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How Mohammed bin Salman became the world’s most powerful millennial

The extraordinary rise of the elusive, impulsive crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

How do you write the biography of an elusive, impulsive prince, the world’s most powerful millennial and ruler of one of its richest, yet still most impenetrable countries? Ben Hubbard’s answer is to weave the thin biographical details into the wider story of Mohammed bin Salman’s rapid, improbable ascent and bind it together with gripping vignettes from years of reporting in the kingdom and around the region. Simply titled MBS, as the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is most often known, this book is impeccably timed – between an oil war with Russia that has sent prices tumbling and a global pandemic that has deprived the kingdom of yet another major source of income. The usually teeming holy sites of Mecca and Medina are deserted and – although still officially scheduled for July – the Hajj, the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, will mostly likely have to be cancelled. 

MBS’s grandiose reform plans are now under intense pressure. His ambition, laid out in Vision 2030 – a programme to lessen the country’s reliance on oil and bring about a more “vibrant” society – was the only reason the young prince became a darling of the West soon after he was catapulted on to the world stage in 2015. He did not deliver on his promise that by 2020 the kingdom would be able to live without oil and his hopes of basking in the glory of hosting the G20 summit in November look dim. 

There are no revelations in MBS but Hubbard, Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times, who has spent more than a dozen years reporting from the region, delivers a compelling tale for a wide audience – more reportage than narrative, more anecdotes than deep analysis. In doing so, he provides non-experts with an accessible biography that does not stray into sensationalism but helps make sense of all the recent headlines around the impulsive, and one could argue, dangerous, young prince. 

MBS did not give an interview for the book and Hubbard is upfront about the gaps that remain in our understanding of a man who until just a few years ago did not seem destined to be more than one among thousands of princes in the House of Saud. As he writes: 

Much still remains unclear about how MBS spent his twenties, largely because he did so little that drew attention at the time and because so much effort would later go into retroactively polishing his reputation. But what is clear is everything MBS did not do before he burst on to the scene in 2015. He never ran a company that made a mark. He never acquired military experience. He never studied at a foreign university. He never mastered, or even become functional in, a foreign language. He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere in the West. 

And yet, this man, though still only crown prince, launched a devastating war in Yemen in 2015, played a high-risk gambit in the global oil market and chatted away on WhatsApp with another inexperienced princeling, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, discussing policies with consequences that reverberate around the world, including the stand-off with Iran. 

MBS’s formation was a deeply Saudi one. The bond with his father, Prince Salman, long-time powerful governor of Riyadh, had tightened after two of MBS’s older brothers died around 2001. But even as the son of the governor, MBS was lost in a sea of richer and more important relatives. He seemed to resent that. King Abdullah saw him as “an upstart whose experience fell far short of his ambitions” and thwarted his advancement. MBS talked a big, idle talk about wanting to be “the next Alexander the Great”, discussing Margaret Thatcher’s economic models and comparing himself to disruptive leaders like Steve Jobs. 

Then, fate intervened. Succession rules in the kingdom meant that MBS was nowhere in the pecking order until two princes next in line to the throne died around 2012 and MBS’s father Salman was suddenly elevated to crown prince. MBS stood in the shadows. In January 2015, King Abdullah died and Salman acceded to the throne, his favourite child in tow. At the age of 29, MBS was named minister of defence and he then accumulated various other key positions. 

In 2017, he ruthlessly pushed aside crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the trusted ally of the US on all things counter-terrorism. With much ceremony, bin Nayef handed over his position to his young cousin – before being put under house arrest. 

MBS seemed to revel in the role of disrupter. In 2017 he went on a crusade against corruption, rounding up dozens if not hundreds of princes, businessmen and others in the Ritz Carlton hotel, stripping them of their fortunes and provoking an economic earthquake in the kingdom. But while there was indeed mass corruption in Saudi Arabia, Hubbard argues that it was in an environment “created by the royal family” and those princes who were still on MBS’s good side could continue to profit. Just like MBS himself, who appeared not to see the contradiction between what he preached and his own spending habits, buying a $300m house, a super-yacht and, reportedly, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvator Mundi for $450m. 

The prince’s excesses and rough edges were dismissed by those he charmed, from Silicon Valley to Washington, DC. He dangled the prospect of huge deals and investment opportunities in the kingdom, of cities rising in the desert where “scientists could modify the human genome to make people smarter and stronger. Mechanical dinosaurs could populate a Jurassic Park-like attraction… A beach would feature glow-in-the-dark sand.” 

Here, finally, was a young man with vision who could bring the kingdom into the 21st century. And in many ways, MBS did go where no other royal had gone. He defanged the religious police and brought music, cinema and theatre to the austere kingdom where they had been deemed a sin for centuries. He understood this was essential to defuse the time bomb of a very young and very bored, frustrated population. He also reversed the ban on women driving – while jailing the women who had campaigned for the right to drive lest anyone get any ideas about the power of activism in an absolute monarchy. 

There was much to laud but the bar was low. And it came at a price of even less freedom for citizens, with something new added to the mix: fear. “Saudi Arabia had never been a democracy but more of a soft-gloved autocracy,” Hubbard writes, but MBS was turning it into a “laboratory for a new kind of electronic authoritarianism”, deploying online surveillance and armies of Twitter trolls.

But the allure of authoritarianism as the answer to shortcomings of US or Western policy in the Middle East is enduring. The veneer of modern-seeming rulers who use iPads, speak English or introduce Cirque du Soleil to their people continues to hide the lack of substantive, progressive reforms. MBS may have muzzled the more radical clerics but he did so primarily to pre-empt any challenge they could pose to the flood of Western-style entertainment he brought to the country. And the kingdom has done little to tackle the key issue: the ultra-orthodox, literalist tenets that underpin its interpretation of Islam, which are still taught in schools and universities and which promote intolerance beyond the borders of the kingdom. 

As well as providing a current history of Saudi Arabia and the story of the crown prince himself, MBS puts into sharp relief the increasingly problematic relationship between Saudi Arabia and the West, which has intensified during the presidency of Donald Trump. MBS and his team understood early on that if they offered help on the issues that mattered most to Trump, they could get away with almost anything. This explains why the kingdom remained mostly silent when Trump decided to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, or announced his hugely controversial Middle East peace plan in early 2020. 

The episode that people will associate most with MBS is the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The CIA declared with “high confidence” that MBS had ordered the assassination and a UN investigation declared it a “premeditated” killing, that was “overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials”. After a flurry of indignation, threats of sanctions and cancelled visits to the kingdom, the world’s boycott of Saudi Arabia ended and in October 2019 leaders flocked once more to a summit in Riyadh, dubbed Davos in the Desert, with Jared Kushner leading the way. 

MBS knows the kingdom will face a tough reckoning if a Democrat succeeds Trump, and in the coming lean times he will have much less with which to dazzle the West. But he also knows he can ride out a one-term or even a two-term US president: Hubbard quotes an interview where MBS seems to envisage ruling for the next five decades. There will be many more biographies of MBS, but Hubbard’s book is an excellent beginning. 

Kim Ghattas’s most recent book is “Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry That Unravelled the Middle East” (Wildfire)

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman
Ben Hubbard
William Collins, 384pp, £20

This article appears in the 08 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain