can see why, you know, young people might find this a relief. On the other hand, what you talked about Twitter and that there was this space, there was a civic space for conversation that exists. And I think Deb Amos said it in the documentary; that this was—they called it the congress—that this was a space for some sort of (polis/poll list ?) existed there, and now this has become a police state on Twitter, what—Steven, you’re—
COOK: Yeah, I think—I just want to—two points that Marty raised that I think are important to draw out. First, I do think that there was a tremendous amount of relief when President Trump was elected, and I think that the Saudis immediately understood this president; not just the bling. I remember when he was leaving for Saudi Arabia on that trip, I had lunch with a Saudi friend, and I said, so, you know, like what are you guys going to do? And like, there’s not much for us to do. We agree on everything. The president likes bling, and we’re going to give him bling.
I mean, you know, he walked into the royal court, and he said, oh, we have those chairs at home. (Laughter.) So, you know, it wasn’t—it wasn’t that hard for them.
In a more serious way, though, the way in which it seems—and I think the Saudis were keen on this—the way in which the president does business is very similar to the way in which the Saudi royal family does business: in an informal way, without a real process. When you talk to Saudis now—Saudis in the government—they say they’re just building the institutions to have a process.
So the way in which the president works—on his personal cell phone, his son-in-law working off of WhatsApp with Mohammed bin Salman—this is the way in which Gulf ruling families do business, and this is the way in which the president did business, so there was—it was a very nice match for them.
Now just on this question of the popularity of Mohammed bin Salman, of course we really can’t know, and I’m talking about two weeks of traveling around the country in November of 2017, before the real kind of serious crackdown happened. And of course the elites are going to be very, very wary of Mohammed bin Salman because what he’s trying to do, of course, is change the way in which business essentially is done in the kingdom. And so that, in and of itself, is destabilizing, it’s breaking vested interests, and the way he has tried to do this is to accumulate as much power as possible. He’s not trying to rule like his uncles have ruled; he’s trying to rule like his grandfather by accumulating as much power to break all of these vested interests, and essentially, as a one-man, top-down reformer, remake Saudi society.
We know—we know that that very often doesn’t work, and it also is a destabilizing thing. And that’s why the amusement parks, the movies, the WWE, the concerts, because most people aren’t writers. Most people aren’t actually on Twitter. And it is a reservoir of support that he will enjoy as he plows through and destroys the vested interests who oppose the kinds of things that he wants to do.
ROBBINS: Well, bread and circuses.
SMITH: Yes. (Laughs.)
ROBBINS: So I want to turn to the members and our guests here. We have twenty-five minutes. If you can raise your hand, wait for a microphone, and questions, please, rather than speeches. And keep them short because we have a lot of people, which is a testimony to how great this conversation is.
So we have—in the back right there.
Q: Thank you. Wonderful film. My name is Jamaal Glen, Alumni Ventures Group.
So in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, I was having this debate with some friends of mine, and this was sort of—we more or less knew what was happening, but the full scope of events hadn’t come out. And I was making the point that was—that comes up in the film; that this must have been an interrogation or rendition gone bad because it felt, at the time, inconceivable that MBS, someone who had made such a series of seemingly effective PR moves, could fail to predict the sort of blunder that was the murder.
And so how do we reconcile this guy who had seemingly been so right, who could really read the global room, with sort of such an utterly, you know—you know, an inability to understand the way the world would react to the murder?
SMITH: I’ll take that first.
COOK: Well, you text with him, so you know that—
SMITH: (Laughs.) I think it’s an excellent question, and I think we don’t know the answer. And this is why Agnès Callamard at the—who is the special rapporteur for the U.N., wants a further investigation, wants more access.
The problem I have with the idea that this is a rendition gone wrong is exactly what she heard on the tape that’s at the end of the film where she hears them rehearsing—you know, if we cut him into pieces, will his trunk fit in the bag? I mean, so that—it’s hard to square this is just a rendition gone wrong with the fact that they brought along a forensic surgeon and were rehearsing, in the hour before the murder, what they were going to do, how they were going to cut up and dispose of the body. So, you know, if anything, the film would call for more investigation.
