.
I

n May 2017, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, First Lady Melania Trump, and President Trump stood around a glowing globe, inaugurating the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Unsurprisingly, social media excoriated the image, comparing it to Harry Potter, the Wizard of Oz—or perhaps more accurately, a palantíri or seeing-stone from the Lord of the Rings universe.

What is striking about the image is not just its absurdity (undoubtedly crafted by some public relations firm in a pitch filled with buzzwords and jargon) but that front and center is King Salman, who despite wearing the crown, is purely a figurehead for all intents and purposes, having little impact on his country. It is his son, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”), that is shaping the Kingdom’s path domestically and internationally. Nearly 50 years younger than King Salman, MBS is rapidly reshaping the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in so doing reshaping the region writ large.

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman | Ben Hubbard | Tim Duggan Books | March 2020.

Ben Hubbard’s MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman is a fascinating insight into the current state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, how the Crown Prince rose to power, and how he has shaped the country. While critics have alleged that it does not offer any “startling revelations” about the Crown Prince, it is probably the best and most easily accessible account of MBS’s emergence as the leader of Saudi Arabia and how he has shaped the region in a very short amount of time.

This accessibility is the book’s strength and it does not mean it is light or superficial at all. MBS is a deeply researched and exceptionally well-reported account of MBS and how, in just five short years, first emerging as Minister of Defense in 2015 and assuming the title of Deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince in 2017, MBS reshaped Saudi foreign and domestic policy.

Hubbard is a welcome guide to the Kingdom’s complexities and ongoing change. As a young analyst fresh from graduate school, I recall watching my due diligence colleagues unfurl a six-foot-wide family tree of the House of al-Saud. Tacking this massive mural of marriages, births, and deaths to the wall, one could not help but marvel at how one family came to dominate the country. It seemed positively medieval. Yet, at a cost of several thousand pounds (this being London, of course), it offered very little insight into this complex kingdom. Indeed, my colleagues spent a good amount of time trying to discern which prince was which, and whether the subject in question was as connected as they purported themselves to be.

An Unexpected Millennial Crown Prince

MBS was not expected to ascend to the throne and indeed it seems very little was expected of him. He was well down the line of succession, did not study abroad nor have much exposure internationally, and did not join the military or the foreign service. His early life was spent mostly at his father’s side, serving as a special advisor when he was governor of Riyadh province, following him as he became Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense in 2011. These were positions MBS would assume a few years later after King Abdullah died and his father assumed the throne by deposing Muhammad bin Nayef—the then Crown Prince and heir to the throne—in favor of MBS. His professional education would be at the feet of his father, and, while he did not see the broader world, he undoubtedly learned court politics, staying outside of the limelight but learning the inner workings of the Kingdom and the family business.

Many in the Obama administration hoped that he would represent a liberalizing trend within the Kingdom. A young, energetic counterpoint to the sclerotic and octogenarian leadership that helmed the Kingdom to date. The White House sought to strike a fine balance in cultivating relations with MBS but avoided violating diplomatic protocol, a process Hubbard recounts in fascinating detail.

As a millennial Crown Prince, MBS undertook notable reforms for the Kingdom. He restricted the authorities of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police; opened the Kingdom to foreign entertainment—including the WWE, of all things; and oversaw a considerable loosening of restrictions on Saudi women and the “guardianship system” requiring male chaperones. He also oversaw the creation of Saudi Vision 2030, a broad plan aimed at revamping the country as a whole, shifting away from its dependence on oil, diversifying the economy, and stimulating public services. As Hubbard recounts, the plan—while sweeping and, at a superficial level, impressive—lacked specificity and a path for implementation.

While the reforms and plans were well overdue and welcome in terms of “liberalization,” many in the West latched onto these efforts as indicative of an opening in Saudi society and a drive towards modernization. Ultimately, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi put a hard stop to Saudi Vision 2030 as foreign investment retreated from Saudi Arabia, and western enthusiasm for MBS rapidly waned.  

