When he hosted last October’s glittering global investment conference in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had the world at his fingertips. Thousands of investors, corporate chieftains and government leaders flocked to the kingdom to hear the charismatic young heir to the Saudi throne outline his plans for modernization of the reclusive kingdom, and to be invited along for the ride and the profits.
“Only dreamers are welcome to join,” Mohammed told his audience.
As a second conference approaches this month in Riyadh, Mohammed, 33, seems far less dashing. Over the past week, many who had planned to attend have abruptly canceled, scrambling to distance themselves from what they now see as a runaway train headed for disaster.
Their distress stems from the still-unfolding story of Jamal Khashoggi, the self-exiled Saudi journalist allegedly killed and gruesomely dismembered this month by Saudi agents inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, after he dared to publicly criticize the crown prince and his government.
To some of Mohammed’s foreign admirers, it is still inconceivable that the ebullient and charming prince — widely known by the initials MBS — could be responsible for such barbarity. The Trump White House has insisted it has reached no conclusions about what happened.
Some think that if the journalist ended up dead at the hands of Saudis (no body has been found, and Saudi Arabia denies any knowledge of his disappearance), it must have been a kidnapping gone wrong or a rogue operation. Mohammed, they say, has made too great effort courting the West, and is far too intelligent and aware of the potential fallout, to have ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
Still others, many of whom have spent time with the prince, say they would be shocked but not surprised. They describe a dark and bullying side of a young man in a hurry, one who has absolute power and does not tolerate dissent.
“This never would have happened without MBS’s approval. Never, never, never,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat with long experience in the kingdom through several administrations.
Mohammed and people who know him assert that his Western admirers have always misunderstood his intentions, projecting their own hopes for the transformation of Saudi Arabia onto a prince who is the antithesis of the cautious, elderly leadership that has ruled the kingdom for decades, and seemed brash enough to push through his modernization plans.
“He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s authoritarian. He’s not embarrassed by it,” said one person close to the royal court who, like most of those interviewed for this article, spoke only on the condition of anonymity to offer frank assessments. “He definitely sees himself in messianic terms, as a man of history,” the person said, adding that Mohammed “cares deeply about the country.”
While Mohammed’s fans in the West have seen him as a future Lee Kuan Yew, the modernizing first premier of Singapore, MBS himself is known to refer to China, with its authoritarian leadership and soaring economy, as a better model for Saudi Arabia. He has chafed at the criticism of his human rights record, complaining that it has received more Western scrutiny than that of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I didn’t call myself a reformer,” the crown prince said in a Bloomberg News interview this month.
The maintenance of silence
If Khashoggi’s disappearance shocked Westerners, they were simply not paying close attention to events in the kingdom, and the lengths to which the crown prince has been willing to go to quash dissent, say seasoned Saudi human rights advocates.
In an initial wave of executions after Mohammed’s abrupt installation as the immediate heir to his father, King Salman, followed by waves of arrests over the past year, he has been ruthless in asserting power. Saudi authorities have spread fear by detaining billionaires and grass-roots activists alike, showing that no one is untouchable. And they have worked to ensure that the arrests are hardly discussed, threatening the relatives of those arrested and forcing them to sign pledges of silence, and holding trials in secret, the rights advocates say.
This style of governance has occasionally made for odd spectacle. A few months ago, when a prominent women’s rights advocate was arrested at her home, the authorities surrounded it with so many klieg lights and armed men that residents thought it was a film shoot, according to Yahya Assiri, a London-based Saudi human rights activist. When people wandered out to see what was happening, they were rounded up and told never to speak of what they had seen, he said.
The maintenance of silence may be one of the crown prince’s greatest successes. Assiri said his networks of activists on the ground in Saudi Arabia has withered, with more and more people who reported on rights violations and arrests leaving the secure chats rooms where they once shared information.
“A large number are in prison. Some are afraid. Some completely disappeared, and we know nothing about them,” he said in an interview in his London office a few days before Khashoggi’s disappearance.
