DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman defended his domestic policy, the mindset that followed Saudi Arabia’s economic and social transformation, in a lengthy interview broadcast on Saudi television late Tuesday night.
In a lengthy interview at midnight, the Crown Prince expressed hope that they would have good relations with Iran, saying that Saudi Arabia and the Biden administration in Washington had agreed on most issues of mutual concern.
Much of the interview, however, was spent compiling dizzying economic figures to explain why the government raised taxes, reduced subsidies, and took unpopular austerity measures to hit the targets of the so-called Vision 2030 program.
He said the kingdom was in talks to sell the 1% stake in state oil giant Aramco to the world’s leading energy company. In 2019, the kingdom listed 5% of Aramco on the Saudi Stock Exchange in an attempt to raise money for its sovereign wealth fund.
The interview was scheduled five years after Vision 2030, a project by Prince Mohammed to turn an oil-dependent kingdom from an isolated country into an economic power that is open to the world. At the launch of his project in 2016, he acknowledged that Saudi Arabia was “dependent on oil.”
One of Prince Mohammed’s most important goals is to one day inherit the throne from his 82-year-old father, King Salman, to create millions of jobs for young Saudis entering the workforce. He aims to reduce unemployment to 7% by 2030. The kingdom’s unemployment rate reached a high of 15.9% in mid-2020, before falling to about 12%.
Last year, to help boost government revenues, double the impact of the coronavirus epidemic, and help smooth oil prices, the government tripled taxes on goods and services to 15 percent, leading to rising social media inflation.
The heir to the throne described the tax rate as a “temporary decision” that could take one to five years and then reduce it to 5% և 10%. He said difficult decisions had to be made “to avoid disaster and to create opportunities”.
On relations with Washington, the prince said that the Saudi Arabia-Biden administration agrees on 90% of issues of mutual interest, but has disagreements on the rest, although he did not elaborate.
He said the world was a “wide place” with many countries to establish strategic ties with them.
“We do not accept any external pressure or interference in our internal affairs,” said Prince Mohammed.
The Biden administration has made it clear that US relations with Saudi Arabia are being recalculated after four warm years with the Trump administration. One of Biden’s first decisions was to order an end to US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
The interview aired the same day the ship full of explosives targeted the port of Yanbu in Saudi Arabia. Yemeni Houthi rebels backed by Iran have claimed responsibility for attacks on Saudi oil facilities.
“We want good relations with Iran,” Prince Muhammad said of the kingdom’s main rival. Problems with Iran stem from its “negative actions,” such as its nuclear program, its involvement in regional conflicts, and its ballistic missile program.
The Crown Prince’s comments on Iran were more measured than in previous years when Donald Trump was in office. Iran is currently negotiating with world powers on how it and Washington can return to the 2015 nuclear deal that the Trump administration pulled out of the United States.
Although the prince’s international reputation continues to be damaged by the assassination of Saudi columnist Jamal Amal Khashoggi inside the royal consulate in Istanbul, he is popular with many Saudis for his bold social reforms.
With his father’s support, the prince lifted the ban on women driving, enforced restrictive custody laws, opened the country to cinemas, “concerts” and issued instructions that drastically reduced the number of executions in the kingdom.
“Today we can not move forward … with extremism in the kingdom,” he said, adding that it would hamper economic growth and development. He warned that any Saudi with extremist views, even if the person had not yet committed a crime, was a “criminal”.
He sought to distance himself from the teachings of the kingdom և the late Sheikh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, whose ultrasonic teachings, known as Wahhabism, are associated with some extremist interpretations of Islam. The prince said that there is not a single person or school of thought in the kingdom that should restrict Islam.
In an interview with Saudi viewers during the holy month of Ramadan, he said that others should not be punished; the laws should be based on 100-year-old obscure interpretations of narrow uranium.
“Our constitution is the Quran uranium. “There has been, there will be,” said the heir to the throne, emphasizing that religious moderation is key.