When I visited Saudi Arabia in December of 2018, I was one of the first 1,000 tourists to visit the kingdom in modern history. In an effort to test the waters of tourism in the slowly evolving country, the Saudi government was allowing visitors in for a period of 30 days, after which its borders would be closed again. The three-part article I wrote for Ami was appropriately entitled “A Land Off Limits,” and was wildly popular among readers the world over. A few months later, I discovered Mohammed Saud on Twitter. Mohammed is a 29-year-old Saudi law student who got to know some Jewish people while studying in the United States. Intrigued, he started to learn more about the Jews and their religion, and eventually fell in love with Israel. This led him to teaching himself Hebrew and listening to Israeli music. Before long, he had a very good command of the language, and he started posting videos in support of Israel in general and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular.
Bibi took notice of this unusual supporter, and even showed one of his videos at a Likud press conference. Last year, when I wrote my article, “Friends in Unlikely Places,” it was the first print interview Mohammed had ever done. He was a relative unknown, and it caused a sensation. Since then, he has been featured on Israeli radio and television, and has become a celebrity on social media.
Over the past year Mohammed and I developed a close relationship, and he invited me to visit him in Saudi Arabia more times than I can count. I also invited him to visit me in Israel, but when he finally made it to the Holy Land I happened to be abroad, so we couldn’t meet. During his visit to Israel, Mohammed was attacked by Palestinians on the Har Habayit, after which he disappeared from social media for several weeks. He eventually returned, following a lengthy period of silence, but even then he kept a low profile.
In recent months, aside from his constant tweeting about Israel and its politics, he started to reach out to the American Jewish community and sent messages of condolence and support in both English and Yiddish after the stabbing in Monsey on Chanukah. Many people told me that they were heartened by Mohammed’s gesture.
In late September of 2019, Saudi Arabia decided to finally open its doors to tourists on a long-term basis. I really wanted to visit Mohammed, but I had some concerns. It seems that after my last visit to Saudi Arabia, some defamatory articles that had been written about me had gone viral in the Arab media. The narrative being told was that I was an Israeli citizen (untrue), who had somehow managed to sneak into Saudi Arabia. There were also rumors that I was a Zionist agent, and I was called every name in the book. I was therefore unsure if the Saudi government would even allow me back in.
One night, my curiosity got the better of me and I visited the Saudi tourist website to apply for a visa. After I had finished filling out the form, a message popped up on my computer informing me that visas are usually approved within 30 minutes. Less than 60 seconds later I got an email from the Saudi Tourism Authority. I held my breath as I waited for it to load. But it was neither an approval nor a rejection, just a message asking me to take a survey about my user experience on the website. I continued to hold my breath, and six minutes later I received confirmation that my visa had been approved. Apparently, I was still welcome. Now that I had my visa, I was ready to plan my trip. Being that I was very pressed for time, my visit to the Saudi Kingdom would last for only 24 hours. I scheduled several back-to-back meetings and booked my tickets.
It was late at night when my plane landed in Riyadh, and I could immediately detect the changes that had taken place since my last visit only a year before. For starters, when my baggage was put through the X-ray scanner, no one batted an eyelash at the sight of my tefillin, whereas last time I’d been held up in the airport while the customs officials figured out what to do with me.
My Uber driver picked me up outside the arrivals terminal and drove me approximately 40 minutes to my hotel. Due to construction on the road, he had to drop me off in a nearby parking lot, so I had no choice but to schlep all my stuff myself. Like last time, the hotel was gorgeous, and I was awakened before dawn by a super-loud call to prayer issuing from a nearby minaret. I decided to stay up even though I hadn’t gotten much sleep, and used the opportunity to daven Shacharis in the privacy of my room. Then I ate breakfast, learned Daf Yomi and packed up my things before checking out of the hotel. The clerk behind the check-in counter couldn’t help but smile at my outfit for the day, which I haven’t told you about yet. I was wearing my long chasidic suit jacket, with my yarmulke and long, curly peyos concealed under a traditional keffiyeh. I didn’t feel comfortable walking around looking openly Jewish, but I thought that if I kept my head covered like that, I probably wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. I must have looked ridiculous, but I wanted to be dressed in my traditional Jewish garb later in the day and there wouldn’t be enough time for me to change, so my reckel and keffiyeh would have to suffice. The Uber driver who picked me up from the hotel told me he assumed I was a Saudi businessman before I informed him that I was an American tourist.
