Spotlight: Inside the stricken court of crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman
From 21 June 2017 to 2 October 2018, Saudi Arabia’s millennial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, briefly stood as a figurehead for a youth who yearned for change. Progressive reforms lifted bans on women driving and attending concerts and sought to broaden the economy. But then came the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the hopes of millions of young Saudis died with him. Anointed by Trump, deposed by the world, the real story of MBS is about to be written
There is nothing understated about Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz Conference Centre. It may be situated on a grim, dusty bypass and its name may conjure up an image of beige-painted auditoria littered with plastic coffee cups, but once you have passed through its bronze security gates nothing could be more different. Corridors with deep carpets, lit by enormous gold and glass chandeliers, lead into a succession of anterooms furnished in full Louis XIV repro. The brightness is overwhelming. There are no signs or arrows or other directions. So the visitor blinks, settles on a gilt-edged sofa and waits to be told where to go. On the other side of a door, through which liveried servants are scurrying, is lunch. But once the door opens, the interior is revealed to be not so much a dining room as a vista, an endless expanse, the far side of which is almost out of sight.
This vista is starting to heave with people, mostly men, some in the swirling whites of Gulf dishdashas, some in a dozen styles of military uniform, some in the more colourful robes of Asian and African dignitaries and a few more in suits. To the visitor’s left hover Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump: the First Millennials are as immaculately suited and coiffed as ever, but even they look overshadowed. Apart from anything else, they are about half the average age of everyone else.
The circular table at the centre of this ballroom is filling up. The visitor ticks off the national leaders he recognises: Sisi of Egypt, Abdullah of Jordan, a bevy of North Africans. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Custodian Of The Two Holy Mosques, is there, of course, as host, but it is two other men we are here to see. In marches President Trump, in his peculiar mixture of shamble and strut, and takes his place as guest of honour next to the king. He looks around, takes it all in. He is at home with the style, but perhaps even he is impressed by the scale – that was certainly the intent.
President Trump (centre left) and King Salman (centre right) meet during the Arabic Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, 21 May 2017Getty Images
Then, behind him, we see first the beard and then the bulky form of the man who, we subsequently realise, this is all really about: the Kushners’ millennial counterpart, the man in whom Saudi Arabia’s millions of frustrated young men and women have placed their hopes, the 31-year-old crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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This was 18 months ago, and the Riyadh Islamic Summit of May 2017 was, almost literally it seemed for a while, MBS’s crowning moment. Anointed by Trump’s approval, within a month he would be crown prince. Rumours of the king’s imminent abdication in his favour – though untrue – were about to begin.
There had been previous signs of his rising star, his promise and his flaws, but this was the moment when the whirlwind took off. It was a whirlwind that at first struck Middle Eastern hands as a cleansing storm, fresh, a herald of something new where innovation was badly needed. But it span rapidly out of control, until it blew out with the slashing and cutting of a bone saw in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul and the murder of Saudi Arabia’s best-known journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
On 2 January 2016, Saudi executed 47 people, some had been children when they were arrested
It is hard to describe how hard it has been for those who put their faith in Crown Prince Mohammed to accept what Khashoggi’s death means for them. It is all very well now to sneer at Riyadh’s Western cheerleaders, who were so willing to fawn over the prince during his grand tours of London and the United States earlier this year. It is another thing to listen, as I did a couple of weeks after Khashoggi “went missing”, to a young Saudi friend who had been convinced the prince was the man who was going to allow people like him – Western-facing, ambitious and educated – to lead the sort of lives their friends everywhere else led. “Khashoggi’s alive. Take it from me,” this young man said as we knocked back gin together in a bar in Beirut. This was while the Saudis were still claiming innocence, but there was a desperate edge to his whisper. I thought he might cry.
“You know he’s not,” I said, trying to be sympathetic. “You know they did it.” He knew, too, but he didn’t want to admit it or the possible consequences.