I’m frankly more concerned about the people that are held in prison still. Jamal Khashoggi is gone, and I think we can assume that, you know, it was the royal court that—in some way, shape or form—ordered this murder, and it’s a horrendous thing. But ongoing are these people being held, like Loujain Alhathloul and others, and that’s where the United States has some leverage, although I don’t think under this administration we’re likely to see them using it.
But it’s an excellent question, and I don’t think we know.
Right there, thank you.
Q: Hi. I’m Matt Nosanchuk, Quadrant Strategies.
So I’m sort of interested in the space between sort of the social reform and the political reform. I mean, you were talking about—and first, the film is excellent, by the way. I really enjoyed it.
SMITH: Thank you.
Q: But the—I didn’t enjoy it; it was sobering.
But, you know, you recount as they were about to afford women the opportunity to drive that they cracked down and arrested all of these women. You know, you’ve talked about social reform—movie theaters, amusement parks and the like—but what about, you know, other types of individual reforms? I mean, there’s, you know—with respect to religious expression, with respect to other forms of individual expression, LGBT populations—I mean, is that all in the category of political reforms that are just not happening, or is there some greater opening that’s occurring—you know, that’s somewhat more substantial than, you know, movie theaters and amusement parks?
SMITH: Yeah, I would say that LBGT would be considered political reform of a kind, but Steven, do you have an answer to that question—because we didn’t look specifically at all the reforms that may or may not be tolerated.
COOK: The reforms that Mohammed bin Salman has pursued really remain within the realm of social reforms and really remain within the realm of the kind of broadly popular reforms like being able to go to the movies, and concerts, and women driving. I don’t think we should give the Saudis credit for being the last country on earth to allow women to drive—(laughter)—but it is—it is actually transformative for Saudi families to be able to—imagine, you know, a family of three almost adult-age young women, and a mom, and they’re not fabulously wealthy. They can’t afford a driver for each one, and it’s one of the ironies of Saudi—it’s this extremely wealthy but also poor place that women being able to drive—they can go to college, take themselves to college without this—or work without these enormous logistical challenges. And that, in and of itself, is likely to have benefits in terms of social change as well as economic change. At least that’s the hope.
But in terms of actual political reform, people making their voices heard, expressing grievances, making claims on the state, pointing out where the royal family has done the wrong thing, where the person of the crown prince—it’s impossible. Look, Jamal Khashoggi was doing it from six thousand miles away in Northern Virginia, and they killed him for it. It’s absurd. He posed no threat whatsoever to the royal family or the crown prince. So the idea that there is political reform is—like Martin said, we’re confusing social reform with actual political reform.
He is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. He is not Mahatma Gandhi. He is not interested in a constitutional monarchy. He is interested in the reform that he—what he believes to be—in his own enlightened way, which we know isn’t necessarily enlightened—that he will grant to the people of Saudi Arabia. And like I said, it’s all for the purposes of providing this kind of reservoir of support for people who want to live a different lifestyle so that when he has to take on the vested interests within the royal family, he has public support.
ROBBINS: I’m looking for a woman with a hand up, please. Yay! Here we go in the back.
Q: My name is Christina Santucci. I am a(n) international affairs graduate student at Baruch College.
And I wanted to ask what does Khashoggi’s murder mean for press freedom? And do you think the lack of consequences for his death will embolden other leaders to stifle reporters?
SMITH: I mean, I think we’re seeing that around the world; I mean, in Turkey, for instance, of all places. But certainly it’s—I mean, when you are doing a film like this, and you’re a—you’ve worked your whole life as a journalist for an investigative series, and it’s about the murder of somebody who spoke out and was killed for it from—you know, who lived six thousand miles away, you get up a little earlier every day.
