.
I

n the preface of Blood and Oil, authors Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “we entered this project believing we needed to unlearn everything we thought we knew about Saudi Arabia and Mohammed [bin Salman].” Framing their book so early and in such a way was a brilliant move on their part, as in reading Blood and Oil one is continually struck by just how much Saudi Arabia has changed under this millennial crown prince. If you thought you knew Saudi Arabia, such as any outsider could, you didn’t—and for as much as you understood the Kingdom and its politics, you don’t.

Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power | Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck | Hachette Books | September 2020.

Time and time again, authors and their chosen protagonists revisit this theme. The old way of doing business in and with Saudi Arabia has, quite possibly, irrevocably changed. The days of squabbling princes and competing branches of the family has largely been brought to heel by Mohammed bin Salman. True, whenever there is a transition of power within the Kingdom, the family branch on the ascendance places their immediate relations in key positions, seeking to benefit from the largess of the state. But his installation of close friends and beholden apparatchiks has brought the instruments of state under his authority, a centralization of power not before seen in Saudi Arabia’s monarchy.

His approach to foreign policy and defense eschewed the old consensus approach that sought to delay decisions until Washington decided a course of action. Unilaterally and without consulting the United States, he launched the war on Yemen. Using a series of falsified comments posted to social media allegedly made by the Emir of Qatar, Mohammed bin Salman severed diplomatic and economic relations, isolating the country, even threatening to dig a moat, which would have made Qatar an island.

After feeling snubbed by the Obama administration in its pursuit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, Mohammed bin Salman welcomed the Trump administration’s bellicosity towards Tehran and transactional approach to nation-state relations. Yet, President Trump’s approach to relations with the Kingdom has also changed. In the wake of the Iranian drone and cruise missile attack against Saudi oil infrastructure, the President was loath to retaliate, in effect saying it was Riyadh’s problem.

Even in relations with Washington, things had not changed enough for the Kingdom’s liking. During Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the White House, President Trump brought out a large board illustrating all of the pending defense sales to Saudi Arabia with the president touting upcoming investments by the Kingdom into the United States, an illustration of the more traditional relationship of Saudi Arabia as a bank from which funds are drawn.

Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman appears to have upended the traditional relationship between the clerics and the royal family. He has confined the religious police to their offices, liberalized, albeit in a Saudi context, social mores—allowing women to drive and limited opening of cultural outlets—while reining in the power of the religious elite. Within the royal court he has opened up dissent and debate, again, all within a tolerated range. In one account described by Hope and Scheck, Mohammed bin Salman spends three hours attempting to convince a member of the court on the merits of a policy proposal. The court member throws his hands up, effectively saying you will do what you want to do, to which Mohammed replies that if that were the case, he wouldn’t have spent three hours trying to convince him. The vote ended up going against Mohammed bin Salman.

There are, however, limits to this opening and liberalization. His near paranoia of internal criticism and quashing of dissent stands in contrast with his outward behavior. His leveraging of social media tools to monitor not only sentiment but also track dissidents—including getting spies inside Twitter—belies an acute sensitivity to criticism. He is liberalizing but on his terms alone. He will allow criticism and dissent, quietly within his court, but not voiced from the outside. Change will only come from the top and will be harshly prevented from fomenting from the bottom.

His paranoia and intolerance for dissent were most vividly displayed with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and later columnist for the Washington Post. Khashoggi saw himself as a loyal critic, wanting to support the Kingdom and the Royal Family, but critical of its behavior. The murder of Khashoggi was a significant tactical error, one that jeopardized Mohammed bin Salman’s courtship of the West integral to his planned transformation of the Kingdom.

Blood and Oil is a fantastic narrative read into the sweeping changes that Mohammed bin Salman has taken and is taking in Saudi Arabia. It is exceptionally well written a compelling read. Indeed, the reviewer read it in nearly one sitting. Unlike MBS by the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier), Blood and Oil follows a linear, almost strategic-level view, of the story of Mohammed bin Salman. Hubbard interweaves his own experiences on-the-ground and the many Saudis’ perspectives; Hope and Scheck keep their account at a macro-level, diving into the same incidents and events that have taken place under Mohammed’s leadership.

Where Hope and Scheck truly shine is in their pursuit of the money and exploration of Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to attract foreign investment, interactions with the financial powers of the world, and how this effort fits within the broader reform program of the Crown Prince. Throughout an already excellent book, Hope and Scheck distinguish their work by exploring the Crown Prince’s pursuit of foreign investment, and one is struck by the opposed terms sheet each party brings to the table.