Consolidation of Power

MBS also sought to consolidate his position within Saudi Arabia, breaking many of the taboos in Saudi politics. This was most notable in his November 2017 arrest and detainment of prominent businessmen and royals in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton. Ostensibly part of an anti-corruption campaign, it appeared to be much more of an effort to consolidate power and signal a new way of doing business—his. While Saudi Arabia enjoyed “waterfall economics”—whereby the oil revenue drifted downward across the royal family and outward into Saudi society—now the royals would be beholden to him. Indeed, during the crackdown, MBS reportedly seized billions of dollars.

The consolidation continued well into 2020. In March of this year, MBS arrested four senior princes charging them with treason, including Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Nayef, two of the most prominent members of the royal family. Analysts speculated that the arrests were a bid to further consolidate MBS’s power and prevent rival claims to the throne. Given the prominence of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Nayef they could claim a greater position in the line of succession for the throne.

Liberalization within Autocratic Limits

The liberalization MBS launched was tempered by an increased crackdown on dissent and political activism. He clamped down on the royal excesses, just not his own. Much as Kim Jong-Un sought to achieve economic growth while retaining tight authoritarian controls in North Korea (although obviously the comparison is superficial at best), MBS sought to reaffirm the social contract for Saudi citizens—you can have more “western” values, goods, and services, so long as you don’t criticize or undermine the Crown Prince and the ruling class. MBS embraced the surveillance capabilities of digital technology and social media, clamping down on would-be dissidents and creating an even greater culture of fear.

As Hubbard recounts, the openness had limits. Throughout the book, Hubbard describes his on-again, off-again relationship with the Saudi authorities manifested most clearly with his efforts to secure visas to the country. For some time, he would be in their good graces and receive a lengthier visa, only then to fall out of favor and be denied a visa. For a Kingdom that sought to portray itself as forward leaning and stable, its fear of criticism suggests a fragility and brittleness the Crown Prince seeks to mask.

The Crown Prince also sought to use social media for tracking dissent. According to reports, two Twitter employees were charged with spying for Riyadh. The Department of Justice alleged that two employees, with a third still at-large, accessed more than 6,000 accounts, including Jamal Khashoggi’s—a Saudi journalist and columnist for The Washington Post. One of his advisors, Saud al-Qahtani, engaged the Hacking Team, as part of its efforts to track and silence dissidents, expanding an atmosphere of fear to the digital realm.

This crackdown reached its apogee with the murder of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government officials. In October 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never emerged. What followed was a farcical series of events that undermined any of the goodwill the Crown Prince conjured to date. The Central Intelligence Agency concluded with “high confidence” that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder despite Saudi official denials. Whether it was MBS’s take on Henry II exclaiming “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” or a direct order, the result remains the same.

In a further twist in this bizarre story, it later emerged that the Kingdom hacked Jeff Bezos’ iPhone in 2018. MBS met Bezos in a 2018 tour of Silicon Valley during which he hoped to drum up business and support for a tech initiative in Saudi Arabia. After the hack was revealed, analysts speculated that it aimed to gain compromising information on Bezos (owner of The Washington Post) and, in turn, provide leverage over the paper’s coverage of the Kingdom.

Reshaping the Region

Under MBS, Saudi Arabia embarked on an aggressive foreign policy. It implemented the blockade of Qatar in 2017 in an attempt to curb the country’s independent policies, including hosting Al Jazeera, relations with Iran, and other issues. In one of the more bizarre events recounted by Hubbard, MBS forced Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon to resign publicly, and blame Iran for interference in his country, only to return following French intervention.

As defense minister, MBS rapidly escalated Saudi involvement in the campaign in Yemen, without coordinating across the country’s multiple security agencies and departments. The conflict descended into a seemingly intractable stalemate—and one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history. The aggressive, yet poorly-executed, Saudi campaign exacerbated the deteriorating conditions. This put the United States in ever more awkward positions—backing the regime and selling it munitions that were very visibly resulting in civilian casualties.

