In early March, just days before the American publication of this biography of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, news broke of the arrest in Riyadh of senior members of the royal family – close relatives of the young man who has generated many sensational headlines across the world in recent years.
No one had heard much of him before 2015, when his father, King Salman, ascended the throne. The crown prince is Salman’s sixth son. He differed from more sophisticated members of the Al Saud dynasty: he had not served in the military, his English was poor and he was educated only in the kingdom he is now seeking to transform.
Ben Hubbard’s account of the life, machiavellian style and ambitions of the de facto ruler of the largest and wealthiest country in the Gulf is a fine example of talented and dogged reporting. He also speaks and reads Arabic, not something you can take for granted among western Middle East journalists or even “experts”. In addition, he works for a highly influential media organisation – the New York Times.
The March arrests were another reminder of the crown prince’s ruthlessness in consolidating power: those detained included an uncle and a cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, the previous crown prince, a favourite of the US and UK because of his role as counter-terrorism chief in the post-9/11 period. His replacement in 2017 was a highly significant moment in the apparently unstoppable rise of Mohammed bin Salman.
Other newsy events include the continuing war launched in neighbouring Yemen when he was defence minister; the kidnapping and forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri; the much-heralded Vision 2030 for the transformation of the oil-dependent Saudi economy; allowing women to drive for the first time; and the brutal killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Hubbard draws on dozens of interviews to reconstruct the detention in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh of 350 princes and businessmen. Luxurious surroundings did not prevent intimidation, even torture. Prince Mohammed billed that as a battle against corruption and was endorsed by Donald Trump on Twitter, no less.
Overall, this is an impressively well-sourced work. There is a fascinating account of Barack Obama confronting him (though he continued US arms sales despite the war in Yemen) and an insightful description of relations between the crown prince and Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law – another princeling, though a Jewish one from New Jersey.
Another riveting chapter is devoted to the three-week tour of the US by the crown prince in the spring of 2018. He hobnobbed with Silicon Valley executives, including Amazon boss Jeff Bezos (leading to allegations that Bezos’s phone had been hacked). He also sent strikingly positive messages to Israel, alarming Palestinians. Americans who embraced his vision for change turned a blind eye to his recklessness.
Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s chef de cabinet and head of the sinister rapid intervention group, is portrayed as the mastermind of a campaign of digital surveillance. Hubbard himself was sent a link to a nonexistent website on his phone. The operation to kill Khashoggi was launched “based on a standing order from Saudi intelligence to bring dissidents home”, an official told him. The murder was a disturbing wake-up call to those who had been impressed by Prince Mohammed’s dynamic vision for the future.
But pretty soon it was back to business as usual. The relentless focus of the Twitterer-in-chief in the Oval Office served Saudi interests, with shared hostility to a more assertive Iran reaching unprecedented levels in both Washington and Riyadh.
Hubbard’s account acknowledges significant social changes, including the introduction of western-type entertainment, sports events and tourism, and tackling the conservative religious establishment. But he questions their overall impact. The crown prince may be socially liberal but he operates on an autocratic basis. Women can indeed now drive, but activists of either gender are still subject to arbitrary arrest and torture.
“An absolute monarchy is essentially a democracy of one, and MBS got his father’s vote, the only one that mattered,” he writes. Barring unexpected developments, his son (Salman is 84 and in poor health) will, sooner or later, ascend to the throne. It would be surprising if the crown prince came out much better in later drafts of history than this impressive first one.
• MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman by Ben Hubbard is published by William Collins (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15