Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks out as leaders arrive for a family photo at the G20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC1CF27DCB60
© Reuters

Barring accident or assa­ssination, Mohammed bin Salman is destined to become king of Saudi Arabia, the first monarch of the third generation to rule the country founded by his grandfather Ibn Saud in 1932. At only 34, Crown Prince Mohammed — often known by his initials MBS — is already a deeply divisive figure.

He has won praise from supporters, including much of the country’s youth, as a long-awaited game-changer. His far-reaching plans — known as Vision 2030 — promise a future that will free the kingdom both from dependence on oil and the stifling effects of religious ultraconservatism. But critics and opponents see him as harbinger of a new Saudi nationalism, an accessory to murder and a ruthless dictator in the making whose fanatical hatred of Iran has split the consensus of Gulf states, boycotting Qatar and creating a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

In this engaging account, Ben Hubbard shows both sides of the story, bringing his narrative alive with a host of insights, conversations, anecdotes and details. We learn how, as a young prince, Mohammed forged bonds with other teenagers by renting a fleet of jet skis for them. By royal Saudi standards, the family was not especially wealthy. Before becoming king, Mohammed’s father Salman, governor of Riyadh, had no personal “fortune”, unlike other princes who became hugely rich on commissions.

Part of Prince Mohammed’s motivation, Hubbard suggests, may be driven by his envy of wealthier cousins. Hence the lavish spending on Bugattis, super yachts and an ersatz “Louis XIV” palace in the Paris suburbs, along with the milking of royal princes and wealthy merchants who were incarcerated in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh until they paid up after admitting “corruption”. Up until his mid-twenties, “there was little reason to expect that he would become more than a middling prince who dabbled in business and pitched up abroad now and then for a fancy vacation”.

Front cover of 'MBS', by Ben Hubbard

However, once his father had “vaulted up the ladder” of succession following the death of older half-brothers, Prince Mohammed saw his opportunity. When Salman became king, the young prince grabbed the seal used on royal documents and evidently persuaded his father to merge the royal courts of the king and the existing crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef (known as “MBN”). This set the scene for transforming the old system based on a consensus within the ruling family alongside other forces including the religious establishment, into what is now becoming a full-blown autocracy where Prince Mohammed controls all the levers of power.

In plotting against his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, a favourite in Washington, MBS formed an alliance with Mohammed bin Zayed (known, needless to say, as “MBZ”), crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the driver of policy in the Emirates. Known for his hostility to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, who challenge dynastic systems, Mohammed bin Zayed took the young Saudi prince under his wing, supporting him against his cousin, whom he supplanted in a palace coup in 2017.

Although not educated abroad, like many of his cousins, Prince Mohammed has been dazzled by visits to Silicon Valley. He regards his plans for Neom, a city on the Red Sea coast, a $500bn project for “dreamers”, as not just an economic development, but a “civilisational leap for humanity”.

His hubris may have been blunted — if not checked — by the collapse in oil prices and his connection with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a measured and far from strident critic, whose gruesome dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, lucidly recounted by Hubbard, made international headlines. However, MBS is likely to remain unabashed in defending autocracy. “There is an advantage to quickness of decision making,” he told an audience in Silicon Valley in 2016, “the kind of fast change that an absolute monarch can do in one step that would take a traditional democracy 10 steps”.

During the current coronavirus crisis, after imposing curfews, lockdowns and banning visits to religious sites, Saudi Arabia has an official death toll of under 100. In rival Iran, where power is divided between different centres and shrines, the official death toll has passed 5,000, with many more yet to be counted.

Like other leaders, MBS has used Covid-19 to tighten the state’s control, while casting aside the opportunities to build bridges with Iran that have been taken by other Gulf states. Blaming Iran for disseminating the virus, he seems to be exploiting it to further his agenda of advancing Saudi nationalism and modernisation without loosening his grip on power.

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, by Ben Hubbard, William Collins, RRP£20, 384 pages

Malise Ruthven is the author of ‘L’Arabie des Saoud: Wahhabisme, violence et corruption’ (La fabrique)

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