Last update: 2021-03-02 19:57:32
Review of Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammad Bin Salman, Tim Duggan Books, New York 2020.
Who really is Mohammad Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince famously known as MBS? This is the question that Ben Hubbard, Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, tries to answer in his MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammad Bin Salman. The book, however, is not just a biography of the Crown Prince. Rather, it is the story of his rise to power and the consequences of this rise for Saudi Arabia.
Born on August 31, 1985, little is known about the prince’s childhood. In fact, not many people were paying attention to the “sixth son of the twenty-fifth son of the founding king” (p.10). He spent his early childhood with his brothers and mother, the second wife of the then-governor of Riyadh, now King Salman, far away from the government buildings of the capital. The death of two of Salman’s children in the early 2000s, however, marked a turning point in the life of MBS, who grew closer to his father and began to develop relationships with palace officials. Unlike many members of the royal family, MBS studied at home, graduating with a law degree from the King Saud University in Riyadh. Additionally, he knows very little English, being a “Saudi traditionalist” (p.17) like his father. But MBS is also a son of the 21st century; he is fond of video games, Hollywood movies, and Facebook. During his years at university, the Crown Prince showed some resentment towards other, richer princes. However, MBS has always exuded ambition, with Alexander the Great and Margaret Thatcher acting as sources of inspiration for him. Thus, he has devoted himself to speculative activities in finance and construction. The prince’s strong and unscrupulous character has supported this ambition. For example, once he delivered a bullet to a land register officer to “soften” him during a property transfer. The enthronement of King Salman in 2015 opened the doors of the royal palaces to the young and inexperienced MBS. His father appointed him Minister of Defense and placed him at the head of the Royal Court. Here begins the tortuous path that led the prince to become simultaneously “No.1 and No. 2” (p. 269) in the monarchy hierarchy.
Hubbard retraces the central role of the Crown Prince in the hasty decision-making process surrounding the start of the Yemeni Civil War, in the kidnapping of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri—guilty of having come to terms with Hezbollah—and in the formation of an anti-corruption committee that locked over 350 people in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton and froze nearly 2,000 bank accounts. Hubbard dedicates a chapter to Saudi Arabia’s increasingly tense relations with Qatar, the breakdown of which took place at the suggestion of the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Mohammed Bin Zayed, who Hubbard portrays as a guide, and sometimes manipulator, of MBS. During this phase, the prince tried to climb higher within the palace hierarchies. When he failed to do so institutionally, through the takeover of government bodies, he resorted to force. In addition to the cases already mentioned, Hubbard describes the pressure exerted by some MBS aides on Mohammed Bin Nayef, then Crown Prince, to abdicate. A key figure in MBS's entourage, Saud al-Qahtani, has contributed significantly to silencing critical voices against the new Crown Prince. In 2015, he convinced MBS, who was very suspicious of palace plots, that the “knowledge of the dark electronic arts could help him prevail” (p. 139). With the help of al-Qahtani, MBS, aware of the role of social media in influencing public opinion, “built Saudi Arabia into a laboratory for a new kind of electronic authoritarianism” (p. 140). Al-Qahtani not only advised the prince, but also played an active role in purging dissidents. First, he launched a Twitter campaign in which he asked Saudis, who are very active on social networks, to mark inconvenient figures with the hashtag #The_Black_List, a sort of McCarthyism 2.0. Al-Qahtani, dubbed the “Lord of the Flies” because of the army he deployed against dissenters on online platforms, also extended his work to the real world, where he led the “Rapid Intervention Group,” a team engaged “in surveillance, harassment, and kidnapping of Saudi citizens overseas, as well as their detention and sometimes torture inside palaces belonging to MBS” (p. 144).
For MBS, however, consolidating power in the Kingdom has not satiated his ambition. MBS understood that the image of Saudi Arabia in the world had to change. Hubbard focuses primarily on a topic dear to Western observers, namely the removal of the driving ban imposed on women, by dedicating two chapters to the history of Saudi activism from the 1990s to present. To further recast the image of Saudi Arabia, MBS created the General Entertainment Authority to launch a local entertainment industry, a novelty for the Kingdom. The prince also promotes a narrative of a return to a moderate pre-1979 Islam, though it does not stand up to scrutiny. Additionally, the launch of the Vision 2030 Project, developed by Boston Consulting Group, and the announcement of the Saudi Aramco Initial Public Offering (IPO) convey an image of openness, transparency, and modernization aimed at appealing to the West. MBS has devoted extensive time to these initiatives during his visits to the United States and the United Kingdom. Hubbard recounts that in 2015, during meetings between King Salman and senior American officials, including President Barack Obama, “MBS sat elsewhere in the room and typed on another iPad, presumably dictating talking points to the king” (p. 102). Following frictions with the Obama administration, relations between the US and Saudi Arabia improved after the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and, more specifically, the appearance of Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. Hubbard describes how the Kushner family is “like a monarchy, but New Jersey-style”, (p. 109) and how the two “little princes,” as the author calls them, “saw little need to be bound by government structures” (p. 113). Beyond converging state interests, therefore, personal affinity has cemented the relationship between Kushner and MBS.