It means a lot. I mean, the symbolism here—I mean, it’s real; it’s not symbolism—but I mean the fact that they killed a journalist for simply speaking out, posing no threat whatsoever to the regime, just some PR tarnish, is outrageous.
You know, I—and we’re letting it pass by. Right now in Riyadh is a(n) economic conference—Davos in the Desert they call it colloquially—and it’s—you know, it’s moving to reestablish the crown prince and his attraction of foreign investment, and it’s going apace. And next year the G-20 meeting will be in Riyadh.
COOK: Just very quickly on this, I remember right at—the week after Khashoggi disappeared and was presumed to be dead, I’d written a piece in which I said, you know, it’s likely that the Saudis are going to get away with it, and these are the implications. And the third implication was if you are a journalist, you should be concerned about your safety because it’s clearly open season on journalists.
Marty raised Turkey, the leading jailer of journalists in the world, but it’s not just Turkey, and it’s not just Saudi Arabia—Egypt. It’s not just the Middle East. There has been this targeting of peoples whose jobs are to report and analyze the news. And the fact that Mohammed bin Salman is going to get away with it, and the Trump administration, which, quite frankly, doesn’t have a great record on this, either, means that journalists are at risk wherever they are in the world.
ROBBINS: And, you know, when you have the president of the United States calling journalists enemy of the people, and constantly using an authoritarian’s term, which is “fake news,” there no counterbalancing out there. And, you know, if you go on the Poynter website and you look at—they have a map right now. This discussion of fake news has led to a justification for censorship—much stronger censorship laws in many countries around the world. And it’s becoming easier and easier to justify censorship under the guise of fighting fake news. So it’s a pretty frightening time to be a journalist out there. So—and, yes, this is one when we don’t have the United States pushing back in the way that it has in the past.
Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti.
I wonder if you all could give us a sense of what the internal reaction is inside Saudi Arabia to what is clearly a shrinking circle of countries over which the Saudi regime has influence or that it can count as friends. I mean, now it seems basically reduced even within the Arab world just to UAE and Bahrain, which it half occupies. And then looking a little bit further into the future, the fact that it has had to now create something of a police state may well be seen as sign of the brittleness of the regime. You’ve had lots of Arab monarchies that seem to be stable until one day the military took power. To what extent is there dissatisfaction with the regime that if not a single well-aimed bullet, but rather a more coordinated effort to change the system from below possible in the next decade, two decades? They’ve avoided it till now, but now they face something of an economic pinch in shrinking oil revenues.
SMITH: An assassination has happened in the past, although it came from the—you know, the religious right. but I don’t know. Go ahead.
COOK: Well, you raise two important points. One is Saudi’s relations with the rest of the region and what are the prospects for organic internal change. On the first one, I think, you know, Saudi Arabia has always believed that it was deeply influential because the king is the custodian of the two holy mosques. And certainly there is that. But Saudis were never really popular around the region. You know, you’re quite right, it’s Saudis, the Emiratis, the Egyptians, and the Bahrainis. And even there’s tension then amongst them. And I should add to that coalition the Israelis.
But you know, there’s deep resentment among Egyptians towards Saudis, and vice versa. And it wasn’t long ago that the Emiratis and the Saudis were at odds over writings. They may be at odds again over a number—a number of issues. So but this is the first time we are seeing this where the Saudis are really stepping out and trying to pursue an independent foreign policy. That is, in part, a function of the fact that they believe—and I don’t think that they’re totally wrong—that the United States, while maybe in the Middle East in large numbers of people, is not genuinely or generally interested in driving events and being a player. Much of the debate in my world is how are we going to leave, and are we going to leave in an orderly way?
On the issue of political reform, or organic change, or people power, I’m scarred by the Arab uprisings. And if you’ll permit me, just very quickly, on December 13 I participated in a meeting with a group of people like myself, traditional academics, and people from a variety of U.S. intelligence agencies for a day-long seminar on what were going to be the dominant political trends in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. And at the end of a very, very interesting day of rich discussion, the conclusion was—with, you know, people differing on things—that the dominant trend of—in the Middle East was going to be political stability. This is December 13, 2010—just a few days before the Tunisian uprising.