Hubbard recounts a The Atlantic interview with MBS in which he describes the Iranian regime as worse than Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler as better than the Supreme Leader in Tehran. While direct confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has not yet manifested itself, the conflict is certainly ongoing. In Yemen, the proxy war continues; in Lebanon, both countries vie for supremacy of influence; and, occasionally, the tensions escalate as evidenced by the strikes against Saudi oil facilities in September 2019.

MBS’ Legacy

The Mohammed bin Salman emerging from Hubbard’s book is one that is much more Machiavellian than perhaps many in the West expected. He did not study abroad; nor did he serve in the military, intelligence, or foreign services; and he did not hold any positions of authority before his rapid ascendency on the heels of his father.

As Hubbard notes, despite this lack of a resume, he does understand the challenges the Kingdom faces in terms of its economy and demography and, with uncertain success, is working to address these challenges. At the same time, he is, however, demonstrating his autocratic proclivities; centralizing his power and authority; and quashing dissent either directly or via an indirect atmosphere of fear. How this social contract—economic and social liberalization in exchange for a closed civil society—plays out could very well shape MBS’ legacy. It could determine whether Riyadh tilts towards his historic alliance with Washington or sees increasing affinity with Beijing and Moscow. Equally, whether he ascends to the throne on his father’s passing will indicated how successful his efforts to consolidate power were.

Successful foreign policy requires and understanding and appreciation of the nuances and complexities of the countries with whom one is engaging. Too often, and especially these days, it seems as though policymakers in Washington look at things as black and white, failing to understand the gray. But it is this gray area that is the most interesting, most compelling, and, ultimately, the most consequential. Hubbard offers a complex and fascinating picture of MBS that will help the reader better understand what’s going on behind the scenes of a Kingdom in the midst of significant change.

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

The Rise of the Millennial Crown Prince

Photo by Hala Alghanim via Unsplash.

June 20, 2020

Book Review - MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman | Ben Hubbard | Tim Duggan Books | March 2020.

I

n May 2017, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, First Lady Melania Trump, and President Trump stood around a glowing globe, inaugurating the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Unsurprisingly, social media excoriated the image, comparing it to Harry Potter, the Wizard of Oz—or perhaps more accurately, a palantíri or seeing-stone from the Lord of the Rings universe.

What is striking about the image is not just its absurdity (undoubtedly crafted by some public relations firm in a pitch filled with buzzwords and jargon) but that front and center is King Salman, who despite wearing the crown, is purely a figurehead for all intents and purposes, having little impact on his country. It is his son, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”), that is shaping the Kingdom’s path domestically and internationally. Nearly 50 years younger than King Salman, MBS is rapidly reshaping the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in so doing reshaping the region writ large.

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman | Ben Hubbard | Tim Duggan Books | March 2020.

Ben Hubbard’s MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman is a fascinating insight into the current state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, how the Crown Prince rose to power, and how he has shaped the country. While critics have alleged that it does not offer any “startling revelations” about the Crown Prince, it is probably the best and most easily accessible account of MBS’s emergence as the leader of Saudi Arabia and how he has shaped the region in a very short amount of time.

This accessibility is the book’s strength and it does not mean it is light or superficial at all. MBS is a deeply researched and exceptionally well-reported account of MBS and how, in just five short years, first emerging as Minister of Defense in 2015 and assuming the title of Deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince in 2017, MBS reshaped Saudi foreign and domestic policy.

Hubbard is a welcome guide to the Kingdom’s complexities and ongoing change. As a young analyst fresh from graduate school, I recall watching my due diligence colleagues unfurl a six-foot-wide family tree of the House of al-Saud. Tacking this massive mural of marriages, births, and deaths to the wall, one could not help but marvel at how one family came to dominate the country. It seemed positively medieval. Yet, at a cost of several thousand pounds (this being London, of course), it offered very little insight into this complex kingdom. Indeed, my colleagues spent a good amount of time trying to discern which prince was which, and whether the subject in question was as connected as they purported themselves to be.