Throughout the book, Hubbard describes the story of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who became critical of Riyadh after first supporting the Saudi intervention in Yemen, using the story to symbolize the link between Washington and Riyadh. Hubbard reports Khashoggi's story from a human point of view through messages shared with Maggie Mitchell Salem, Khashoggi’s longtime American friend and the Executive Director of the Qatar Foundation International. Hubbard, in describing Khashoggi’s American period, reconstructs in detail the journalist's visits to Saudi embassies and his growing concerns regarding his personal safety. The long list of these visits ends at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which Khashoggi never leaves. Khashoggi’s death, handled by al-Qahtani and carried out by the command of 15 Saudis in 2018, shook the relationship between Washington and Riyadh. Suddenly, all of the initiatives promoted by MBS and appreciated in the West became obscured by the war in Yemen, by the repression of civil society, and by the prince’s covert practices in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Hubbard notes that only “the White House had MBS’s back” (p. 273), while other big firms—including Virgin Group, the Blackstone Group, Uber, and SoftBank—renounced business commitments with the country. While MBS had tried to present himself as the sole modernizer of the Kingdom, Khashoggi’s death only served to highlight the ferocity of his repressive and centralizing impulses.
Hubbard's analysis ends in the summer of 2019, and consequently he does not analyze more recent developments. Just over a year and a half after Khashoggi's death, the scheme championed by the prince and outlined by Hubbard does not seem to have changed much, apart from a partial change in posture towards Yemen. Former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef was arrested in March of this year along with another member of the old guard for corruption charges. The abolition of flogging as a corporal punishment in Saudi Arabia follows similar reforms that began with the granting of a driving license to women: positive changes but with little impact on the political freedoms of the kingdom’s subjects. The (since withdrawn) bid to buy the English football team Newcastle has been described by Amnesty International as a "sportswashing" initiative. Still, 96.7 percent of Newcastle fans said they were in favor of the new ownership. In the same period, Abdullah al-Hamid, a supporter of non-violent civil protests as an alternative to nasīha, the traditional warning addressed by religious men to rulers, died in prison while serving an 11-year sentence for activism. Similarly, Princess Basmah Bin Saud, MBS's cousin and human rights activist, reported that she was being held without trial in al-Ha'ir prison. Finally, tribal leader Abdul Rahim al-Hwaiti was killed during clashes with national security forces in the area where NEOM, the futuristic city that MBS has identified as a symbol of the country's modernization, is set to rise.
The path that led MBS to become first in the line of succession to the Saudi monarchy is therefore a process of “cutting down the traditional pillars of power – the clerics, the business elite, and the wider royal family” (p. 208) and all other obstacles to his ambitious vision. This process, in addition to moving him closer to the throne, has guaranteed MBS the support of new segments of the population, in particular young people. “I love him. He came as a young man who thought more like us” (p. 211), a Saudi girl told the author. On the other hand, it should be noted that ending restrictions on female drivers and the opening of entertainment spaces have little to do with the empowerment of civil society, or with the promotion of a more democratic government. Rather, to use Stéphane Lacroix’s expression, they should be interpreted as the initiatives of a “modernizing autocrat”, interested only in consolidating his position and making instrumental concessions on limited issues without eroding his authority. In cementing his grip on power, MBS relies on neither the Saudi religious establishment nor the most experienced members of the court, who are labeled as potential rivals. Rather, he relies upon a magical circle of emerging figures who are known “for what the prince appreciates most: blind loyalty” (p. 128). It is therefore no coincidence that, for example, al-Qahtani, the eminence grise in control of social networks, and the prince's point of reference for espionage matters, was repeatedly been scammed on the Hack Forums website back in 2015. This shows that al-Qahtani’s loyalty, rather than his expertise or experience, is what makes him a valuable asset to MBS.
Hubbard’s reconstruction of the rise of MBS is precise, sprinkled with interesting details, and enriched by the opinion of leading scholars, such as Stéphane Lacroix on the Saudi religious context. The journalistic style makes the text easily readable, while Hubbard’s extensive knowledge of Saudi society provides the work with depth. Precisely for this reason, the limited space devoted to certain issues, such as the management of oil policies and the execution of the Shiite shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, which further damaged already tense relations with Tehran, is striking. Hubbard’s thematic organization of chapters may offer a sense of discontinuity to some readers, but this structure also allows readers to appreciate the many contradictions that characterize MBS’s rise to power. Hubbard’s text paints a personality at times paranoid, with extremely ambivalent attitudes, dotted with affirmations and negations, theses not supported by reality, and continuous adjustments of his position. Mohammad Bin Salman’s unbridled search for power and personalist management of the state evokes a Saudi version of Louis XIV’s L’état, c’est moi philosophy, however, which synthesizes all of these behaviors. In the end, writes Hubbard, “an absolute monarchy is essentially a democracy of one” (p. 277).