And my point is not that the people around the table, including myself, were dolts. But that revolutions, people power, these things are inherently unpredictable. So we don’t know what will happen in Saudi Arabia. There’s no real precedent for this. There have been uprisings in the predominantly Shia Eastern Province, which gets no press play but that, you know, the Saudi military and security forces are there in a large way. But the very unpredictability of these things does not necessarily get in the way of our ability to see what the problems are. You’re talking about an economic crunch. We’re talking about increased repression. We’re talking about Saudi’s bad relations.
I suspect that Mohammed bin Salman will not be getting the free ride that he gets if there’s a change in administrations here. So there’s a number of factors that are coming that can accentuate the problems and contradictions of Mohammed bin Salman’s young rule so far. But even then, it’s unclear. Look at Nicolas Maduro, right? Wasn’t he supposed to fall, like, two years ago? He’s still hanging on.
ROBBINS: Well, I mean—
SMITH: When I talked to Mohammed bin Salman I asked him—you know, I was talking to him about doing an interview. And he—and this was in person. And he said, well, I can’t do that because I have to produce results. I have to have something that people have been asking for delivered before I can go forward, because I will—there will be a reaction. And I kind of poo-pooed the whole idea. I mean, I have tried—I have been in Saudi Arabia and once got notice that there was going to be a demonstration of people protesting something in Riyadh. I don’t remember what it was. And so we went to the location. Within a second of these people getting out of their car, they were arrested. And us, standing on the side, had our cameras taken and we spent the next two days trying to get our cameras back. There isn’t, except in the Eastern Province, and in fairly small numbers, been demonstrations against the regime. They have a tight control over things.
ROBBINS: See, I’ve always felt with the Saudis—to continue on with this—I’ve always felt with the Saudis that they are, you know, Aristotle said that dictators are short of breath. I’ve always felt that the Saudis are short of breath. That they’re very—they’re frightened. They’re frightened of their own people. You know, they very famously—again, you’ve made documentaries on this—they bought of—bought off al-Qaida because they were terrified that al-Qaida would focus at home. They been enabling terrorists all over the world to make sure that they weren’t focused within Saudi Arabia itself.
MBS, I assume, is motivated by fear, that this really is—his impulse toward reform is not because he’s a great reformer. It’s because he’s fundamentally afraid that he’s going to be the last ruler from the house of Saud. So what is it that they’re—they seem to be quite effective at authoritarianism. Is it a fear of an uprising? Is it a fear of a financial collapse?
SMITH: I think because they don’t quite know their population, they’re fearful. And that’s the sense I got from talking to him, that he didn’t know really what people felt. Now, he’s getting—I mean, you saw him doing selfies on the street. He does go out. He does mingle. More than any other Saudi leader, he’s out there sort of trying to take the temperature of things. But I think the house of Saud is fragile. And they feel it. And he’s not an exception to that. And he sees that if they don’t diversify the economy, they don’t find employment for young people—which is most of their population—they’re doomed. And so he’s moving in directions that he thinks will accomplish that.
COOK: Yeah, just two quick points, I think. First, the image of that ministry of interior, which you guys shot quickly from a car, this kind of upside-down UFO-looking thing. As I said before, it’s the biggest ministry in the government. And that says something about the fear of the royal family. If you have to rely on coercion and fear, that means the message that you’re sending is not eliciting the loyalty of the people. And I think Mohammed bin Salman I think was insightful enough to know that they had to have a different message and a different vision to try to elicit loyalty. And I think to some extent that’s worked, because people are enjoying the new kind of relatively more open life.
