WASHINGTON: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who arrives in Washington on Tuesday on his first official visit, has acknowledged that men and women are equal rejecting the perception in the West that Islam wants to keep women under wraps. “Absolutely, we are all human beings and there is no difference,” he said in reply to a question during his first interview to a US news channel — CBS 60 Minutes.

Asked if there was any truth in the perception that the kind of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia was “harsh, strict and intolerant,” the prince acknowledged that it was and blamed the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran for forcing Saudi rulers to introduce such practices. “After 1979, that’s true. We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal,” he said.

Prince Mohammed said that since assuming the office of the crown prince, he had introduced massive reforms, emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption. The prince said there were extremists in the kingdom who were unwilling to accept “a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace” but he was trying to modernise his country. He acknowledged that the Saudi-led war in Yemen had caused a humanitarian catastrophe, but blamed Yemeni rebels for “using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community”.

Reminded that while he had launched a major anti-corruption campaign, he recently purchased a yacht for a half-billion dollars, the prince said: “My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself … I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela.”

Insists his personal life is something he’d like to keep to himself — ‘I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela’

The prince said that Saudi Arabia would acquire a nuclear bomb “as soon as possible,” if Iran developed one.

He said that Osama bin Laden partly achieved his objective of creating hatred between the West and the Muslim world.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” said Prince Mohammed when asked if Saudi Arabia needs nuclear weapons to counter Iran.

“In order to create an environment conducive to recruitment and spreading his radical message that the west is plotting to destroy you.”

Indeed, he succeeded in creating this schism in the west,” said the Saudi royal while describing why Bin Laden unleashed his hate campaign.

Prince Mohammed will meet US President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday for talks that will also focus on the growing tension between the Arab kingdom and Iran, the US media reported on Monday.

But a brief White House statement only said that “the president looks forward to discussing ways to strengthen ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia and to advance our common security and economic priorities”.

The prince met President Trump in March 2017 as well when he visited the White House as a deputy crown prince before replacing the former crown prince, his cousin, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. The 32-year-old royal is the kingdom’s youngest crown prince ever.

Prince Mohammed, who is also the defence minister, launched a massive campaign to arm his country with sophisticated weapons. Last week, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s second largest arms importer.

In 2013-17, the kingdom increased its arms imports by 225 per cent compared with 2008–12. The report showed that 61 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s arms import came from the US and 23 per cent from the UK.

The US media reported that the first leg of Prince Mohammed’s trip, in Washington, will focus on defence ties while in New York, he will hold meetings with potential investors.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2018