Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, established two things soon after his father, Salman, became king in 2015 and began handing him the keys to the kingdom.
The aspiring wunderkind, now aged 35, quickly cleared a path to the throne and ended the House of Saud’s consensual model of an absolute monarchy with no absolute monarch, seizing all the reins of power. Second, he surged forward with social and economic reform in a state until now under theocratic tutelage, where change has traditionally been driven at speeds between slow and stop.
Prince Mohammed set a furious pace for a ruling family that would coalesce slowly around low common denominators, with caution and consensus as its watchwords, so change-averse it did not outlaw slavery until 1962.
MBS, the colloquial shorthand into which he soon abbreviated amid effusions of hyperbole, came seemingly out of nowhere. Almost no foreign ministry or security service had a file on him. After he launched an air war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in March 2015, Washington sent Tony Blinken, a top adviser to then vice-president Joe Biden, to Riyadh. The person he met was Mohammed bin Nayef, a long-trusted US ally MBS would depose as crown prince in 2017.
In the blink of an eye the headstrong and untried young prince became arguably the pivotal leader in the Arab world, seeking a new source of legitimacy by embodying the pent-up aspirations of a young population, about two-thirds of them under 30. Clipping the wings of the Wahhabi clerical establishment which has traditionally legitimised the House of Saud, he is slowly dismantling gender segregation and the cloistering of women, promoting mixed entertainment including hitherto banned concerts and cinema, and claiming to offer young people fulfilling lives as well as decent livelihoods.
This is a breathtaking gamble, and understanding it will be greatly assisted by the arrival of two fine books: Blood and Oil by financial journalists Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck (the source of the Blinken story); and Vision or Mirage by veteran US diplomat David Rundell.
Hope and Scheck have written a crisp page-turner of a book teeming with telling detail. Described by their publishers as covering “finance and malfeasance” and “white collar crime” respectively for the Wall Street Journal, they have come, as it were, to the right place.
Before a hit squad answering to his enforcers dismembered Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken Saudi columnist, at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Mohammed bin Salman was probably best known to the world as the young prince in a hurry behind Vision 2030 to transform his country’s economy — and letting Saudi women drive for the first time.
In 2015, when MBS took over as economy tsar as well as defence and foreign policy chief, the collapse in oil prices meant state expenditure — on a vast public payroll and a bloated stable of stipendiary princelings — exceeded oil income. His radical attempt to fire up the economy with private investment and wean it off what he called “an addiction to oil” electrified the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s position in the Middle East, in the Arab world and in Islam, makes it a bit like three systemically neuralgic banks that could bring down the financial system. It is too big to fail — but it just might. The princely vision was bold, designed to identify engines of growth from tourism to technology and lift the kingdom purring into the post-oil era. As Hope and Scheck make clear, Vision 2030 was also chock full of fantasy, sold to an autocrat by mercenary consultants who might as well have been scriptwriters for Walt Disney. It foresaw non-oil revenue quadrupling by 2020 (it hasn’t) before doubling again by 2030 (it won’t).
Nor, for instance, is the world’s third largest arms purchaser likely to raise locally sourced weapons production from practically nothing to 50 per cent by 2030. Global investors and salivating bankers, moreover, beat a path to Riyadh looking for a big slice of Saudi money, not to invest their own.
Blood and Oil is particularly good on the link-up between the Saudi sovereign wealth fund and Masayoshi Son of SoftBank, into whose overblown and underperforming Vision Fund MBS put a now dwindling $45bn.
Son, with a dismal investment record, wanted a fund “big enough to disrupt the whole technology world” more than to seed new Saudi investment. His megalomania matches that of MBS, whose project for a futuristic $500bn city powered by robots in north-west Arabia Son called “a work of art”. Consultants to the prince could hardly demur, confirming it would deliver lifespans unknown in the present world, and a crime-free environment under total surveillance.
