(Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman)
Who is Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS? Is he a young visionary reformer that he purported to be when he first came on the scene; the man who most probably ordered the death of Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi; or a rising dictator whose lack of experience has led to rash decisions like the war in Yemen which has greatly contributed to the destabilization of the volatile Middle East. In Ben Hubbard’s new book MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, we are treated to a deep dive into how he rose to power in Saudi Arabia and what his policies have done to impact the daily lives of the Saudi people and the countries that must deal with the Riyadh regime, it’s oil wealth, and its influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times is very adept at digging deep into his subject area and developing astute observations. At first, he provides the background history that resulted in the creation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom and the context of the Salman family in particular MBS whose actions always seem driven by how he could maximize his own personal power and influence. Hubbard concentrates on the dynastic “pecking order” and how MBS, the sixth son of the twenty-sixth son of the kingdom’s founder would rise to power through luck and a series of deaths that unclogged the narrow path to achieve the position he coveted. With the passing of a number of princes MBS would then develop a strong relationship with his father as they realized that they held many things in common. This renewed relationship was the cornerstone that MBS rode to power which should result in his succeeding his father on the throne in the not too distant future.
(Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.)
In examining MBS’ life, Hubbard points out that he did little to make his mark before 2015, with no experience in the military, corporate policy, or knowledge how the United States functioned. This would result in a number of miscalculations in how he thought Washington would view his adventurous policies.
Despite extensive experience in the region, Hubbard viewed Saudi Arabia as a black hole because of its murky politics and opaque society that was dominated by social conservatism, support for terrorists, and its Wahhabis beliefs encouraging the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi influence appeared invisible, but Hubbard, a perceptive writer soon saw through what MBS was all about. The book is an easy read and points are understandable for the layman as Hubbard relies on his extensive knowledge in the region, interviews with people from all walks of life, and traveling the country extensively learning about the pre and post-MBS period before his visas were terminated in 2018.
Hubbard carefully details the political machinations within the royal family focusing on MBS’ competition with Mohammed Bin Nayef, a moderate who was next in line to the throne ahead of him. By 2016, MBS publicized his “Saudi Vision 2030” plan that was the core of his reform program which at the outset was his calling card to gain support. Throughout this period the Obama administration remained skeptical when it came to MBS’ plans. They felt he had all the ”buzz words” but little substance calling for economic reforms, but no political reform, privately arguing that he was too cocky despite the fact that his economic program made sense when he argued that his government suffered from an oil addiction. MBS’ world view saw Iran as the major threat, along with the Moslem Brotherhood and the German intelligence service, the BND warned that the new assertive Saudi Arabia that MBS proposed could destabilize the region, i.e.; confrontational stance toward Iran, promoting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. However, MBS’ new approach called for improved relations with Israel. MBS shared Israel’s view of Iran and its puppet, Hezbollah and admired the country’s technological and economic power. MBS had never been totally supportive of the Palestinians, seeing them as an impediment to peace and in the not too distant future it is quite possible that an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement may be in the offering.
Hubbard introduces the reader to the contradictions of Wahhabism by focusing on a moderate cleric named al-Ghamdi Ahmed Qassam who confronted the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which he believed went too far and was much too intrusive in the lives of the Saudi people. Hubbard explores a number of examples ranging from the lack of woman’s rights, religious fealty, and support for the dynasty reflecting how absurd their actions were.
Hubbard’s incisive analysis is on full display in discussing the life and impact of Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter who in his early career had links to Osama bin-Laden, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the mujahedeen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He believed that the Afghan revolt would reform Afghanistan, but he would be greatly disappointed particularly after 9/11 when he broke with al-Qaeda. The later Arab Spring further encouraged Khashoggi’s belief in reform in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia which would soon be another major disappointment. He continued to write about the Saudi Dynasty as a reporter for a number of Arab newspapers and the Washington Post, but his repeated criticisms of Saudi policies in Yemen and Saudi society led to his murder, a murder that Hubbard chronicles in detail despite the Crown Prince’s denials that he was responsible.
Hubbard does a good job digging up important information particularly the implications of an Iranian backed Wikileaks dump of the hacked Saudi Foreign Ministry. Among the documents leaked was details concerning Saudi Wahabis missionary work worldwide training clerics and spreading the Saudi version of Islam. Hubbard’s observations are quite astute as he states, “the funding was not just to promote Islam, but to promote the right kind of Islam, which meant undermining the wrong kind of Islam,” – stop the spread of Shiism in China, India, and Africa. Further, Hubbard presents the actions and results of MBS’ disastrous policy of going after the Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War with almost full American support. The devastation of Saudi bombing and resulting death and infrastructure loss is eye opening. Hatred for Iran who supported the Houthi rebels was and remains the driving force for MBS.
MBS’ obsession with Iran led to confrontation with the Obama administration who eventually grew tired of death and devastation in Yemen, his refusal to consider the civil rights of his people, and his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal. In perhaps the most important part of the narrative Hubbard recounts MBS’ anger at President Obama apart from his nuclear deal, and his lack of action in the Syrian Civil War. As disagreement mounted MBS looked forward to the arrival of the Trump administration.
Hubbard’s remarks on the similarities between MBS and Jared Kushner are well thought out and he develops their similar ideologies and needs for power and wealth. Hubbard refers to the “the two princelings” as the key to the new burgeoning relationship between the Trump administration and MBS’ government. After eight years of sparring with Obama, Riyadh saw a breath of fresh air as issues like Iran, Yemen, arms deals, peace with Israel all seemed to come into greater focus as Trump, led by Kushner were open to whatever MBS offered, especially Saudi money entering the US economy, and kowtowing to Trump’s ego. By March 2017, the depth of the MBS-Kushner relationship was clear as joint plans were being developed and implemented.
There are few new revelations in Hubbard’s book, but a useful synthesis of how ruthless MBS is and how he achieved power and developed a close relationship with the Trump administration. The strength of the book is Hubbard’s thorough reporting and anonymous interviews of people inside the kingdom until the Saudi government stopped providing him visas in 2018. As critical Hubbard is in detailing MBS’ rise and policies he does point out that women can now drive, and he did work to break through some of the barriers that many young Saudis found suffocating. In April 2016 he striped the Commission of its powers and allowed certain forms of entertainment that previously had been banned. But despite some progress, Hubbard warns that authoritarian regimes can do popular things, but when it comes to opposition it will not be tolerated. Hubbard credits MBS for countering centuries of Saudi history by uncoupling the clerics from the monarchy. “Under MBS, the states’ authority comes less from its claim to defending religious orthodoxy than from a sense of authoritarian nationalism.”
The question must be raised as to which direction MBS will go in the future, but part of that answer may lie in American presidential politics. Trump has given him a free hand with little or no criticism especially when it came to Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment. Hopefully, a Biden administration would demand greater accountability, if not MBS can continue to exercise his power with little restraint and based on his age the United States will have to deal with him for years to come.