Saudi Arabia, NBS, Saudi Government discussed on The New Yorker Radio Hour

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Welcome back to the New Yorker radio hour. I'm David Ramnik. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal kashogi continues to roil Washington and much of the world. The president for his part stands firmly behind crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, Donald Trump has claimed that we don't really know if bin Salman was implicated in the murderer or not dismissing the CIA zone conclusion that he was. But the thrust of Trump's reasoning is that the Saudi government is after all our ally. And it's just not our business who they kill. It's also not good business earlier this year. Dexter Filkins published a long article in a magazine about bin Salman, how he had consolidated his power how he was going to take power very soon and his relationship with the Trump administration was also discussed in what Dexter found was extremely troubling. I talked with Dexter in April. And at that time bin Salman was still being widely hailed as the great modernizer of Saudi Arabia, and he was making a huge impression. On the world stage as somebody put it to me in American diplomat where we're used to you know, when we got on the phone with the king of Saudi Arabia. He's eighty five years old, and he's kind of half asleep any mumbles live, and then the fault the phone calls over and this guy talks, you know, he's he's engaged. Thirty two years old thirty two years old. He's he's ambitious season patient. He's charming. He's charismatic. He's tall. He's on the make. So even as crown prince NBS has been making some liberalizing moves he's promised to overhaul the Saudi economy. He's lifted restrictions including women driving is he offering real reform. Yes. It's it's but it's important to distinguish what kind of reforms. He definitely wants to open up the economy. There's a lot of economic reforms that he's he's initiated. He's trying to restrain the clergy. He's letting women drive the one the one thing that's not on the table is political reform that this is all about save. The house of Saud and maintaining power. So what what is the economic predicament of Saudi Arabia? It's pretty we think of them as just magnificently wealthy. And they are they are they they're they're burning cash in an extraordinary rate, and it's it's a vast welfare state where almost everything is subsidized from from food gasoline to education to health care housing. But but what's happening is that the whole economy was built on the idea that oil would be about one hundred dollars a barrel. And so they're just basically burning through their savings. And so as as somebody put it to me in the story it current trends in five to seven years Saudi Arabia's broke the running out of money unless they do what? Because I don't expect that in five to seven years. The petro economy will disappear we're won't disappear. But they're they can't sustain what what the have. They they don't export anything else they import virtually everything else. So they've got to diversify. They gotta do something. Else? Now NBS is also talked about inspiring a Saudi entertainment industry. I don't normally think of Riyadh as a kind of proto Hollywood or New York or Paris in that way. It's amazing. He's he's doing it. Movie theaters concerts with certain restraints, but he's doing it. Well, let's get into the darker side of what's happening. We're we're we're are the the main areas. So in addition to all these things that he's done at the very same time. He's arrested human rights leaders. He's detained journalists just not going to be freedom of speech. Absolutely not. I mean, that's that's just off the table. And and in many ways, he's he's tougher than than his predecessor. So he's he's he's clamping down on on any kind of notion of political front same time. And then of course, we have the the famous now wave of arrests when he dragged in dozens of very wealthy Saudis. Even even some of his relatives. But he put them in that well-known prison, the Ritz Carlton, which is a very peculiar thing. No, very, I mean, the the, you know, it's a it's a hotel for prince, it's just not generally for prince is under arrest. And maybe the main thing that happened at the Ritz Carlton is that NBS forced any number of these people to give up either all of their assets or billions of dollars tremendous amounts of assets, all in the name of anti corruption. How is that done and toward what political end? Well, you know, some of these were the richest people in the world where we're suddenly locked up in the Ritz Carlton, and so as best we understand it when they were sitting in their Patel rooms from which the doors had been removed and anything that could be used to harm themselves. They were. They were interrogated and their financial documents were kind of laid out in front of him. And they negotiated and arrived at a figure any usually as I understand. It wasn't the it wasn't all of their money. It was some of