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What the Saudi crown prince's latest interview says about the future of Saudi Arabia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the first time in more than two years, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, sat down with a non-Saudi journalist. That journalist is Graeme Wood of the Atlantic, who spoke with the crown prince along with Jeffrey Goldberg. And in his recently published profile of the prince, Wood describes a charming, warm, informal and intelligent leader who has also created a climate of fear unprecedented in Saudi history.

Graeme Wood, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GRAEME WOOD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: What did you learn from these sessions with the crown prince that had not previously been reported by others?

WOOD: Well, for two years, he hasn't been talking to anyone. He hasn't really been seen in public. And that is almost certainly because of not just COVID, but the fact that he's an international pariah for the murder of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

And so, among other things, we were able to ask him directly about Khashoggi and find out whether his attitude toward that has changed. He has declined to take responsibility. He continues to decline to take responsibility. Even still today, the way that he talks about it is with what I think could charitably just be called extreme tone-deafness and lack of sensitivity to the murder of one of his citizens. He said that Khashoggi - of course, didn't kill him. He's not even in the top 1,000 people I would have killed.

SHAPIRO: You comment that he came to the interview with a hit list of a thousand names.

WOOD: Well, he didn't give me the list, but he said Khashoggi would not be in the top 1,000 of them. And if I were to kill somebody, believe me, it would be professional.

And, you know, he also was extremely self-pitying. He said that his rights had been violated because everybody had accused him of ordering this without proof. And this has really hurt my feelings.

SHAPIRO: Did you have any hesitation about giving a platform to those ideas that seem so disconnected from reality?

WOOD: No, it's extremely important that we find out exactly what this man who is possibly going to be the absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia for 50 years thinks about this. You know, giving him a platform, just like talking to any important person, means finding out what is going on in that person's head. And we now know, when he thinks about Khashoggi, he thinks this is a terrible thing that happened to me. We didn't know that before.

SHAPIRO: And on another issue, what did he say about the systemic repression of dissenters and activists in the kingdom? I mean, how did he justify what you described as this culture of extreme fear of retribution that he's created?

WOOD: So first of all, he denied it. He said that the culture of repression, dissent, climate of fear that I've been told by many Saudis - not just exiles, but people within the kingdom - exists and exists in a form that never existed in Saudi Arabia before. He first said, that's simply not the case. People are free to dissent. They're free to dissent if they're professional and objective in their dissent.

And then I brought up several people whom he imprisoned, whose dissent seemed to be extremely mild - certainly nothing that suggested that they were trying to overthrow the kingdom - and who were in prison anyway. And he said, look, sometimes you got to do these things, and was basically completely unapologetic about how he had handled himself and didn't suggest at all that he was going to change his ways going forward.

SHAPIRO: This is a guy who doesn't get a lot of face-to-face pushback. How did he respond to you effectively calling him a murderer?

WOOD: Well, that's the aspect of him that I would say is actually pretty charming - and we should understand that sociopaths actually are probably more charming than other people - is he could take it. And we pushed him pretty hard on these things and said to his face that, look, everybody thinks you're a murderer. The CIA says that you're the one who ordered this hit. And at no point in the interview did he get irate. At no point did he suggest that we are going to be thrown out or worse.

And look, in some ways, this is a person who is well-integrated into global culture and in the world, and he's someone who, I think, unlike many of the royals who have come before him in positions of power in Saudi Arabia, would be very easy for a lot of Americans to talk to. And I think that's an important aspect of his personality to convey.

SHAPIRO: So how do you reconcile these behaviors that you say could be construed as sociopathic with the liberalization of the country - opening cinemas, allowing women to dress more freely and so on?

WOOD: Well, that is the majority of the article that I've written for the current cover story of the Atlantic, is going around Saudi Arabia and seeing these changes because the changes are real. The Saudi Arabia that certainly I grew up hearing about, which was a very religiously oppressive place, it's disappearing in favor of a place that's much more integrated with global culture, where there are social freedoms and economic freedoms, and it's just changing a lot and, in most ways, that I think Americans can be pleased with.

You know, if 20 years ago you were telling me that these reforms were happening in Saudi Arabia, I would have said it can't happen that quickly, the Saudis have told us it can't happen that quickly, and it's happening under MBS. But MBS is also very clear that the tradeoff is we have to put up with whatever else he does, and that might mean killing of journalists. It might mean the imprisonment of dissenters. We have to accept that if we want all the other goodies that he's promising us.

SHAPIRO: Graeme Wood's cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic is a profile of the Saudi crown prince with a headline "Absolute Power." Thank you for talking with us about it.

WOOD: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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