The West dislikes Saudi Arabia with a passion, for all the well-attested reasons: its Islamic conservatism; its funding of radical mosques; its human rights record; its public beheadings and restrictions on women; most lately, the war in Yemen. For those who were instinctively hostile, another spokesman for the same profligate clan of spoiled tribal patriarchs hardly seemed a harbinger of revolution. Yet for those who lived, like most people do, within the constraints and perceptual world of their own society, revolution was what he seemed to offer.
Football fans hold images of King Salman and MBS aloft during the 2018 World Cup qualifying match between Saudi Arabia and Japan in Jeddah, 5 September 2017Shutterstock
It helped that no one really knew him. His father, King Salman, was the archetypal royal insider for most of his long life, rather than a figurehead. Salman was appointed governor of Riyadh at the age of 28 and spent 48 years in the job, rather than taking the sort of frontline government position that would bring him into the international spotlight. He was not particularly expected to become king – though with the family continuing to insist, decade after decade, on rule by gerontocracy, it was always a possibility. His main role was to be the point man and troubleshooter for the sprawling royal family, particularly the 37 sons of the founding monarch, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who had conquered the peninsula in the Twenties and then bequeathed his kingdom to the brothers to rule one after the other. Above all, Salman represented the interests of the Sudairi Seven, the sons of Abdulaziz’s favoured wife Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, who have been the monarchy’s core. Salman’s full brother King Fahd reigned for 23 years; Sultan and Nayef were defence and interior ministers for 48 and 37 years respectively. (Cabinet reshuffles are not quite as frequent in Riyadh as they are in Westminster or Washington.)
Salman himself has 12 sons, as well as a daughter. Some of the boys were already famous when he came to the throne in 2015, but not young Prince Mohammed. Salman’s second son, Sultan, was the first Muslim and first Arab to become an astronaut. A Nasa-trained scientist, he flew in the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985. While up in orbit, he rang the grand mufti, an elderly flat-earther who believed the moon landings were faked, to troll him from space. Another of Salman’s sons was a big racing man who owned stables in Kentucky and horses that won both the Epsom and Kentucky Derbys.
Mohammed, eighth child of 13, was by contrast a stay-at-home daddy’s boy. Unlike his older siblings, he never went abroad to study. Sticking by Salman’s side, he became chief gofer, private secretary and then formally chief of staff. By this time, both Sultan and Nayef, successive heirs to the ageing King Abdullah, had died and Salman had risen to take their place as crown prince. This left Mohammed, a squib in terms of strict hierarchy, in a powerful position. As monarchs age and become incapacitated, the CP has to start taking over the offices of state, but at the same time maintain a proper deferential decorum. The chief of staff does the smoothing over, making the rounds of the family and the national and tribal movers and shakers, negotiating terms, asserting the authority of the new boss. It’s not a bad place to be in, if you know what you are doing, have a model as well-versed in the etiquette as Salman and the self-confidence to assert yourself. This Prince Mohammed assuredly did, even then. There is a story, told in Wikileaks, how as a 20-year-old he refused to have his fingerprints taken for a visa to the United States, saying he was a prince, not a common criminal.
Still, what happened when the old king finally died on 23 January 2015 caught everyone by surprise. The unknown prince was immediately appointed defence minister, at the age of just 29. Since his father had been deputy governor of Riyadh at 18, and Uncle Sultan defence minister at 33, his youth was not unprecedented, but this was 2015, not a Sixties Saudi Arabia just emerging from feudalism. It was a message: he was now the go-to man, the new royal centre.
I am going to be here in 50 years,’ MBS told the sages. ‘You’re not!'
MBS”, as he quickly became known, was always a mixed bag of tricks. Within a year, three things had become clear from diplomats and the consultants and PR people with whom he quickly surrounded himself. The first was that he had no doubts he was going to rule Saudi Arabia, change it beyond recognition and hang around to see the consequences. “I’m going to be here in 50 years,” he would tell the sages, teasingly. “You’re not!” The second thing was that, extraordinarily, he appeared not to give a hoot about Saudi Arabia’s feared clerical establishment. In Riyadh in the November after his appointment, by which time he was also officially deputy crown prince, one of his entourage told me that his models for the new Saudi Arabia were Singapore and Dubai. These are cities perhaps less associated with otherworldliness than any on earth. “Dubai,” I said rather nervously, “but I guess without the parties?” “Singapore and Dubai,” came the answer.