Mohammed bin Salman wants to lure in foreign investment into the Kingdom, to have these Western powerhouses invest in the country and its people. By contrast, those same powerhouses seek access to and investment from Saudi Arabia’s massive sovereign wealth fund. From their perspective, why would they invest in Saudi Arabia with its godfather-esque family governance, capricious and inconsistent rule of law, systemic vulnerabilities, and lack of—at least on the surface—human capital? Moreover, for the Silicon Valley venture capital firms, the entry of Saudi sovereign wealth into their field would only distort the market further, inflating an already growing bubble.

The interlude of Mohammed bin Salman’s purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is fantastic and mind-boggling. The famous painting sold for $450 million in 2019 but has yet to be seen in public since. Hope and Scheck describe how it was possibly a gift for Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, but Mohammed bin Salman decided to keep the portrait of Jesus Christ for eventual use in a Saudi art gallery—itself a dramatic change from the Kingdom’s past behavior and surely a decision that will clash with the Wahabi clerics.  

Their account of the decision to take Saudi Aramco public is riveting and illustrates the clash of modern business practices with the traditional Saudi ways of doing business. The decision to take the company public was largely snap and made by Mohammed bin Salman. Many within the Royal Court feared taking the institution public—the source of nearly all of the Kingdom’s revenue—would expose the firm to Western scrutiny. Accounting practices, transparency, revenue sharing…all the hallmarks of publicly traded and listed firms would be applied to Saudi Aramco. Giving out free electricity or handouts to Saudi citizens would not be welcomed by Western investors or markets. Eventually, Saudi Aramco was listed on the Saudi exchange, but there are still hopes it will one day be listed in New York or London.

Blood and Oil is a great addition to contemporary writing on Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman. Hope and Scheck’s approach, laid out early in the authors’ note, frames the book well and serves as an excellent summary of just how much the Kingdom under Mohammed bin Salman has changed, while the West’s understanding of these changes has not. It remains to be seen whether these changes will last; whether Mohammed bin Salman will be able to sustain his reforms and power consolidation; and, what will happen once he becomes King. Mohammed bin Salman may be the most significant change to happen to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its foundation and one that could define the foreseeable future.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Blood and Oil: Book Review

Image by Zbynek Burival via Unsplash.

September 12, 2020

Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power | Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck | Hachette Books | September 2020.

I

n the preface of Blood and Oil, authors Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “we entered this project believing we needed to unlearn everything we thought we knew about Saudi Arabia and Mohammed [bin Salman].” Framing their book so early and in such a way was a brilliant move on their part, as in reading Blood and Oil one is continually struck by just how much Saudi Arabia has changed under this millennial crown prince. If you thought you knew Saudi Arabia, such as any outsider could, you didn’t—and for as much as you understood the Kingdom and its politics, you don’t.

Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power | Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck | Hachette Books | September 2020.

Time and time again, authors and their chosen protagonists revisit this theme. The old way of doing business in and with Saudi Arabia has, quite possibly, irrevocably changed. The days of squabbling princes and competing branches of the family has largely been brought to heel by Mohammed bin Salman. True, whenever there is a transition of power within the Kingdom, the family branch on the ascendance places their immediate relations in key positions, seeking to benefit from the largess of the state. But his installation of close friends and beholden apparatchiks has brought the instruments of state under his authority, a centralization of power not before seen in Saudi Arabia’s monarchy.

His approach to foreign policy and defense eschewed the old consensus approach that sought to delay decisions until Washington decided a course of action. Unilaterally and without consulting the United States, he launched the war on Yemen. Using a series of falsified comments posted to social media allegedly made by the Emir of Qatar, Mohammed bin Salman severed diplomatic and economic relations, isolating the country, even threatening to dig a moat, which would have made Qatar an island.

After feeling snubbed by the Obama administration in its pursuit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, Mohammed bin Salman welcomed the Trump administration’s bellicosity towards Tehran and transactional approach to nation-state relations. Yet, President Trump’s approach to relations with the Kingdom has also changed. In the wake of the Iranian drone and cruise missile attack against Saudi oil infrastructure, the President was loath to retaliate, in effect saying it was Riyadh’s problem.

Even in relations with Washington, things had not changed enough for the Kingdom’s liking. During Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the White House, President Trump brought out a large board illustrating all of the pending defense sales to Saudi Arabia with the president touting upcoming investments by the Kingdom into the United States, an illustration of the more traditional relationship of Saudi Arabia as a bank from which funds are drawn.

Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman appears to have upended the traditional relationship between the clerics and the royal family. He has confined the religious police to their offices, liberalized, albeit in a Saudi context, social mores—allowing women to drive and limited opening of cultural outlets—while reining in the power of the religious elite. Within the royal court he has opened up dissent and debate, again, all within a tolerated range. In one account described by Hope and Scheck, Mohammed bin Salman spends three hours attempting to convince a member of the court on the merits of a policy proposal. The court member throws his hands up, effectively saying you will do what you want to do, to which Mohammed replies that if that were the case, he wouldn’t have spent three hours trying to convince him. The vote ended up going against Mohammed bin Salman.

There are, however, limits to this opening and liberalization. His near paranoia of internal criticism and quashing of dissent stands in contrast with his outward behavior. His leveraging of social media tools to monitor not only sentiment but also track dissidents—including getting spies inside Twitter—belies an acute sensitivity to criticism. He is liberalizing but on his terms alone. He will allow criticism and dissent, quietly within his court, but not voiced from the outside. Change will only come from the top and will be harshly prevented from fomenting from the bottom.

His paranoia and intolerance for dissent were most vividly displayed with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and later columnist for the Washington Post. Khashoggi saw himself as a loyal critic, wanting to support the Kingdom and the Royal Family, but critical of its behavior. The murder of Khashoggi was a significant tactical error, one that jeopardized Mohammed bin Salman’s courtship of the West integral to his planned transformation of the Kingdom.

Blood and Oil is a fantastic narrative read into the sweeping changes that Mohammed bin Salman has taken and is taking in Saudi Arabia. It is exceptionally well written a compelling read. Indeed, the reviewer read it in nearly one sitting. Unlike MBS by the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier), Blood and Oil follows a linear, almost strategic-level view, of the story of Mohammed bin Salman. Hubbard interweaves his own experiences on-the-ground and the many Saudis’ perspectives; Hope and Scheck keep their account at a macro-level, diving into the same incidents and events that have taken place under Mohammed’s leadership.

Where Hope and Scheck truly shine is in their pursuit of the money and exploration of Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to attract foreign investment, interactions with the financial powers of the world, and how this effort fits within the broader reform program of the Crown Prince. Throughout an already excellent book, Hope and Scheck distinguish their work by exploring the Crown Prince’s pursuit of foreign investment, and one is struck by the opposed terms sheet each party brings to the table.

Mohammed bin Salman wants to lure in foreign investment into the Kingdom, to have these Western powerhouses invest in the country and its people. By contrast, those same powerhouses seek access to and investment from Saudi Arabia’s massive sovereign wealth fund. From their perspective, why would they invest in Saudi Arabia with its godfather-esque family governance, capricious and inconsistent rule of law, systemic vulnerabilities, and lack of—at least on the surface—human capital? Moreover, for the Silicon Valley venture capital firms, the entry of Saudi sovereign wealth into their field would only distort the market further, inflating an already growing bubble.

The interlude of Mohammed bin Salman’s purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is fantastic and mind-boggling. The famous painting sold for $450 million in 2019 but has yet to be seen in public since. Hope and Scheck describe how it was possibly a gift for Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, but Mohammed bin Salman decided to keep the portrait of Jesus Christ for eventual use in a Saudi art gallery—itself a dramatic change from the Kingdom’s past behavior and surely a decision that will clash with the Wahabi clerics.  

Their account of the decision to take Saudi Aramco public is riveting and illustrates the clash of modern business practices with the traditional Saudi ways of doing business. The decision to take the company public was largely snap and made by Mohammed bin Salman. Many within the Royal Court feared taking the institution public—the source of nearly all of the Kingdom’s revenue—would expose the firm to Western scrutiny. Accounting practices, transparency, revenue sharing…all the hallmarks of publicly traded and listed firms would be applied to Saudi Aramco. Giving out free electricity or handouts to Saudi citizens would not be welcomed by Western investors or markets. Eventually, Saudi Aramco was listed on the Saudi exchange, but there are still hopes it will one day be listed in New York or London.

Blood and Oil is a great addition to contemporary writing on Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman. Hope and Scheck’s approach, laid out early in the authors’ note, frames the book well and serves as an excellent summary of just how much the Kingdom under Mohammed bin Salman has changed, while the West’s understanding of these changes has not. It remains to be seen whether these changes will last; whether Mohammed bin Salman will be able to sustain his reforms and power consolidation; and, what will happen once he becomes King. Mohammed bin Salman may be the most significant change to happen to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its foundation and one that could define the foreseeable future.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.