it. So you're worth two billion dollars. We get a billion. And so it was kind of agreed to and then you signed that away. Everybody kind of shook hands, and then no one spoke about it when they came out. They they didn't want anything really bad to happen to them. Did anything bad happen to the looks looks like it, there's at least one person who died in custody. It looks like under pretty grim circumstances. But at the end of the day NBA got one hundred billion dollars from in in the big shakedown, the Saudi government got a hundred billion dollars from it. Well, you're seems to imply that M B S has been making deals with the United States and the trumps are pleased to be making each deals for two reasons. One for geopolitical reasons and the other is for. Potentially for personal reasons. So this is this is more difficult to to ferret out. Yes, let's start with geopolitical in in the Obama administration attempted to create a kind of detente, or or better to say a balance of powers in the region by dealing with Iran signing the nuclear deal, dealing with it in in all the complexity that you have to deal with with Iran now have the Trump administration, which sees a pure friend in Saudi Arabia and a pure enemy in Iran. That's exactly what happened. I mean. The the Trump administration came in and said this whole thing about sharing the neighborhood, which is what Obama said to the Saudis share it return that and where we're going to go after a run. And so, you know, the the Iranians have essentially come to dominate as they see it, Lebanon, Syria. Iraq, Yemen, they're everywhere they're on the March, and we are going to roll them back. And I I heard that phrase many times talking. The people in the Trump administration rollback, the the Iranians. And so so in the past year what what is what have we seen? The the Saudis, and the Emirati is essentially tried to overthrow the government and cutter they think cutter is too close to Iran. They tried to essentially overthrow the government in in Lebanon, and then they launched this. You know enormous and very bloody bombing campaign in Yemen. Intervening in the civil war there because they see the Iranians essentially, which the United States assists in. Yes. I mean on on the on the Saudis. Yeah. I mean, the Obama White House kind of held their nose and said, okay, we'll keep sending you the bombs to drop, but they really didn't like it. And the Trump administration such as Goto it expanded. Geopolitical reasons why the Trump's are going to be close to 'em Bs and have been. There's also the personal aspect of personal financial aspect to it. How would you break that down? Well, this is complicated. But both the Trump and Kushner families have financial answer interests in the Middle East so cutter which is home to a key American airbase is currently the target of a blockade probably not by coincidence. But you tell me your reporting turned up evidence of a failed real estate deal between the countries and the Kushner family what happened, and it seems to be a factor in the administration's attitude toward the blockade of cutter it's against all. This is just remarkable. I'm shaking my head. The Kushner companies owns the the big the big high rise six six six hundred Fifth Avenue and with a with as a mortgage of a billion dollars more than a billion dollars. That's coming due soon. As I was told by a very credible source in the financial industry. The the Kushner companies in April two thousand seventeen came to the calories in the Saint Regis hotel. Then land for cash looking for a billion dollars. They asked for as one does does they had a big plan to renovate the building and kind of make it all work and the Connery's, and you know, they have they have a sovereign wealth fund with three hundred billion dollars in it. They have money to burn. They they looked at the deal that Kushner had conflate out for them, Charles Kushner, Jared's father, said forget it. Thanks very much. But but but no, thanks. Six weeks later. There's a blockade announced on cutter John Bolton's going to be national security adviser, very soon how to his priorities and records square with NBS. I it's this is going to be very unpredictable period. John Bolton's on. Thank you wrote an op Ed for the New York Times a few years ago with centrally calling for preemptive strikes against Iran. I. That's just exactly the sort of thing that NBS is thinking NBS compares the Iranian leadership to Hitler. Yes. This is I I had these conversations when I was in Riyadh. It's it's the Nazi ideology. And they do not merely want to dominate the Gulf. They want to destroy Saudi Arabia and conquer Saudi Arabia in. And we are it's no more mister nice guy. And so instead of what you had. I think the Obama administration was they were essentially restraining the Saudis. From getting into some kind of serious maybe shooting match with the Iranians in the Gulf. Now, it's a completely different ballgame Dexter. Thank you so much. Thank you..

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