Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman
(Tim Dugan Books)
Mohammed Bin Salman, better known by his initials, MBS, is today the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and seems poised to become Saudi King upon the death of his ailing father, 86 year old Salman bin Abdulaziz. Still youthful at age 36, MBS has achieved what appears to be unchallenged power within the mysterious desert kingdom, the birthplace of Islam and the location of its two most holy sites. Internationally, MBS is indelibly associated with the gruesome October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a murder he probably ordered, but if not almost certainly enabled. Even apart from the Khashoggi killing, the Saudi Crown Prince has compiled a record that is awash in contradictions since his ascent to power began in 2015.
MBS seems bent on modernizing and diversifying the oil-dependent Saudi economy. He has taken highly publicized steps against corruption; clipped the wings of the clergy and religious police; and accorded Saudi women the right to drive. Young Saudis appreciate that MBS is largely responsible for movie theatres opening and rock concerts now taking place in their country. But MBS’s record is also one of brutal suppression of opponents, potential opponents and dissidents – brutal even by Saudi standards. His regime seems to be borrowing from the authoritarian Chinese model of extensive economic modernization, accompanied by limited and tightly controlled social liberalization, all without feigning even nominal interest in political democratization. Saudi Arabia under MBS remains, like China, one of the world’s least democratic societies.
In MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman, Ben Hubbard, a journalist for The New York Times with extensive experience in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, has produced the first — and to date only — biography of the Saudi Crown Prince available in English. Any biography of MBS is bound to be incomplete, given the wall of secrecy MBS has built up around himself, shielding much of the detail of what he has done and how he operates within the generally secretive royal Saudi circles. But somehow Hubbard managed to scale that wall. Using a wide array of sources, many anonymous, he has pieced together a remarkably easy-to-read yet riveting and alarming portrait of a man who has eliminated all apparent sources of competition.
Today’s Saudi Arabia is in unfamiliar territory, with power concentrated in a single individual, Hubbard demonstrates convincingly. Everyone of consequence, from rich tycoons to the extensive royal Saudi family itself, answers to MBS. There is little that Saudi Arabia’s old elites can do to counter the upstart Crown Prince. The collegial days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided portfolios among themselves, and decisions were made through consensus are little more than memories of a by-gone era. MBS has “destroyed that system” (p.267), Hubbard bluntly concludes.
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Although MBS studied law at university and finished 4th in his class in 2007, at the time of his graduation there was little reason to expect that he would become anything more than, as Hubbard puts it, a “middling prince who dabbled in business and pitched up abroad now and then for a fancy vacation” (p.15). Unlike many Saudi princes, the young MBS “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 became functional, in a foreign language. He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere in the West” (p.16).
All that changed in January 2015, when his father Salman became Saudi king at age 79. MBS, 29 years old, was named Minister of Defense and placed in charge of the Royal Court, with a huge role to play in the kingdom’s finances. Within days, he had reorganized the government, setting up separate supreme councils for economic development and security. Although little known outside inner Saudi circles at the time, as Minister of Defense MBS was the force behind the Saudi military intervention in neighboring Yemen to suppress an on-going insurgency led by the Houthis, an Islamist group from Northern Yemen whom the Saudis had long considered proxies for Iran.
Touted as a quick and easy military intervention, the conflict in Yemen turned into a stalemate, with humanitarian and refugee crises that continue to this day. The decision to intervene militarily appears to have been that of MBS alone — a “one man show,” as a Saudi National Guard official told Hubbard, undertaken with no advance consultation, either internally or with the Saudis’ traditional military benefactors in Washington. The National Guard official told Hubbard that the Saudi intervention was “less about protecting the kingdom than burnishing MBS’ reputation as a tough leader” (p.91).
In April 2017, King Salman appointed MBS’ cousin, the considerably older Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN, as Crown Prince, with MBS named “Deputy Crown Prince,” second in line to the throne. MBN had been the Saudis’ official voice and face in the war on terror, with deep CIA contacts. The Americans thought he was the perfect “next generation” king. But MBS had other ideas. Although the Deputy Crown Prince remained outwardly deferential to his cousin, he appears to have been plotting MBN’s ouster at least from the time his cousin was appointed Crown Prince. When the plot succeeded in June 2017, with MBS replacing his cousin as Saudi Crown Prince, the official Saudi version was that the appointment was the decision of King Salman alone.
Hubbard tells an altogether different story. In his account, MBS in effect kidnapped his cousin to force his abdication. When MBN refused to abdicate, a council friendly to MBS met to formally “ratify” what was presented as a “decision” of the king to make MBS Crown Prince. Only then did MBN give in, signing a document of abdication. He was placed under house arrest by guards loyal to MBS and removed of his counterterrorism and security duties, which were “reassigned” to a new security body that reported to MBS. His bank accounts were frozen and he was stripped of many of his assets. In March 2020, MBN was arrested on charges of treason and has not been heard from since, held in a location unknown even to his lawyers.
MBS attracted world attention few months later, in November 2017, when he invited many fellow members of the royal family, along with other movers and shakers within the kingdom, to the posh Ritz-Carleton hotel in Riyadh for what was billed as an anti-corruption conference. Anxious to meet MBS and obtain insider advantages, the attendees eagerly came to Riyadh, only to be all-but-arrested and forcibly detained when they arrived. The detentions at what was dubbed the world’s most luxurious prison lasted weeks and sometimes months. By mid-February 2018, most of the detainees had “settled” with the government and were allowed to leave. The Ritz detainments were what Hubbard describes as a pivot point in MBS’ ascendancy, an “economic earthquake that shook the pillars of the kingdom’s economy and rattled its major figures” (p.200), all of whom thereafter answered to MBS.