An Unexpected Millennial Crown Prince

MBS was not expected to ascend to the throne and indeed it seems very little was expected of him. He was well down the line of succession, did not study abroad nor have much exposure internationally, and did not join the military or the foreign service. His early life was spent mostly at his father’s side, serving as a special advisor when he was governor of Riyadh province, following him as he became Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense in 2011. These were positions MBS would assume a few years later after King Abdullah died and his father assumed the throne by deposing Muhammad bin Nayef—the then Crown Prince and heir to the throne—in favor of MBS. His professional education would be at the feet of his father, and, while he did not see the broader world, he undoubtedly learned court politics, staying outside of the limelight but learning the inner workings of the Kingdom and the family business.

Many in the Obama administration hoped that he would represent a liberalizing trend within the Kingdom. A young, energetic counterpoint to the sclerotic and octogenarian leadership that helmed the Kingdom to date. The White House sought to strike a fine balance in cultivating relations with MBS but avoided violating diplomatic protocol, a process Hubbard recounts in fascinating detail.

As a millennial Crown Prince, MBS undertook notable reforms for the Kingdom. He restricted the authorities of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police; opened the Kingdom to foreign entertainment—including the WWE, of all things; and oversaw a considerable loosening of restrictions on Saudi women and the “guardianship system” requiring male chaperones. He also oversaw the creation of Saudi Vision 2030, a broad plan aimed at revamping the country as a whole, shifting away from its dependence on oil, diversifying the economy, and stimulating public services. As Hubbard recounts, the plan—while sweeping and, at a superficial level, impressive—lacked specificity and a path for implementation.

While the reforms and plans were well overdue and welcome in terms of “liberalization,” many in the West latched onto these efforts as indicative of an opening in Saudi society and a drive towards modernization. Ultimately, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi put a hard stop to Saudi Vision 2030 as foreign investment retreated from Saudi Arabia, and western enthusiasm for MBS rapidly waned.  

Consolidation of Power

MBS also sought to consolidate his position within Saudi Arabia, breaking many of the taboos in Saudi politics. This was most notable in his November 2017 arrest and detainment of prominent businessmen and royals in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton. Ostensibly part of an anti-corruption campaign, it appeared to be much more of an effort to consolidate power and signal a new way of doing business—his. While Saudi Arabia enjoyed “waterfall economics”—whereby the oil revenue drifted downward across the royal family and outward into Saudi society—now the royals would be beholden to him. Indeed, during the crackdown, MBS reportedly seized billions of dollars.

The consolidation continued well into 2020. In March of this year, MBS arrested four senior princes charging them with treason, including Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Nayef, two of the most prominent members of the royal family. Analysts speculated that the arrests were a bid to further consolidate MBS’s power and prevent rival claims to the throne. Given the prominence of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Nayef they could claim a greater position in the line of succession for the throne.

Liberalization within Autocratic Limits

The liberalization MBS launched was tempered by an increased crackdown on dissent and political activism. He clamped down on the royal excesses, just not his own. Much as Kim Jong-Un sought to achieve economic growth while retaining tight authoritarian controls in North Korea (although obviously the comparison is superficial at best), MBS sought to reaffirm the social contract for Saudi citizens—you can have more “western” values, goods, and services, so long as you don’t criticize or undermine the Crown Prince and the ruling class. MBS embraced the surveillance capabilities of digital technology and social media, clamping down on would-be dissidents and creating an even greater culture of fear.

As Hubbard recounts, the openness had limits. Throughout the book, Hubbard describes his on-again, off-again relationship with the Saudi authorities manifested most clearly with his efforts to secure visas to the country. For some time, he would be in their good graces and receive a lengthier visa, only then to fall out of favor and be denied a visa. For a Kingdom that sought to portray itself as forward leaning and stable, its fear of criticism suggests a fragility and brittleness the Crown Prince seeks to mask.