But at the same time, I do think that there’s a profound fear, because they don’t know their people. And they don’t know their country. You know, on this road trip that I took two years ago, this was the first time in a—I’d say, I guess, I’m working on close to a dozen trips to Saudi Arabia at this point. It was the first time I didn’t fly from place to place. I drove. And I got the sense of very, very different places. But not different places, like Alabama and New York. Like the Hejaz feels like a really different country than the Najd, which feels really, really different from the Eastern Province. And being on the ground, it wasn’t just the physical nature of these places it was the people, and who they are, and their outlooks on the world. And there was a sense that now I sort of understood that from the center of the Najd the Al Saud had to do things to try to knit this country together.
And the thing that—the two things that they had were riyals, there was a lot of riyal-politik—(laughter)—spreading the money around—and the other thing is coercion. Mohammed bin Salman is trying to add a vision to it, but again we don’t really know what’s happening in this society. My sense is, among those people who aren’t writers, they’re not journalists, whatever, they’re digging WWE. But, look, the Egyptian uprising, the uprising in Tunisia, these were not society-wide affairs. These were elite games. And the elites have power to mobilize people.
SMITH: To be fair, a lot of this WWE, Formula E car races, rock concerts, are happening in Riyadh and Jeddah, and probably not—if you replicate—you know, if you replicate your journey across the country you’re not going to see that. You’re going to find a lot of mosques still listening to some rather hardline clerics. So it’s—you know. And I haven’t talked to any economist who studies Saudi Arabia who think that by 2030 you’re going to see a huge change in the economy of this country. And that’s when he’s going to really have to face the music and backpedal.
COOK: More concerts.
SMITH: Bread and circus.
ROBBINS: Gentleman in the red sweater, right here. Yeah.
Q: Thank you. Albert Knapp NYU School of Medicine.
First, we really enjoyed your film. The question is a segue in regards to the war. Did the drone attack on the Saudi oil refineries—is that a strategic game changer? And how is it reported in the kingdom?
ROBBINS: So, Steven, you wrote something. And you said that—you said that if the United States is done fighting for Saudi Arabia’s oil, it’s done fighting for the entire region.
COOK: Is that a direct quote? Because I would change it now.
ROBBINS: Well, it’s a direct quote. (Laughs.)
COOK: OK. (Laughter.) Well, my point was, in the piece, before people jump on me, was that there was a set of interests that had driven American foreign policy in the Middle East. And that was the free flow of oil. And that at least since the Carter doctrine, but going back even further, that the free flow of energy resources, an attack on that was allegedly going to be a robust American response, a military response. And it struck me that if that’s not what we’re doing there, then we are over-invested in the Middle East. That this is no longer a core interest of the United States. And we don’t have to be there in the numbers that we’re there, because—you know, how do you determine what a country’s interest is? It’s not just people like me saying: Our interests are. It’s the things that have been willing to invest in, to sacrifice for, and to defend.
And it seems to me there’s other places in the world where we can be more productive, or here at home, that this kind of twenty-five-, thirty-year overinvestment in the Middle East is unnecessary ff this is the one thing that we’re really supposed to be in the Persian Gulf for, and there’s an attack on the two most important crude processing facilities practically in the world, and we shrug it off. Now, maybe we shrugged it off because there’s an oil glut at the moment. And no one felt it at the pump. And maybe nine months from now we will. But again, it strikes me that our interests are changing. And that—it really wasn’t we should defend Saudi Arabia. It’s we should think about really what’s important to the United States in the region.
Now, how is it being received in Saudi Arabia? How is it publicly being received and how is it being received? I think the Saudis are being very polite. And they’re saying: We want to deescalate. We want to work with the United States and a broad international coalition. We welcome the deployment of American forces to help defend the Kingdom. I think privately, they were quite outraged because they had believed that all kinds of things could happen, but that when the Iranians actually attacked Saudi oil facilities the United States would respond.
And this is just another episode, going back to 2011 when after a few days of protests the United States said it’s time for Hosni Mubarak to move on after him carrying water for the United States in the Middle East for thirty years, onto the JCPOA, the way in which we dealt with Yemen, the way in which we didn’t deal with Syria. All of these things are data points for the Saudis, who have long been paranoid—going back more than a decade—that the United States wanted to replace them with the Iranians as the primary interlocutor in the Gulf.