For decades, Western journalists had been subjected to the mantra that “social reform” and women’s rights had to proceed slowly because popular customs and observances would not accept fast change. However, the clerics have been proven to be paper tigers. With barely a murmur of dissent, hundreds of thousands of women have taken jobs, been allowed to drive, started going to concerts and football matches. Earlier in 2015, on another visit to Riyadh just after the change of leadership, I had visited a shopping mall that a squad of the muttawa, the religious police, had stormed the previous week, seizing blue and grey abayas off the shelves of women’s clothes stores (the only approved colour is black). “We’re in charge now,” one of them had shouted, a shop assistant – male – told me. Everyone believed the Salmans were conservative and that such minor liberalisations as there had been under Abdullah would now be reversed. The muttaween’s error just shows how little people know when it comes to Saudi, including sometimes Saudis themselves. The muttawa was one of the first institutions MBS pegged back, removing its right to arrest people, particularly for the sin of “public mixing” (of the sexes). When I returned to the store this year, it was a festival of greens and pinks and blues. The assistant was a woman.
The third aspect of MBS’s character that was immediately remarked on, though, was unpredictability. “Impulsive” and “impetuous” were the epithets that found themselves on repeat. The diplomats defended him. For the average Westerner – and, after all, Western diplomats are supposed to be representative of the average – the formalities of an Arab royal court, while charming and authentic-seeming at first, are also frustrating. American and British governments are always under pressure from public opinion and are desperate to be able to say that the change is coming. There was a strong will to believe in someone who seemed to want to bring that about. Maybe the more impetuous the better.
Representatives of NGOs stage a demonstration in front of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul following the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, 8 October 2018Getty Images
On my November visit, the royal court handed me a remarkable manifesto. It laid out an agenda for change worthy of a Western-style politician, not the cautious -half-promises to which Saudi Arabia was so accustomed. It covered the main issues that subsequently became the hallmark of MBS’s time in power. Economic reform was front and centre, targeting diversification away from oil, along with budget cuts to challenge the dependency culture (of young men idling their lives away in well-paid but unproductive government jobs). There was talk of expanding opportunities for women, of greater engagement with the outside world to improve the country’s public image. It even mentioned allowing visits by human rights groups, previously unthinkable.
Two months after that visit, on 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on a single day, all but four of them by beheading. One was the most outspoken cleric from the country’s Shia minority. Some of those killed were accused of doing little more than protesting violently. Others had been children when arrested, in some cases years before.
The manifesto I had been given said nothing about reforming the political or judicial system.
In Saud al-Qahtani, MBS had his own Steve Bannon – a nationalist ideologue and Twitter user
Those who deal with the crown prince face to face say he appears to be on top of his briefs. In keeping with his predecessors, he has a preference for working late: it remains the case that anyone who works for the royal family must expect midnight summonses, while most important announcements, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving, have been issued in the early hours.
Unlike some other members of the royal family, the prince, a law graduate, can engage coherently in policy discussions. Unlike many other Arab leaders, he does not necessarily try to dominate the conversation: he defers to colleagues. This works both ways; a former White House official has described how the prince once interrupted a meeting between President Obama and King Salman to deliver a critique of American foreign policy. Again, the breach of protocol surprised, but did not necessarily offend: perhaps it was another sign of a man determined to get things done.
How much will Saudi Arabia’s British and American allies regret seeing MBS’s behaviour through this template? The mass executions? Gruesome, regrettable, but most of the dead were accused of being Al-Qaeda. He was sending a decisive message about where the kingdom stood on radicalism under the new regime. Usurping his predecessor as crown prince, the vastly experienced interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, with hardly a thank you for his service? He was just removing uncertainty from the line of succession. What about his locking up scores of princes, businessmen and officials in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (bang next to the conference centre and where the Trumps had stayed for that glorious May 2017 summit)? So what if there was no pretence at due process? He was dealing with the scourge of corruption, after all. “They know exactly what they are doing,” President Trump tweeted of his new friends. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years.”