It is not just dissidents who have gone quiet. In the hyper-nationalist environment the crown prince has nurtured, there is no benefit to sticking one’s head up, whatever the topic. “Everyone wants to prove that he or she is a patriot,” said one well-known political analyst in Saudi Arabia. “There is no tolerance.”
The analyst had not easily come to that conclusion, and had cheered Mohammed’s most significant reforms, including his decision to strip power from the religious police who had enforced moral codes. “Mohammed bin Salman had all the chances,” the analyst said.
But “when you are surrounded by people who show no dissent, then you stop listening,” the analyst added.
Mentoring the prince
Mohammed bin Salman is one of countless cousins descended from the progeny of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud. He is the eldest son of his mother, herself the third wife of Abdulaziz’s son Salman.
Mohammed’s father spent much of his career as the governor of Riyadh province and was known as a peacemaker among his own often-fractious group of brothers, several of whom preceded him as king. While many royal males are educated abroad and rise in the Saudi military, or both, Mohammed attended King Saud University at home and quickly became a senior political aide to his father.
When Salman ascended to the throne in 2015, after the death of his brother, Abdullah, he appointed MBS, already a minister of state, to the post of defense minister. It was then that Mohammed first came to the attention of the upper echelons of the Obama administration.
“Our theory of MBS was that he was to some extent an inevitability, particularly after it became clear he was contesting the second or third spot” for succession under the king, said one senior Obama diplomat.
Then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry tried to build what he considered a mentoring relationship with the young prince, then in his 20s. “He knew he was a young guy and that he would make mistakes,” the diplomat said of Mohammed. “He said he wanted to be told when we disagreed.”
Mohammed “was a policymaker, and we had real policy issues,” including the war he declared in Yemen in 2015, apparently without informing other senior Saudi security officials or the White House. There were also differences over aid to rebel forces in Syria and Obama’s efforts, despite Saudi objections, to forge a nuclear deal with Iran.
Mohammed knew that if meaningful jobs were not found for Saudi Arabia’s young and highly educated population, and if the oil-dominated economy was not diversified, “they were doomed,” this former diplomat said.
Salman had put Mohammed in control of a new economic development council, and gave him control over Aramco, the massive Saudi oil company. In April 2016, Mohammed introduced a plan for restructuring the country’s economy over the following 15 years. That project, called Vision 2030, outlined diversification from oil, privatization schemes, technology reforms and sustainable development. The plan was met with wide international approval.
Kerry tried to meet with him “every time we went to Saudi Arabia and every time he came to the U.S.,” although Mohammed’s halting English made telephone communication difficult. On one occasion, at the end of a working dinner at Kerry’s home in Washington, MBS startled the departing guests by sitting at the piano and playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
The diplomat familiar with the Saudis through several U.S. administrations thought “Kerry was more positive than the rest of us” about MBS. The young prince, always at his father’s side, was prone to lecturing, and he startled Obama with a lengthy criticism of U.S. foreign policy during a meeting with Salman.
The CIA, in particular, was suspicious of MBS and preferred dealing with the prince just above him in the pecking order, then-Interior Minister and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef.
By June 2017, however, Nayef was out and his father, in a ruthless and rapid change that shocked other members of the tradition-bound extended royal family, had installed MBS as crown prince.
The dark side
Even before reaching the White House, the incoming Trump administration saw MBS as the portal through which it would build a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, using its power in the region to buttress its own policy plans — reversing Obama’s opening to Iran, forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that had included a crackdown on terrorism, keeping the oil market in check and providing more U.S. weaponry to one of the few countries in the world that actually paid for it.
While President Trump courted the aging king, a connection would be made through the energetic king-to-be, who quickly struck up a relationship with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. When he visited Washington in early 2017, Mohammed dined at Kushner’s house and had lunch with Trump, but largely kept off the public screen even as he and Kushner planned for the president’s first overseas trip, to begin with great fanfare in the kingdom. There was little, if any, talk of human rights.
At the inaugural Future Investment Initiative conference in October 2017 in Riyadh, MBS announced ambitious plans to attract foreign investment to the kingdom, including development of a vast economic zone on the Red Sea coast and a luxury tourist destination.
