“MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman”
By Ben Hubbard
Tim Duggan Books, $28
This up-to-the-minute look at Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is indispensable to understanding the Middle East today. The book is a superb, engagingly written, first-hand account of the emergence of a new dangerous dictator — and of Western complicity in that rise.
Ben Hubbard, the New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, is an Arabic-speaker who has visited Saudi Arabia many times, with extensive experience that few if any other outside reporters can match. He quotes official sources, but he has also amassed many off-the-record Saudi contacts to fill out the picture. The resulting account has a few shortcomings, including that Hubbard does not devote enough attention to the growing Saudi-Israeli alliance, but among its many strengths is the fact that Hubbard was close to Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, almost certainly at the order of Prince Mohammed. Hubbard provides a detailed profile of this courageous and complex man, including his private correspondence — which reveal Khashoggi feared for his life before the Prince ordered his killing.
The Crown Prince’s murder of Khashoggi is emblematic of his new ruthless dictatorship. Historically, Saudi Arabia had been ruled by a balancing of interests and compromise among the very large royal family. No longer. Hubbard explains how the Crown Prince arrests rivals and uses other pressure to impose one-man rule, which is reinforced by a growing cult of personality: “Inside Saudi Arabia, he is a giant whose face is everywhere — printed on cellphone covers and hung over entrances to shopping malls. . .”
Hubbard has a broad explanation for the November 2017 crackdown, when Prince Mohammed’s security forces arrested more than 350 wealthy princes and prominent businessmen, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the famous billionaire; thugs kept them under guard in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, torturing some of them, until they agreed to sign over billions of dollars of their holdings. (In the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi called the mass arrests the “Night of the Long Knives,” after Adolf Hitler’s violent 1934 purge of rival Nazi leaders.) Hubbard notes that the Crown Prince’s crackdown, supposedly to deter “corruption,” was selective, exempting certain allies, but his larger point is even more important; the imprisonment wasn’t just about extorting money. It was a cunning strategic move to reduce opposition within the ruling elite/royal family:
Gone were the days when the kingdom had relatively independent power centers with lucrative businesses and rich tycoons linked to them. Now they all answered to MBS, who could marshall their resources as he saw fit in service of his plans.
Hubbard has more evidence of the Crown Prince’s criminality. He reports on the Saudi air war against Yemen, in which warplanes and bombs supplied by the U.S. and Britain are partly responsible for the at least 100,000 deaths so far, and he got into the beleaguered mountain nation to report on the destruction first-hand. Hubbard also describes an almost unbelievable episode, in which the Crown Prince actually lured the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, to the kingdom, detained him and had him beaten up in an effort to influence Lebanon’s internal politics.
But some of the most disgusting parts of Hubbard’s book are not about Prince Mohammed himself. He describes how Western consulting agencies and other businesses fall all over themselves to do business with the young dictator, and help whitewash his reputation:
[Prince Mohammed] commissioned the biggest companies, McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and Strategy&, as well as smaller boutique firms, to handle public relations and implement projects. Some firms kept permanent offices near the Royal Court, so they could be summoned quickly. . .
There was worse. In 2015, McKinsey produced a 9-page study of how Prince Mohammed’s reduction in subsidies for utilities prompted opposition inside Saudi Arabia, and the consulting giant named three Saudi Twitter personalities who had led the resistance online. The regime promptly arrested one of the three, and persecuted a second one of them later.
The elite American kowtowing to the 34-year-old Crown Prince didn’t start with Trump. Hubbard explains that the Obama administration overlooked — in fact abetted — his onslaught against Yemen, in part because the Saudi regime was upset over the Iran deal and the U.S. did not want more friction.
The Trump administration only strengthened the already existing ties between the U.S. and the Crown Prince. Hubbard includes vivid, wry descriptions of Trump’s entourage on its May 2017 visit, and he reports that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner speaks directly to Prince Mohammed on insecure WhatsApp connections. (You don’t have to be an economic detective to surmise that Saudi oil money is probably flowing toward the Kushner family’s teetering real estate holdings, but Hubbard apparently does not have the evidence.)
The book describes yet another shameful example of collusion between the U. S. elite and the Crown Prince — what Hubbard calls “the think-tank trip.” He explains: “Throughout the year, delegations from the Washington cognoscenti make their way to the kingdom, where they are treated to a range of briefings with top Saudi officials. . .” Unsurprisingly, the American experts don’t sound particularly critical when they get back home. Hubbard quotes some embarrassing gushes from Dennis Ross, the professional Peace Processor, who went on one of the junkets.
American elite silence over Saudi Arabia continued even as the Crown Prince increased the repression. His top enforcer, a thug named Saud al-Qahtani, headed a Rapid Intervention Group that carried out “surveillance, harassment, and kidnapping of Saudi citizens overseas, as well as their detention and sometimes torture inside palaces belonging to MBS and his father.” It was apparently al-Qahtani who masterminded the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Hubbard is far too diplomatic about how his New York Times colleague, Thomas Friedman, waxed poetic about the Crown Prince during that notorious 2017 interview (“Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last”), noting only that “my take was more restrained.” And although he does report about the budding alliance between Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv, he should have explored it at more length, and so he fails to explain that the U.S. elite overlooks Prince Mohammed’s ongoing crimes at least partly because Saudi Arabia has ended its hostility to Israel.
Once you recognize the Crown Prince’s repression, the modest other changes he has carried out seem to merit less of the rapturous attention they get in the mainstream U.S. press. Prince Mohammed has permitted movie theaters to open (actually reopen, they were closed in 1979), allowed (carefully vetted) music concerts to take place, and finally given women the right to drive — although Hubbard reminds us that one of the most outspoken Saudi feminists, Loujain Al-Hathloul, was arrested nearly 2 years ago, probably tortured, and is still locked up. Once again, Hubbard’s expertise is invaluable; he has a detailed and inspiring portrait of Al-Hathloul.
What’s most alarming about this essential book — after you set aside your disgust at Western elite complicity with the Crown Prince’s regime — is that the new Saudi dictatorship does seem secure and stable, at least for now. Hubbard repeats that the old model, of joint rule by a large Royal Family, is over:
Gone were the days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided the portfolios among themselves, and made decisions through consensus. MBS has destroyed that system, extending his control over the military, the oil industry, the intelligence services, the police, and the National Guard, replacing senior princes with younger ones who answered to him.
Of course, Hubbard would be the first to recognize that the Saudi Arabia’s new one-man regime is still opaque, and that opposition could secretly be forming among other royals or within the conservative clerical establishment. He hints the Prince may have a drug problem; if the rumors are true, that’s another potential source of volatility. But what certainly won’t happen is that the elite in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere will turn against Crown Prince Mohammed’s dictatorship any time soon.