Jared Kushner and MBS sat playing video games, talking through the future of the Middle East
Was it messages such as this that gave MBS the impression he had impunity? Or was it the “personal ties” that Jared Kushner had developed with him since the summit? A week before the arrests, the two men had sat up late together on a secret Kushner visit to the kingdom, playing video games while they chewed over the future of the Middle East.
This view, that the Trump administration erred in giving such licence to its new-found protégé, is only one way of looking at it. Another is to turn it the other way round. Perhaps it was MBS and the royal court who were too quick to get into bed with President Trump, a man whose instinctive approach to policy and whose own projection of impunity are so mesmeric. “I told them not to get into Trump’s basket of crazy,” a former advisor to the Saudi government said. “They ignored me.” The way the president conducted business encouraged the young prince to think that he would be protected whatever he did. In a kingdom where there are few constitutional checks and balances, the limits are those applied by the big brother in Washington. MBS may have thought that with Trump in override mode, he had no limits either.
In his principal aide, a man called Saud al-Qahtani, MBS had his own Steve Bannon, a nationalist ideologue who was not afraid of using Twitter to promote himself, his stances and his boss simultaneously. Qahtani roused supporters and abused critics and got the former to pile in on the latter. Qahtani was also given licence to bring in like minds, such as the army general who had proved himself a combative defender of the kingdom as spokesman for the coalition fighting the war in Yemen. Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri lost his cool last year when he was confronted during a visit to London by a bunch of antiwar protesters and was caught on camera flipping them the bird. An offence that would have won him the sack in more normal times instead earned him a promotion. He was whisked away to become deputy head of the national intelligence agency. “They were surrounding themselves with amateurs,” the former advisor said.
There seems to be no imminent move against MBS. Many of his cousins loathe him, but he has been adroit in sidelining them
Not long after he became defence minister, MBS took his country to war. The intervention he launched in neighbouring Yemen, where an Iran-linked rebel group had seized the capital, Sana’a, was classic Middle East. Complex in its origins, which lay in a confusing mix of dictatorial grandstanding, religion and history, it seemed largely obscure to the outside world. The West’s allies seemed to be on the side of Al-Qaeda, which US drones nevertheless continued to bomb. Their enemies were a northern clan called the Houthis, who were members of a Shia sect called Zaidism and had formed an alliance with their historic enemy, the recently ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. His loyal troops had previously been financed by Saudi. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone outside the country understood what on earth was going on and most tried to ignore it. But it has become the biggest scar on the face of modern Saudi Arabia’s reputation, at least until the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, as Saudi jets bombed their way back into contention at the cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives.
If that is one bookend to the four-year soap opera that has been the rise of the crown prince, the other is Khashoggi’s death – described as a “heinous crime” by MBS. The question is, will it be terminal? The Saudis claim adamantly that he knew nothing about it and was as shocked at what happened as everyone else. It has become clear hardly anyone outside the kingdom seems to believe that, though President Trump maintains that he does. But Turkey has not released evidence to prove otherwise, either because it does not have it or because it is seeking some sort of reward for not doing so.
Turkey would like to see the back of MBS. President Erdogan has ideological and personal reasons to object to a rival for the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world, a position he is trying to carve out for himself. However, for the moment he has given up the idea he can force MBS out, I am told.
MBS has been living on his yacht in Jeddah... apparently, to keep him safe. He believes there are plots to assassinate him
Within Riyadh, there seems to be no imminent move against MBS. Clearly, many of his cousins loathe him, but he has been adroit in sidelining them and, as one former diplomat who knows the family put it to me, none of the other leading princes is “the sharpest knife”. The exception is Mohammed bin Nayef, the ousted predecessor, but he remains under semi-house arrest and the Qahtani media circus managed to do a competent job smearing his reputation, saying when he was ousted that he was addicted to prescription painkillers. (These claims have not been independently verified, although it is known he was injured almost a decade ago by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber who was trying to kill him.)