Less noticed internationally was a surprise royal decree stripping the Wahhabi religious police of many of their powers. Henceforth, they could not arrest, question, or pursue subjects except in cooperation with the regular police. The decree, part of an on-going effort to curtail the authority of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, “defanged the clerics,” Hubbard writes, “clearing the way for vast changes [which] they most certainly would have opposed” (p.63). The changes involved some wildly popular measures, especially the opening of commercial cinemas and other entertainment venues, such as concerts and opera. Equally popular was a decree allowing Saudi women to drive.
For decades, activist Saudi women had challenged, often at considerable cost to themselves, a ban on driving that was only a Wahhabi religious dictate, not codified officially in Saudi law (in 2017, I reviewed here the memoir of Manal Al-Sharif, one such activist). But when MBS saw fit to declare women eligible to drive in June 2018, he did not give any credit to the activist women. They were never thanked publicly or even acknowledged; some were jailed almost simultaneously with the lifting of the ban.
MBS’ grandiose and upbeat plans for modernizing the Saudi economy by shifting away from its oil-dependency found expression in his Vision 2030 document. Prepared in collaboration with a phalanx of international consultants, Vision 2030 projected that the kingdom would create new industries, rely on renewable energy, and manufacture its own military equipment, all in an effort to “transform itself into a global investment giant, and establish itself as a hub for Europe, Asia, and Africa” (p.67). MBS presented his plan when he accompanied his father to a meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, where it was perceived as a slick set of talking points, without much depth.
Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia and MBS all fared better when the administration of Donald Trump replaced the Obama administration in early 2017. One of the greatest ironies of the Trump era, Hubbard writes, was that Trump, “after demeaning Saudi Arabia and its faith throughout the campaign, would, in the course of a few months, anoint Saudi Arabia a preferred American partner and the lynchpin of his Middle East policy” (p.107). Saudi-American relations improved in the Trump years in no small part because of the warm if unlikely relationship that MBS struck with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, two young “princelings,” as Hubbard describes them, “an Arab from central Arabia and a Jew from New Jersey”(p.113).
The two princelings were “both in their thirties and scions of wealthy families who had been chosen by older relatives to wield great power. They both lacked extensive experience in government, and saw little need to be bound by its strictures” (p.113). Their relationship blossomed because Kushner viewed MBS as someone who could help unlock peace between Israel and Arabs, while MBS expected Kushner to push the United States to champion Vision 2030, stand up to Iran, and support him as he sought to consolidate power. But the Khassoggi killing in October 2018 temporarily flummoxed even the Trump administration.
Khashoggi had served briefly as one of MBS’s confidantes as the Crown Prince began his rise to power. Their initial meeting led Khashoggi to believe that MBS was open to openness and had given him a “mandate to write about, and even critique, the prince’s reforms” (p.78). But as Khasshoggi became a more visible critic of the regime from abroad, mostly in the United States where he was a permanent legal resident and wrote for The Washington Post, the relationship deteriorated. Hubbard was an associate and friend of Khashoggi and dedicates a substantial portion of the last third of his book to the slain journalist and what we know about his killing.
Hubbard presents a plausible argument that MBS may not have actually ordered the killing — essentially that MBS’s team was carrying out what they thought the boss wanted, without being explicitly ordered to do so. Even so, MBS had “fostered the environment in which fifteen government agents and a number of Saudi diplomats believed that butchering a nonviolent writer inside a consulate was the appropriate response to some newspaper columns” (p.280). The Khassoggi’s killing served as a wake up call for the world. It “flushed away much of the good will and excitement that MBS had spent the last four years generating” (p.276).
In the aftermath of the killing, President Trump issued a statement in which he insisted that United States security alliances and massive Saudi purchases of US weaponry were more important than holding top Saudi leadership accountable. “We do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good,” Trump was quoted as saying. After publication of Hubbard’s book, a new administration led by Joe Biden arrived in Washington amidst hopes that the United States would recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of the known facts about the Khassoggi killing.
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Those hopes increased in February of this year when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a two-page summation of its investigation into the killing (the Trump administration had withheld the full report for nearly two years). The ODNI concluded that MBS had “approved” the Khashoggi killing. But its conclusion was derived inferentially rather than from any “smoking gun” evidence it chose to reveal publicly.
The ODNI based its conclusion on MBS’ “control of decision-making in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.” Given MBS’s “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations,” the ODNI found it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”
To the disappointment of human rights activists, the Biden administration nonetheless determined that it would impose no direct punishment on MBS. Sanctioning MBS, according to an anonymous senior official quoted in The Washington Post, would have been viewed in the kingdom as an “enormous insult,” making an ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia “extremely difficult, if not impossible.” After having looked at the MBS case extremely closely over the course of about five weeks, the senior official said that the Biden foreign policy team had reached the “unanimous conclusion” that there was “another more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward.” As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated at a public press conference, sounding eerily like former President Trump, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is “bigger than any one individual.”
The Biden administration did identify 76 other Saudi officials subject to sanctions for their presumed roles in the killing. President Biden also announced the end of US military supplies and intelligence sharing for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. He has moreover refused to speak directly with MBS, restricting his contact to his father, King Salman. For the time being, MBS’ Washington contacts as the Saudi defense minister stop at the level of the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin.
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These protocol decisions will have to be revisited if, as expected, MBS becomes king when his ailing father dies. One way or another, the United States will need to find a way to deal with a man likely to be a consequential figure on the world stage for decades to come.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 31, 2021