Even as he restructured the Saudi economy, MBS moved in 2017 to liberalize parts of Saudi Arabia’s extremely conservative social code. Powers were stripped from the religious police, who enforced restrictive dress codes for women and gender segregation in public spaces. The government, rolling back the restrictions, promoted music concerts, sports events and announced that cinemas would open for the first time in decades.
The kingdom’s social strictures, Mohammed frequently argued, were not indigenous to Saudi Arabia but rather were a consequence of the country’s turn toward conservatism beginning in 1979, when Sunni hard-liners mobilized to counter the Islamic revolution in nearby Shiite Iran — a theory that Saudi scholars said was a selective reading of history, at best.
As Mohammed gradually worked to open the society, the government announced that, as of June 2018, women would be allowed to drive in the kingdom for the first time in decades.
MBS attributed his ability to bring about social reforms with little upheaval to his negotiating skills with conservative clerics and his own deep knowledge of Islam. But he made clear that he was not striving for democracy in Saudi Arabia; it remained an absolute monarchy in which he was fast approaching absolute power. Clerics who refused to fall in line, or who were seen as too independent, were thrown into prison.
“When you come to political reforms, he’s as reactionary as the Wahhabi political establishment,” said David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center who has studied Saudi Arabia and written extensively about it. “While the country used to be run more by consensus of the senior princes, it is now down to one guy, with a little input from his dad.”
Others, though, say King Salman still wields enormous influence, reining his son in at times and prodding him to counter Iran’s influence in the region, a priority for the ruler.
In November, Mohammed ordered the arrest of hundreds of members of the royal family and the business elite, imprisoning them in the opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel. Many would later allege physical abuse and the death of at least one person under torture. The palace said they were corrupt, and most were eventually released after giving up substantial portions of their fortunes.
A prominent American with long experience in the kingdom and with its more courtly prior rulers expressed concern after several meetings with Mohammed. “He wasn’t interested in listening,” he said, describing the prince as a “bully” who lectured without interruption.
Last spring, as the world waited for Saudi women to climb into their cars as drivers, prominent women who for years had campaigned for the right to drive were quietly arrested and imprisoned.
“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome,” Ottaway said. “The dark side is getting darker.”
A warm welcome
During a tour of the United States last March, MBS was hailed by the White House as an enlightened and powerful leader. From the East Coast cities he visited, to the industrial heartland, and West Coast high-technology and entertainment centers, Mohammed — now speaking fairly fluent English — fascinated his American hosts.
Although many in Congress had protested against civilian deaths caused by Saudi air attacks in Yemen and had questioned the domestic arrests, numerous lawmakers gathered to speak with him. Such matters, Mohammed felt, were his country’s domestic concerns and did not diminish the kingdom’s value as a strong security ally to the United States. Nor did they shift Mohammed’s focus from his most urgent priority: reforming an economy heavily dependent on oil.
His warm welcome in the United States was hardly a surprise. Both before and after the visit, the Saudi leadership has weathered several potentially embarrassing episodes in the previous year, with little international backlash, including the apparent detention of the Lebanese prime minister and the near-severance of diplomatic ties with Canada after the Canadians protested the kingdom’s arrest of a women’s rights advocate.
Some at the highest echelons of the kingdom were perplexed that so many Americans seemed to care when stories began to emerge that Khashoggi had vanished during an Oct. 2 visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, according to the person close to the royal court. Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Saudi citizens, however harsh, was thought to be the kingdom’s business, having nothing to do with foreign relationships.
But the disappearance, let alone the possible killing, “of a guy who was a dissident living in the West does have something to do” with them, this person said. “Even if they’re doing it for domestic politics, they have to be able to read the effect in the rest of the world,” he said, referring to the Saudi leadership.
While Mohammed’s possible involvement “flies in the face of all the effort that he’s put into improving relations” with the West, “he’s also very inexperienced. I don’t think he has a deep understanding. . . . of what the reaction would be.”