The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mohammed bin Salman is a mystery, but his impact on Saudi Arabia is brutally obvious

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has instituted some reforms in his country while consolidating his own power. (Mandel Ngan/Pool/Reuters)

Fred Hiatt is editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

‘MBS” is a biography with no startling revelations about the life of its subject. Yet it is a revelatory work nonetheless.

The subject is Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Ben Hubbard, who reports on the Middle East for the New York Times, is honest enough to say that it is “hard to paint a detailed picture of his early life,” that “much still remains unclear about how MBS spent his twenties” and that, when it comes to why he was chosen for the position that makes him the likely future king, “we are left with little more than informed speculation.”

There are a number of possible explanations for these gaps. One is that as a child, Mohammed hardly seemed destined for greatness. “As the sixth son of the twenty-fifth son of the founding king, there was little reason to expect that he would rise to prominence,” Hubbard notes.

Second, unlike many of his royal cousins and half-siblings, Mohammed did not study abroad; his formative years were spent inside Saudi Arabia.

And third, the people in Saudi Arabia who might have tales to tell, even seemingly benign ones, are too afraid to talk. “Fear is so widespread that a stray social media post or a private comment could lead to arrest or jail,” Hubbard writes, “that many Saudis avoid talking on the phone or put their devices in the fridge when they meet.”

And that points to the real revelation of this book. While it may not chart the inner growth of a future leader, it paints a vivid portrait of how he has altered the kingdom during his half-decade of rule.

That evolution may surprise American readers with only a passing familiarity with Saudi Arabia. After all, they probably know that Saudi Arabia never was a democracy. It long subjugated half its population. It fostered and disseminated an intolerant form of Islam, expressed most infamously in the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

All true — and in fact, Mohammed has modestly improved the lot of women (they are now allowed to drive) and reined in the intolerant clerics (movie theaters have opened).

But the most fundamental change the headstrong crown prince has brought about, Hubbard shows, is to turn a “soft-gloved autocracy” that featured multiple centers of power, and room for discreet grousing and dissent, into “a laboratory for a new kind of electronic authoritarianism.”

“Over time, it would engage in surveillance, harassment, and kidnapping of Saudi citizens overseas, as well as their detention and sometimes torture inside palaces belonging to MBS and his father,” Hubbard writes. By the time he finishes writing this book, he realizes that “something fundamental had changed in Saudi Arabia.”

Hubbard describes how Mohammed consolidated his position with gangster tactics straight out of the playbook of Stalin and his secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria. He locked his own mother away. He took the prime minister of Lebanon hostage. In 2017, he engineered a soft coup against his older cousin, the respected counterterrorism chief Mohammed bin Nayef, whom Mohammed’s elderly and probably ailing father, King Salman, had installed as first crown prince. Just this month, that soft coup turned harder when Mohammed bin Nayef was arrested.

Mohammed informed a leading construction company that he wanted to become a partner. When the brothers who ran the firm resisted, the government took their homes, private jets, jewelry, cash and “one brother’s $90 million car collection.”

In 2017 Mohammed infamously rounded up dozens of Saudi Arabia’s leading princes and business executives, confined them in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and held many of them prisoner for months. Accused of corruption, they were to enjoy “independent judicial process,” the kingdom’s public prosecutor announced. In fact their ordeal is shrouded to this day, though it is believed that some were tortured, some remain under house arrest and most were forced to turn over assets according to some formula that was never explained — to the tune of more than $100 billion.

Not incidentally, that episode, which consolidated Mohammed’s unchallenged dictatorial rule, won the enthusiastic approval of President Trump. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!” Trump tweeted.

Trump’s admiration for Mohammed, and the crown prince’s chummy relations with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, are a running theme of the book. President Barack Obama was reluctant to be drawn into what he saw as Saudi Arabia’s sectarian war against Iran, and he tried to maintain some distance between the United States and Saudi Arabia despite their alliance. Trump and Kushner, by contrast, supported one reckless MBS action after another: the Ritz-Carlton purge, an attempt to isolate Qatar and — most destructively — Mohammed’s disastrous and bloody intervention in the Yemen war. And that MBS recklessness was on fully display again as, in the midst of a global health crisis, he initiated a destabilizing price war against Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s willingness to excuse absolutely any behavior reached its low point when he forgave Mohammed for the crime that also serves as the climax of Hubbard’s book: the murder and dismemberment of Saudi exile turned Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Most of the world is not so forgiving, Hubbard maintains, pointing to congressional disgust and the likelihood that Mohammed could no longer stage the kind of triumphant trips through the West that he engineered shortly after taking power.

“Khashoggi’s killing was a wake-up call,” he writes. “Sure, Khashoggi was only one man, but the contrast between his reasoned criticism and his gruesome end caught the world’s attention.”

Hubbard acknowledges that even if the revulsion lingers, its effects may dissipate. The world is likely to continue working with the crown prince as long as he stays in power. So the real question will be “whether MBS is learning from his mistakes. Are his dangerous acts the youthful faults of an inexperienced ruler? Or do they spring from deep in his character and serve as harbingers of things to come?”

“MBS” does not attempt a definitive answer. But it does not leave a reader optimistic that the crown prince will mature into a wise or humane king.


The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman

By Ben Hubbard

Tim Duggan. 359 pp. $28