Another brother of King Salman, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, aroused interest by telling protesters in London that “There are specific people who are responsible for the state of the war in Yemen... the king and crown prince”, apparently a signal of opposition and then, after waiting out a few weeks in Britain, returning home. But he seems unlikely to have the backing to stage any kind of rebellion.
“I believe the crown prince’s position is very secure now and in the foreseeable future,” an insider who is close to the royal family told me. “He has the backing of the king.”
The prince’s rivals also recognise the dangers of forcing change. The family had serious disputes in the past; nowadays, there is more of a sense that they stick together or fall together.
“He has consolidated power into his hands, which makes it very difficult for any rival to challenge him even if he wishes to do so,” the insider said. “Members of the royal family who I come across realise that backing and supporting the crown prince is the best and most logical course of action, even if some of them disagree with some of his choices or decisions. Reopening the succession line would risk destabilising the kingdom at a very volatile period in the region.”
The Crown Prince ahead of a visit to Downing Street to meet the prime minister as part of his first foreign tour as the Saudi heir apparent, 7 March 2018Getty Images
Recently, MBS has been living on his yacht in Jeddah – a £450 million yacht he bought a couple of years back on a spending spree, a spree begun just as he was telling his countrymen to tighten their belts that also included a £230m French chateau and the world’s most expensive painting, the £350m “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo. The yacht is, apparently, to keep him safe. He believes there are plots to assassinate him. Also, if you have spent £450m on a yacht, you probably want to get best use out of it.
Meanwhile, his fellow Saudis are undoubtedly in a state of panic. Many are as outraged as anyone else by what has happened. No one believed the country was a liberal place, but most thought there were limits to the ruling family’s authoritarianism. Its jails and secret police do not have the reputation of, for example, Syria’s or Egypt’s. On the other hand, many of the youth – two thirds of the population is under 30 – are also terrified that an end to MBS would be an end to the social reforms and a return to the old order. They also know that relations with the outside world may never be the same again. “The spell is broken,” the former diplomat said.
The idea that Mohammed bin Salman was trying to change his country is not a myth, even if some people did get too carried away with the idea that all was going to be free and easy in the new Saudi. He never promised democracy and apple pie. He did, however, promise that young people would be able to go to college and get ordinary jobs, make a living, go to the cinema and have fun. As he totters, so all those prizes become less assured, whichever way things turn out. Cinema companies are already reviewing their position.
The crown prince’s power derives from the king and the king must deal with the people, not just his friends
At the beginning of November, the king took his son off his yacht and took him on a tour of the provinces. They went to places that remain largely unknown to the K Street public relations men and perhaps to the prince himself: places such as Ha’il, a farming centre on the edge of the mountains of the north, and Buraydah, capital of the conservative Qassim province, where Salafism rules and clerics remain fierce. The king did what the sheikhs of the Arabian peninsula always used to do, before Britain and America told them to modernise their systems of governance. He held court for local bigwigs and distributed largesse. Debtors were freed from prison. The crown prince stood politely behind him. The duo’s tour was a show of support for the prince, to be sure, an assertion that his position was safe. It was also a public reminder of his first duties to his people.
In Ha’il, the royal pair were met by a chubby youth in black gown and head-dress, who in a reedy treble declaimed a poem of welcome. “We welcome the king, the protector of our homeland! And we welcome Mohammed, the crown prince of a king who belongs to us, the image of generosity, of hospitality, of kindness. The sky seems to be raining from the heavens.” Creepy? A little. Sign of a personality cult? Possibly, but what is an absolute monarchy if not a personality cult? But what this really was was a lesson that if there is a place for the new, there is also a place for the old ways of doing things. The crown prince’s power derives from the king and the king must deal with the people, not just his friends. Has he heard that message?
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