Earlier this month, I went to meet the new Saudi ambassador to the UK, Prince Khalid Bandar. He is a senior member of the Saudi royal family (his father Prince Bandar was ambassador to Washington for 23 years and he is descended from Ibn Saud, the first modern king) but totally Westernised (educated at Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst military academy, married to a British aristocrat, father to two half-English children).
For one of the most secretive regimes on earth, the fact that he agreed to a no-holds-barred at-home interview was already a first.
In it he said:
On Saudi culture:
- “The foundation of Saudi society is so different — it’s not agrarian, it’s not about landholdings, it’s a Bedouin nomadic society and that produces a totally different set of ideals for a culture”.
On gender equality:
- “You can’t give people something they don’t want. They won’t take it. You have to slowly bring people along and allow them to develop… We are moving in a positive direction.”
- “Gender equality is not counter to Sharia law… It is adaptable – if you look at the history of Islam, things have adapted.”
On the death penalty:
- “I’m not against executions. I’ve never seen a beheading myself, it’s not something that happens that regularly in Saudi Arabia… We’re not all going to become the same country — that’s just life.”
On changes in Saudi society:
- “My grandfather used to go to work on horseback; my father flew fast jets; and a cousin of mine was the first Arab in space. And that’s in three generations. And God knows the gap between that and my children and the world they grow up in.”
- We want to be living in the future. We live in such a fast-paced world today that catching up is no longer good enough. You have to move twice as fast as the person in front of you.”
On the importance of Islam:
- “We don’t want to lose that… Where we have an issue with religion is when religion is hijacked by people who want to promote themselves or their own issues.”
On Jamal Khashoggi:
- He is “ashamed by the actions of people who not only represented the Saudi state, but represented the Saudi culture, the Saudi people. That’s not how we do things, it’s not who we are.”
- “I know the Crown Prince, it did not come from him, it would not have come from him… I wish I could take it back, I wish it never happened.”
- “We don’t want to be there. Conflict is not a nice thing. Anybody who wants war is a madman. We would like to get out of it, we would like it to end, but we want a political solution and it’s not quite there yet.”
On relations with Israel:
- We were probably the last country in the region to recognise Israel. Will we have to live with an Israeli state? I don’t see how we wouldn’t… But we will not move forward without the interests of the Palestinian people squarely at the heart of whatever we do.”