So here is the danger. Here is the danger. The Saudis and the Emiratis and others, when they believe they’re on their own and there’s no American leadership, they take matters into their own hands. So what happened? President Obama was—and I’m not blaming President Obama. I thought the JCPOA was an appropriate thing to do. But President Obama was negotiating the JCPOA with the Iranians. The Saudis rewrote their defense doctrine. And where did they try out their defense doctrine? In Yemen. In Yemen. Now, from their perspective they had good reason to go into Yemen. And in a kind of vacuum they don’t. But everything that you knew was going to happen in Yemen as a result of it was going to happen.
And now we have the Saudis, and this horrific humanitarian disaster going on in Yemen. So it really is a—it is up—this is the core of the debate going forward: What is important to us? Do we shift our foreign policy in a way in which we put much more emphasis on the human rights issues? Do we—is the hydrocarbon world still important to us? How do we relate to these countries? These relationships were relationships that were built in the post-World War II era. Are they still relevant? Are they still relevant? That was the point in what I was saying. It wasn’t like, oh, we have to—you know, I got a lot of guff from my friends and my not-so-nice people on Twitter about, oh, you just want to protect Mohammed bin Salman. I was raising a broader issue about what it is that should be important to the United States. And if protecting the Strait of Hormuz isn’t, then there’s plenty of other that we could be doing around the world.
ROBBINS: So we’re almost done. Marty, I wanted to give you the last word here, which is you’ve been going to Saudi Arabia for a very long time. This is a very different world, potentially, that Steven’s describing, a world in which, yes, Trump goes, there’s the sword dance, there’s the bling, but when there’s an attack on these oil processing facilities and the United States doesn’t respond, this is Saudi Arabia adrift, or is this Saudi Arabia unleashed?
SMITH: Well, the United States did respond, it’s just—it’s just they imposed more sanctions on Iran. Now, you can laugh at that, but that’s the way Trump has been operating his foreign policy. Whenever there’s a problem he imposes sanctions here, there, and everywhere. I don’t know what impact those sanctions may or may not have on Iran, or how they view that.
ROBBINS: I think what I’m asking here is, is inside the head of MBS, which you’ve been dwelling for a quite a long time, is this, the U.S. not responding, does this give him, to his mind, more responsibility to be more aggressive or for him to—if he doesn’t feel that he’s got the backing of the United States, he has to rethink his project?
SMITH: I don’t think he wants to poke Iran. I think Iran has it over him. They have proxy forces throughout the region. He’s done very poorly in Yemen. So I think he’s in a bind. He has a lot of equipment and he has some pilots that know how to run some of his equipment. But he doesn’t—he can’t mobilize forces abroad in the same way that the Iranians can—whether it’s in Iraq with the militia, or in Lebanon with Hezbollah, or of course with the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
So I think that he’s puzzled as to what move he can make. That would be my guess. I’m certainly not that far into his head. And I think he is changeable. I think he is figuring it out as he goes along. But I don’t think he sees a lot of good options with hitting back at Iran in some military fashion.
COOK: I would just add—I know Marty should really have the last word—but one of the things that worries me is that because we haven’t responded, and because the Saudis were surprised by it, the effort to deescalate at the moment is of the moment. And what they really are going to do is seek to protect themselves in the ultimate way. I think—I used to poo-poo the idea that Saudi is a proliferator. I think we should raise Saudi Arabia higher in our list of worries in terms of proliferation.
SMITH: Nuclear? Yes, right.
ROBBINS: So I want to thank Steven for—and I want to thank Marty for a fabulous film.
COOK: Thank Marty. I’m here because of him.
ROBBINS: And thank you all for joining us. It was really an extraordinary film. Thank you so much.
SMITH: I can’t clap. It hurts. (Laughs.)