The Crown Prince also sought to use social media for tracking dissent. According to reports, two Twitter employees were charged with spying for Riyadh. The Department of Justice alleged that two employees, with a third still at-large, accessed more than 6,000 accounts, including Jamal Khashoggi’s—a Saudi journalist and columnist for The Washington Post. One of his advisors, Saud al-Qahtani, engaged the Hacking Team, as part of its efforts to track and silence dissidents, expanding an atmosphere of fear to the digital realm.

This crackdown reached its apogee with the murder of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government officials. In October 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never emerged. What followed was a farcical series of events that undermined any of the goodwill the Crown Prince conjured to date. The Central Intelligence Agency concluded with “high confidence” that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder despite Saudi official denials. Whether it was MBS’s take on Henry II exclaiming “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” or a direct order, the result remains the same.

In a further twist in this bizarre story, it later emerged that the Kingdom hacked Jeff Bezos’ iPhone in 2018. MBS met Bezos in a 2018 tour of Silicon Valley during which he hoped to drum up business and support for a tech initiative in Saudi Arabia. After the hack was revealed, analysts speculated that it aimed to gain compromising information on Bezos (owner of The Washington Post) and, in turn, provide leverage over the paper’s coverage of the Kingdom.

Reshaping the Region

Under MBS, Saudi Arabia embarked on an aggressive foreign policy. It implemented the blockade of Qatar in 2017 in an attempt to curb the country’s independent policies, including hosting Al Jazeera, relations with Iran, and other issues. In one of the more bizarre events recounted by Hubbard, MBS forced Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon to resign publicly, and blame Iran for interference in his country, only to return following French intervention.

As defense minister, MBS rapidly escalated Saudi involvement in the campaign in Yemen, without coordinating across the country’s multiple security agencies and departments. The conflict descended into a seemingly intractable stalemate—and one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history. The aggressive, yet poorly-executed, Saudi campaign exacerbated the deteriorating conditions. This put the United States in ever more awkward positions—backing the regime and selling it munitions that were very visibly resulting in civilian casualties.

Hubbard recounts a The Atlantic interview with MBS in which he describes the Iranian regime as worse than Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler as better than the Supreme Leader in Tehran. While direct confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia has not yet manifested itself, the conflict is certainly ongoing. In Yemen, the proxy war continues; in Lebanon, both countries vie for supremacy of influence; and, occasionally, the tensions escalate as evidenced by the strikes against Saudi oil facilities in September 2019.

MBS’ Legacy

The Mohammed bin Salman emerging from Hubbard’s book is one that is much more Machiavellian than perhaps many in the West expected. He did not study abroad; nor did he serve in the military, intelligence, or foreign services; and he did not hold any positions of authority before his rapid ascendency on the heels of his father.

As Hubbard notes, despite this lack of a resume, he does understand the challenges the Kingdom faces in terms of its economy and demography and, with uncertain success, is working to address these challenges. At the same time, he is, however, demonstrating his autocratic proclivities; centralizing his power and authority; and quashing dissent either directly or via an indirect atmosphere of fear. How this social contract—economic and social liberalization in exchange for a closed civil society—plays out could very well shape MBS’ legacy. It could determine whether Riyadh tilts towards his historic alliance with Washington or sees increasing affinity with Beijing and Moscow. Equally, whether he ascends to the throne on his father’s passing will indicated how successful his efforts to consolidate power were.

Successful foreign policy requires and understanding and appreciation of the nuances and complexities of the countries with whom one is engaging. Too often, and especially these days, it seems as though policymakers in Washington look at things as black and white, failing to understand the gray. But it is this gray area that is the most interesting, most compelling, and, ultimately, the most consequential. Hubbard offers a complex and fascinating picture of MBS that will help the reader better understand what’s going on behind the scenes of a Kingdom in the midst of significant change.

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.