BLOOD AND OIL
Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power
by Bradley Hope & Justin Scheck
346 pp., Hachette Books, $29
The parade of rich world bankers, businessmen, journalists, consultants and politicians who have made the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia to suck up to the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed, is a sorry spectacle of greed and stupidity. The authors of this valuable new account, Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, are Wall Street Journal reporters, who covered much of the obsequiousness first-hand, and their account is an important addition to the alarming portrait of the unstable, murderous 35-year-old who rules the oil-producing kingdom.
As the second anniversary approaches of Prince Mohammed’s killing of the dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the book is another reminder that assuming the Prince will remain in power forever could be a huge mistake. Israel, in particular, may be unpleasantly surprised at some stage, as it is in effect basing much of its regional policy on its growing warm relations with him.
Here are just some of the supplicants who made the trip to Saudi Arabia in the years since Prince Mohammad came to power. Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary. Tony Blair, ex-British prime minister. High-ranking bankers from J.P. Morgan Chase, (including Jamie Dimon, the CEO), Citibank, and Goldman Sachs. Former General and CIA director David Petraeus. U.S. war contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. McKinsey & Company, the prestigious consultants. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who gushed over the Crown Prince in a now-notorious column. (The Times itself even sponsored an investment conference in Riyadh in October 2017, “intended to showcase the new Saudi Arabia to powerful politicians and financiers.”) Ari Emanuel, Hollywood’s most powerful agent. Maria Bartiromo, the pro-Trump Fox Business News reporter. And many more.
In recent days, the news has been about Donald Trump’s boast to Bob Woodward that he “saved” the Crown Prince’s “ass” after the Khashoggi murder. No doubt the other members on this list of shame are sighing in relief that Trump is at least for now diverting some attention from them. But the U.S. started facilitating Prince Mohammed’s crimes even before Trump’s electoral win. Back in March 2015, the Prince ordered a Saudi aerial onslaught against rebel groups in Yemen, which would soon trigger one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises. The Obama administration, to its shame, “declined to get [directly] involved but began offering intelligence and targets.”
Hope and Scheck do mention the Israel-Prince Mohammed connection briefly. They report that his security apparatus uses “cutting-edge Israeli spy technology” to unmask critics on Twitter, but surely the cooperation is greater than that.
The rich world visitors to Saudi Arabia should have been able to guess that Prince Mohammed’s supposedly bold development plan is partly a lunatic fever vision. A centerpiece of his proposal is NEOM, an entirely new model city in the desert that could include flying cars, “an artificial moon that would rise each night,” and “one million robots in the city to handle all the domestic tasks.”
This air-headed scheme should not distract from Prince Mohammed’s ruthlessness. In January 2016, some 48 Shia dissenters “were marched into a Riyadh square and killed, some by beheading, others by firing squad.” The courageous women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been jailed for more than 2 years now, and almost certainly tortured. Potential rivals within the sprawling royal family have been arrested, and in some cases also tortured to turn over their wealth. As Prince Mohammed’s rule continued, the authors explain that the Saudi regime carried out “stepped-up surveillance, arrests, kidnappings and violence aimed at perceived enemies at home and abroad.”
After Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the rich world was forced to mute its enthusiasm somewhat. But no country has broken diplomatic relations, and global investment banks competed vigorously to underwrite an initial stock sale by ARAMCO, the giant Saudi government-owned oil producer.
The apologists for Crown Prince Mohammed seem to assume that his one-man rule will continue for decades. His father, King Salman, is old and ailing, and has so far acquiesced to the son’s actions. But Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite is notoriously opaque, and the royals have deposed a king once before. What’s more, the collapse in the world oil price could stimulate unrest among the general public. Or, the arch-conservative religious establishment, which Prince Mohammed has curtailed, could strike back. In 1979, some 500 armed Islamists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and held it for 2 weeks. French commandos were called in to advise the Saudi army in retaking the mosque; hundreds died.
It is true that the Mideast, as elsewhere, has had rulers who stayed in power for decades. But then some, like the Shah of Iran, were toppled. Western elite support for Crown Prince Mohammed is already immoral. It could also turn out to be stupid.