We drove for about 30 minutes until we reached the impressive, multi-story home of Mohammed Saud, built in the classic Arabian style. Mohammed, who lives with his family, was waiting near the outer wall of his property to greet me, decked out in his traditional Saudi Arabian robe. He was taller than I had imagined. After giving me a big hug, he picked up my heavy suitcase and carried it into the courtyard. He then asked me to set down my remaining bags and ushered me into his outer majlis (Arabic for “sitting place”), which was situated in a room right off the courtyard. The majlis is a room where family and friends get together or the head of the family receives important guests, and it is an integral part of the Arab aristocracy. Its walls were covered with fine art, and there was a fireplace and some shelves displaying expensive knickknacks and goblets. The floor was covered by beautiful blue carpeting, and there were several low couches hugging the walls. After asking me to be seated, Mohammed proudly showed me the kosher food he had thoughtfully prepared. Aside from the traditional Arabic coffee there was an impressive array of dates and fresh fruit, and of course, the obligatory bottles of Coca-Cola. America’s favorite drink has apparently even made it to one of the few countries that doesn’t have a Chabad House—at least for now.
Mohammed kept telling me that he could hardly believe I was actually in his house. Truthfully, I had a hard time believing it myself. If you had told me two years ago that I would be visiting a Saudi friend in Riyadh, I would have laughed in your face. But we live in interesting times, and this meeting certainly did happen.
Mohammed was a very gracious host, and he spent much of the day shuttling me around to my various meetings. Our time in the car was spent catching up and singing some of his favorite Jewish songs. He had even picked up some Yiddish, and I taught him a few new words and catchphrases that he is now incorporating into his growing Yiddish vocabulary.
Later that afternoon, Mohammed picked me up from my last meeting of the day and brought me back to his house. This time, I was led into an inner majlis even more beautiful than the first one, with a marble-tiled floor and royal blue drapes. Blue and white couches with matching armchairs were arranged around a large coffee table in the center. I utilized the opportunity to present Mohammed with a gift—a gilt-framed picture of the Beis Hamikdash inscribed with the words “Im eshkacheich Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini.” Mohammed took a minute to make them out and then looked at me, his eyes wide in amazement. He then gave me another warm hug, and we sat down on a pair of couches across from each other to begin our conversation.
“Let’s talk about your visit to Israel,” I say. “How did it come about?”
“It was in my head for a very long time,” he tells me, “but I never got the chance to visit. Then one day I got an invitation from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. It had always been my dream, but I never believed it would happen. It made me very happy.
“I can tell,” I say. “You’re smiling just talking about it.”
“Yes,” he says with an even bigger smile. “I love Israel. I want to see peace between our countries and all our neighbors in the Middle East. I have no agenda other than that I truly believe that peace with Israel will lead to a better world. I don’t have all the solutions, but I do have this one vision. The time has come to recognize that Israel is a very powerful player in the Middle East.”
“Tell me about the trip.”
“I still haven’t really digested it, even though it’s been several months since then. It’s still hard to believe that I actually did it. I don’t think I will ever forget the five days I was there, and I’m very sad that I didn’t stay longer. Thousands of people contacted me saying that they wanted to meet me, but it just wasn’t possible. A lot of people also expressed an interest in coming to Saudi Arabia.”
“I’m curious how you got to Israel.”
“First I flew to Jordan and then I crossed over by land. I visited Yerushalayim,” he tells me, sounding like a frum Jew. “Yerushalayim—zeh halev sheli,” he adds in Hebrew. “Then I went to Tel Aviv and Haifa. I also visited Yad Vashem.”
“What was that like?”
“Whenever I hear about the Holocaust I feel very sad. It’s a shameful chapter in the world’s history. But when you go to a place like Yad Vashem and see all the documents and video clips and personal accounts, it makes you wonder how it’s possible for people to deny that it happened.”
It is especially meaningful to me to hear these words from Mohammed, because Holocaust denial is a serious problem in certain places in the Middle East. He continues:
“You know why they deny it? Because they want it to happen again. But it will never happen again. I won’t allow it to happen.”
“What do you mean by that?” I ask.
“They’ll have to kill me first. I really cried at Yad Vashem. All I could think about was the survivors. How could they sleep at night? I see people on social media posting pictures of Hitler and making distasteful jokes about the Holocaust. What do they think is so funny? He killed millions of innocent people. Just making a joke about Hitler is a terrible thing. It’s shameful.”
Throughout our conversation, I am repeatedly surprised by how in touch Mohammed seems to be with the everyday happenings and goings-on in the Jewish community. He appears to be a genuine oheiv Yisrael, and I have no reason to believe that he is being disingenuous. “As you know,” he tells me, “anti-Semitism is terrible these days.”