Hope and Scheck, and Rundell, are good on the so-called “sheikdown” at the Ritz-Carlton in November 2017: 300-plus from the Saudi elite held in a gilded cage and forced to surrender a claimed $100bn in allegedly illicitly acquired assets. Some 11 princes were detained. The main target was political, Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the previous king and chief of the National Guard, the nexus between the al-Saud and the great Arabian tribes. After getting rid of Mohammed bin Nayef (and his interior ministry army), Miteb was the last obstacle to MBS succeeding his own father.
There is plenty more in Hope and Scheck’s splendid book. The way MBS appropriated to himself confiscated assets, and spent fortunes on palaces, paintings, yachts and parties, and a pastiche Versailles château. His dispossession of the elites was popular and populist. Yet he seems to believe the Salman family, unjustly deprived by the Abdullah clan, has sole right to al-Saud wealth.
We know MBS, unlike his older half-brothers, was educated solely in Saudi Arabia. Less known is how carefully he studied the workings of power. From very early on he built up his own intelligence capability that would become a fearful weapon — as Jamal Khashoggi would tragically discover.
Fear is something David Rundell’s epic history of the House of Saud finds pervasive in Prince Mohammed’s realm. “Saudi Arabia was never an open society, but it was not a police state,” he writes in Vision or Mirage. He should know. He spent 15 years in various posts at the US embassy in Riyadh. On his first assignment he was told to “spend 10 days a month for nearly two years travelling the byroads of rural Saudi Arabia to see what I could learn”. The answer is: a lot. His account, encompassing the rise and fall of two previous Saudi kingdoms in the 18th and 19th centuries, is unlikely to be bettered.
King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, known to the west as Ibn Saud, unified by force the kingdom that bears his name in a 30-year war of conquest. The hegemonic myth of the al-Saud is that they brought stability where there was chaos, and most Saudis probably subscribe to it. As with the preceding kingdoms, the House of Saud’s legitimacy rested on its compact with the House of Ibn Abdul Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher Rundell describes as an Arabian Martin Luther with a touch of John Calvin — charitable in light of the radical bigotry of Wahhabism that has survived into the present era.
Yet Ibn Saud eventually turned on his strike-force of unruly Ikhwan warriors, Wahhabi fanatics he crushed with the help of British machine-guns and bombers. He destroyed the independence of the tribes, marrying into most of them to turn al-Saud into a super-tribe.
He learnt the dangers of over-reach, the vital importance of family unity, and of alignment with the superpower of the day — inaugurated by his famous 1945 meeting with President Roosevelt aboard a US warship in the Suez Canal. Rundell’s whole book is excellent and analytically rigorous but Part III, with its chapters on tribes, clerics, merchants and technocrats who, under the royal family, were the foundations of Saudi rule after Ibn Saud, is exceptional.
MBS, who Hope and Scheck say is awed by Alexander the Great and Machiavelli, consciously models himself on his illustrious grandfather; “websites showing the face of Abdulaziz morphing into that of MBS echo the point”, writes Rundell. The question is whether he is spurning Ibn Saud’s example.
Prince Mohammed prefers a model of “Salman Arabia” to Saudi Arabia; some of his followers talk of a “fourth kingdom”. He has undermined three pillars of al-Saud rule: the royal family, the Wahhabi clerics, and perhaps tribal loyalty by seizing control of the National Guard. The first member of the third generation set to ascend the throne, he has broken decisively with the post-Ibn Saud model, essentially of his 34 sons sharing power. This may have been “a hereditary political party in a one-party state”, as Rundell says, but he reminds us that more than 100 princes and “several dozen” religious leaders gathered a generation ago to replace the inept King Saud with King Faisal.
That warrant is over. The young prince has destroyed the old balance of power. “The crown prince is betting on demographics”, but in his hubristic despotism seems to envisage no institutions to organise any outpouring of youthful energy. “The entertainment-based support of the crowd may prove less reliable than the interest-based support of the old established elites”, Rundell warns. That is what may decide whether MBS turns out as a vision or a mirage.
Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, John Murray, RRP£20, 346 pages
Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads, by David Rundell, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 304 pages
David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor
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