“It is pure fantasy to think MBS is a genuine reformer of any sort,” an American political commentator told Shia Followers in an interview.

The Saudis are “the biggest destabilizing force in the region, period. They are not however indispensable, even if they might think they are,” John Steppling said.

Following is the full transcript of the interview:

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has blasted Saudi Arabia for detaining thousands of people for excessively long periods without trial, saying the kingdom’s justice system is deteriorating. What’s your take on the kingdom’s human rights situation?

John Steppling: Human Rights Watch is a fairly compromised institution to being with. But apparently even an NGO backed by western capital cannot escape admitting the horror of the KSA today. And if HRW is saying the judicial system is deteriorating, one might ask from what? I mean how can it get it much worse? There is no judicial system. There are mock trials without any of the legal protections or due process that westerners are used to seeing. Now, I am against the death penalty in any form and for any reason. And I believe the leader in state executions now is China, and Iran is second. This is a very contentious discussion, but it needs to be had. That said, the Saudi courts are without much argument the least legitimate of any in the world.

According to the Guardian, a film intended to celebrate progress on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has been condemned by experts and rights groups as a “dreadful piece of propaganda” that will serve only to reinforce the existing culture of discrimination in the country. What could you say about Riyadh’s propaganda in this regard? Have MBS’s recent reforms changed the kingdom’s intolerant doctrines?

John Steppling: As for the film, which I have not seen and which I have little knowledge about, this entire marketing of MBS to the West, meaning mostly the U.S. and UK, has not been very successful. Notwithstanding Tom Freidman’s valentine to MBS in the New York Times, the general response, at least in the U.S., has been laughter. Like, ‘who are they kidding?’  I mean you cannot chop off people’s heads in the public square for crimes such as witchcraft and the next moment pretend there is some sort of significant culture and political shift going on. There is not. And MBS strikes one as a not overly sharp and certainly not very experienced young aristocrat who fell in line with a faction bent on palace coups and the consolidation of power. Moves such as ousting Mohammed bin Nayef was predictable, but confiscating the money and assets of Alwaleed bin Talal was maybe not so expected. But while there is no question changes are and have taken place in the monarchy, it is pure fantasy to think MBS is a genuine reformer of any sort. And this raises the most germane question which is why and why now? Remember after the [Persian] Gulf War there was a concerted Islamist protest movement. The Memorandum of Demands and the like, and scholars like Sheujh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz — but this was like twenty years ago almost. But there is reform and there is reform.

Schools in Saudi Arabia teach children to hate other faiths and beliefs. The result of such education system has been the brutal targeting of the followers other religions, including the Shia minority in Awamiyah. How does this affect the Shia minority both in Saudi Arabia and in other countries? How does it impact followers of other religions?

John Steppling: The short answer is that this is an intolerant narrow nativist nation of zealots and fanatics. They are the biggest destabilizing force in the region, period. They are not however indispensable, even if they might think they are.

Anwar Eshki, who currently serves as chairman of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Saudi Arabia, has said that Saudi Arabia is not obliged to defend the people of Palestine against the Israeli occupation. How would such overt anti-Palestinian rhetoric affect the Palestinian cause?

John Steppling: That MBS started an unnecessary quarrel with Qatar, and launched the genocidal assault on Yemen, all the while continuing the funding of ISIS — is worth questioning. Why now with Yemen? Well, the U.S. was there in Riyadh from day one. So it is obvious the U.S. was giving its ok, as was the UK. And so was Israel. My personal feeling is that MBS is a proxy stealth provocateur for Israel and then, by extension, for the U.S. Trump is very close to the Likudniks in power in Tel Aviv, and also the crazy evangelical Christians in the Trump’s cabinet are close to Netanyahu. So, perhaps this is the flowering of a long covert plan of the U.S. and Israel. I’m just free associating here, but it would make sense. Otherwise, if we take this narrative at face value, it’s just the signs of sclerotic ancient regime whose time has come — and I’ve said for a while the regime change in the KSA would not surprise me. The kingdom has no purpose other than buying weapons.


John Steppling is a well-known author, playwright and an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theater, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. He is also a regular political commentator for a number of media outlets around the world.