“What would you say to Jews in America, or wherever else there have been anti-Semitic incidents lately?” I ask.
“First,” he says, “be very proud of your religion. Don’t change your appearance. Don’t take off your yarmulke or tuck in your tzitzis. If you show the anti-Semites that you’re afraid, you’ve already lost the battle. The Jewish way of dress has always been me’od chazak [very strong]. It’s very important to be proud of who you are. Don’t be ashamed. If you want to beat anti-Semitism, you have to show people who you are and be strong in your Jewish identity. There are many evil anti-Semites and neo-Nazis out there, but you have to show them that you refuse to bend.”
“You have a tremendous ability to unite people,” I tell him. “Why do you think your message has resonated with so many people all over the world?”
“One of the things I try to promote is that even though we are different, we can still get along. Look at what happened to me on the Har Habayit. Most people aren’t stupid, and they understand that I was attacked by evil people. I don’t want to mention names, but we all know who they are.”
“Do you feel comfortable telling me what happened there?” I ask.
“Of course!” he exclaims with a laugh. “I went there to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I got a lot of flak for wearing my Saudi garb, because some people thought that I was trying to stand out, but it wasn’t any different from a Bedouin dressing in his own traditional clothes. On my way over to the mosque, some people who had seen my picture recognized me. Then someone who I believe works for the Waqf came up to me and asked if I was Mohammed Saud. I said yes. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. I continued walking, but then I noticed that people were following me. I’m sure you know what happened. You’ve seen the videos,” he says.
“Yes. I saw people pushing you and spitting at you. Some of them even hit you.”
“Yes, unfortunately. There were even some who tried to drag me away. I have a feeling that if they’d gotten me to a more secluded spot they would have tried to kill me,” he laments.
“I was very impressed by the way you handled yourself,” I tell him. “People were physically attacking you and you refused to retaliate. I’m not sure I would have handled that kind of situation as gracefully as you did,” I confess.
“Do you know why I didn’t respond?” he asks. I shrug my shoulders. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he says, pausing for emphasis. “I’m not a perfect person, but I wanted them to understand that I was coming with a message of peace. They were trying to goad me into fighting back, but I didn’t flinch. G-d was guiding me while they were throwing things and spitting at me, but I stayed laser-focused on my message.”
“I saw them throwing chairs at you as you were leaving,” I add.
“Yes. One of the chairs hit my leg, and I was in pain for several days.”
“Didn’t the Israeli government send security along with you?” I ask, very much surprised.
“No. I’m a Muslim. No one was expecting this to happen. That was the only bad experience I had. The rest of the trip was amazing. I really felt like I was among family.”
“If you could do it over, would you still go to the Har Habayit?” I ask.
“Yes. The only way to combat bad ideas is to raise awareness. I didn’t come to fight, I came for peace. I really want to see all kinds of people coming together, and if it were really impossible, I wouldn’t be getting such amazing feedback. I get tons of support. People tell me that I’m a good person and I’m very courageous. My wish is to be a vessel for peace,” he says thoughtfully.
“After the incident on the Har Habayit, you took a few weeks off from social media and didn’t respond to text messages. Why was that? We were very worried about you,” I tell him.
“I don’t know how to describe it. There was so much going on. Put yourself in my shoes for a minute. It was a whole balagan. A lot of journalists were twisting my words and making up quotes I’d never said. I figured that the best thing to do was to lie low for a while until everything calmed down. You have no idea what it was like, sitting alone in my hotel room in Yerushalayim and watching all the fake news being spread about me. I just needed to take a break. Thank G-d, I survived.”
“Where is most of the hate coming from?”
“Qatar, Al Jazeera, and the Muslim Brotherhood and its cronies. It’s unheard of for a Saudi Arabian to visit Israel. People often ask me if I plan on converting to Judaism, but the answer is no. First of all, I’m very happy the way I am. Second, I want to be a Muslim who supports Israel. If I were Jewish, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” he explains.
“Tell me about your meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. What was it like?”
“You know that I’d always dreamed of meeting him,” he says.
“Yes. You told me that months before you went to Israel,” I reply, reminding him of one of our previous off-the-record conversations. “But you didn’t think it was a very realistic hope.”
“I love Bibi, and not because he’s the prime minister. I’m talking about Binyamin Netanyahu the individual. I think he’s a very great man. Without his efforts, I would have never had the opportunity to visit Israel and meet its people. He’s done a lot of things to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. When he made his trip to Oman in late 2018, that’s when I noticed that he was special. He’s making the whole region better each and every day.”
“What did you two talk about?” I inquire.
“A lot of things. We spent a lot of time together, talking about the peace process and Israel’s accomplishments. I gave him a book about Saudi Arabia in English, as well as a souvenir from Mecca.”
“Every time you talk about him you smile,” I say, reminding Mohammed of the glow on his face.
“Everyone in the Middle East respects him. He’s very powerful. When people who have traditionally been your enemies start to love you, that’s when you know that you’re on the right path. That’s what happened with Bibi.”
“Why do you think they respect him?”
“Aside from being charismatic, he’s a very good diplomat. He really represents Israel very well, especially to the Arab countries. The man is making history. He’s been prime minister longer than anyone else. His name is synonymous with accomplishment. There aren’t many people like him.”
“There was a rumor that you lost your Saudi citizenship in light of your trip to Israel,” I say.
“There was no truth to it,” he shoots back.
“Did you ask the Saudi government for permission before you went?” I ask.
“No. I got an invitation from the Israeli government, and I accepted it. I didn’t involve anyone else. But a week after my visit, Bibi mentioned at a cabinet meeting that he’d reached out to the Saudis and asked them not to punish me. I was really honored. And if I’m ever invited again, I’d love to go back.”
“Bibi really likes you,” I tell him. “He’s always mentioning you. I saw a video of the two of you talking on the phone last week. How did a kid from Saudi Arabia come to have a relationship with one of the most powerful people in the Middle East?”
“I don’t have any direct contact with him; it’s usually through Twitter and Facebook. That call was unusual because some of the people I’d gotten to know in Israel happened to be nearby and we made a live call. But I’m very grateful for his friendship. I wake up every morning and pray for him. Forget about politics; when you’re talking to him, it doesn’t feel like you’re speaking to a head of state. It feels like he’s your friend. He’s very pashut,” he says, using another word in his Hebrew repertoire.
“You’re very knowledgeable about Israeli politics. Everyone knows you’re pro-Netanyahu, but what’s going to happen if Gantz wins the next election?”
“Bibi is the one who will make peace between Israel and the Arab countries. Gantz was a good IDF general and I respect him. But when it comes to support, I’m all for Bibi and the Likud Party.”
“I heard Bibi telling you last week that it’s a shame you can’t vote,” I offer.
“Yes,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone knows that I love Netanyahu, because without him at the helm there will be no peace.
“If Gantz becomes prime minister, will you support him?”
“I will always support Israel. I will never stop praying for it.”
“What are your thoughts on Netanyahu’s indictment?
“I believe he’s innocent and will be found innocent in court. When all the evidence is presented, all the lies will disappear.”
“Did you visit the Kotel as well?”
“Yes, but by then I was accompanied by security, because it was after the attack on the Har Habayit. It was only a short visit, and I tried to keep a low profile, but people still recognized me. Everyone kept saying, ‘Baruch Haba!’ Someone even brought me a chair to sit on. Everyone was so nice. I was invited into many homes. You know,” he tells me, “you’re not the only Jewish person I’ve met with in Saudi Arabia. I once had coffee with Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s special representative for international negotiations.”
“Really? How did that come about?” I ask.
“One day I happened to notice he’d tweeted that he was visiting Saudi Arabia. Now, if you were to ask me who my favorite people are after Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, I’d have to say Bibi and Greenblatt. Greenblatt is a peacemaker who has come up with some pretty good solutions. We’re all obviously in very different positions, but I believe we share the same goal, which is to bring peace to the Middle East. So when I saw that he was in Riyadh I tweeted back and said I’d love to meet him, never expecting him to reply. Much to my surprise he did, and we went out for coffee. I’m getting to know the world’s greatest peacemakers personally!” he exclaims. “Can there be anything greater than that?”
“You spend much of your day online, tweeting and commenting on events,” I say. “Is there any way to monetize it somehow or turn it into a job? Maybe you could do a speaking tour or write a book.”
“Whatever I can do to promote peace is going to be done gratis,” he replies. “There’s nothing better than being in a position where you can actually save lives. People in this part of the world are tired of the killings, the terror and the wars. We want a happy future for our children. But there are some people who can’t stand the fact that I want to make peace, and they tell all sorts of lies to discredit me. People have even said that I’m not really from Saudi Arabia; I’m a Yemenite Jew. But if I were a fake, I wouldn’t have gotten attacked on the Har Habayit!”
“In my opinion, one of the most important things your visit to Israel accomplished is that people now know that you’re for real,” I offer.
“When they realized that I’m not a bot, they started saying that I’m a Teimani from Rosh Ha’ayin. When people don’t like what you’re doing, they try to destroy you. If I wasn’t accomplishing big things, I wouldn’t have any enemies. Peace haters are everywhere, and unfortunately some of them are in Israel.”
“When do you think we’ll see official diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia?” I ask, hoping for a prediction.
“Inshall-h, I think it will be very soon.”
“Have you ever met Mohammad bin Salman?” I ask.
“Unfortunately, no,” he tells me in dismay.
“Are you sure?” I prod him. “There are rumors that you work for the Saudi government.”
“People say all sorts of crazy things about me. Sometimes they spread lies if they ask me for an interview and I turn them down. None of it is real.”
“What do you think Mohammad bin Salman’s biggest accomplishments have been so far?” I ask.
“He’s changed the face of Saudi Arabia. He is a leader with vision who is opening us up to the world. The economy is booming and everyone is talking about us. We are also now playing an integral role in the quest for peace in the Middle East. Mohammad bin Salman is a young man, but he is very wise and he knows what he’s doing. We are very fortunate to have someone like him running the country. I would never have imagined that women would be able to drive or travel without a male guardian. He’s making Saudi Arabia great again!”
Mohammed isn’t alone in sharing these sentiments about Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. The country has a population of over 30 million, and over 70% of its citizens are under 30. The youth of Saudi Arabia are far more progressive than their parents, and they overwhelmingly support MbS and the monumental reforms he has made. I’ve spoken to many Saudis, and he is genuinely well-liked.
“What happens when you walk down the streets of Riyadh? Do people recognize you?”
“One hundred percent. There’s nowhere to hide. But I go out and lead a normal life. Sometimes people do come over to talk to me, but most of them are a little intimidated because they know I’ve met with world leaders. I’m just a regular guy, but they think I’m better connected or more powerful than I really am.”
“Do you ever feel threatened?” I wonder.
“Most of the threats I get are online, from people in countries that aren’t friendly to Saudi Arabia like Qatar or from Palestinians. But I’m not worried that anyone will physically attack me.”
“Have you ever thought about visiting the Jewish community in the United States?”
“Yes.” he says. “It would be my pleasure. I get many invitations and thousands of messages on social media. But it’s impossible to respond to everyone. I do my best.”
“So much of your time is spent on social media. When do you have any time for anything else?” I inquire.
“It’s not easy. I recently graduated from university, but I’m still studying law. The only answer is that if you really love something you find the time for it, even if you’re very busy. But this is what I live for. I want to wake up one day in a world without war, a world in which there are diplomatic and business relations between all the countries of the Middle East. We are cousins who have many things in common. We need to stop hesitating and build a bridge to peace!” he says resolutely.
“I’d like to add that I am tremendously grateful to you and Ami Magazine. It’s the best media outlet with which I’ve ever dealt. You’re honest, and there aren’t many others like you. I really enjoy reading your articles online, especially the interview you did with Khalaf Al-Habtoor from Dubai. He’s another man of peace I’d like to meet one day. A lot of people were really shocked when that interview came out. There are a lot of haters out there, but in the end he got his message across and inspired many, many people. I’m not trying to put myself in the same league, but Bibi, Jason Greenblatt, Khalaf Al-Habtoor and I all aspire to the same thing, even if we’re going about it in different ways. It takes courage and hard work, but we will do it, Inshall-h.”
As Mohammed and I wrap up our conversation, I realize that I haven’t davened Minchah. Being that I wouldn’t feel comfortable davening in the airport, I ask Mohammed if it would be okay if I davened in his majlis. He tells me to feel at home, and then asks me if I want him to leave the room. I assure him that he’s more than welcome to stay, so he sits down on one of the couches and watches me with interest while I figure out which direction to face in order to direct my prayers towards Yerushalayim. He then closes his eyes and sways a bit, looking as if he’s concentrating intently.
I take three steps back and begin Shemoneh Esrei. When I get to the words “Hamevareich es amo Yisrael bashalom,” I can’t help but marvel at the experience I’m having, which has been so peaceful on so many levels. After I finish Shemoneh Estrei, I turn around and see that Mohammed’s eyes are still closed and he has a serene look on his face. This man has already taken a lot of flak for his public statements and positions. No one knows what the future holds, but one thing is clear: Mohammed Saud is an oheiv shalom, and he tweets so frequently that I’d consider him a rodeif shalom as well. I’m confident that he will stop at nothing until he achieves his goal.