MUMBAI (Reuters Breakingviews) – Mohammed bin Salman has spent the five years since his elderly father became king of Saudi Arabia surprising in ways good, bad, and downright ugly. From the rumble in the Ritz to unleashing a sovereign fund to the silencing of dissidents, the story of his rise through one of the largest royal families to a position of unprecedented power is astonishing.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
As crown prince, the 35-year-old is set to be the first monarch from the third generation of Al Saud. But the Twitter-obsessed millennial stands apart from the family’s ranks of overseas-educated, heavily Westernised princes – “MbS”, as he is universally known, stayed in the kingdom to study. In “Blood and Oil”, Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck have gone to painstaking lengths to lift the veil on the character of a young man shaking up the country, and beyond. The result is a gripping page-turner.
Hope and Scheck portray a wily palace operator with a dazzling memory and work ethic rare in the royal court, an individual who honed his cut-throat instincts well before he started wielding his power on the global stage. MbS helped his now 84-year-old father beat an addiction to painkillers and leverage relationships to outmanoeuvre would-be usurpers when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died in January 2015. By doing so, he forged his own – far from given – path to power.
The kingdom was due a shakeup. Former kings, referred to in the book as “desiccated old men”, derived power from consensus, adopting change at a glacial pace out of lethargy but also fear of ultra-conservative religious clerics. With his father on the throne MbS took swift action, aiming to win the support of a population mostly under 30. Many Saudis still live near the poverty line or struggle to find work they want to do.
Some of MbS’ reforms have been crowd-pleasers, others aimed at taking out the political opposition. Women are now allowed to drive, and royals with unimaginable riches have been stripped of wealth the new powers said were acquired through corruption. Many were temporarily locked up in the “Sheikhdown” in the Ritz-Carlton, dubbed the world’s most luxurious prison.
Among Hope and Scheck’s most interesting insights is MbS’ intense and petty jealously of individuals who commanded more global presence or respect than he did. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was for decades Saudi Arabia’s best-known businessman and, at one time, a top Citigroup investor. The crown prince’s admiration didn’t stop him being locked up in the Ritz too.
Some of MbS’ most aggressive financial moves, it turns out, were ideas first pitched by Alwaleed: Hope and Scheck describe the younger prince backing his elder cousin’s 2012 proposal to turn the country’s Public Investment Fund into a global investor like the sovereign funds in Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Even the plan to sell off parts of Saudi Aramco, they note, wasn’t entirely new. Other pillars of MbS’ ambitious Vision 2030 plan, to wean the kingdom off oil, had been pitched by the World Bank and others for years.
Crazier plans are still in motion. Neom, a futuristic urban development on the Red Sea in an area with a near-total absence of fresh water, had some distant financial logic. Hope and Scheck say the project was intended to reduce billions of dollars of outflows by providing all the services, from health to entertainment, that Saudi princes seek abroad.
MbS’ ambitions look less wild in the context of Saudi Arabia’s desert Gulf neighbours. The emirate of Dubai, after all, went as far as to construct an indoor ski slope and artificial islands in the shape of a world map. What’s more, Hope and Scheck emphasise how much MbS has been enabled and encouraged by praise from global consultants like McKinsey to executives like SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son to international bankers – all ready to make a quick buck.
The book also serves as a reminder that the Saudi status quo was hardly perfect. MbS’ relatives and rivals were spoiled. In one vivid example of many, Prince Turki bin Abdullah is described as having kept a modern-day harem – a group of women who live lavishly all over the world, ready to pick him up anywhere.
Given all this, it’s tempting to see MbS’ ruthlessness as a broom to the kingdom’s problems, even as admirable. Hope and Scheck show, however, how the prince’s inability to tolerate dissent and black-and-white view of the world may lie at the root of his multiple misadventures. The list is long: a war in Yemen, the role of his close confidantes in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the blockade of Qatar, and the effective kidnapping of Saad Hariri, who was Lebanon’s prime minister at the time.
Corporate executives will find useful lessons here too. It was King Abdullah’s failure to properly implement an allegiance council that ultimately made it easier for King Salman bin Abdulaziz to cast others adrift, Hope and Scheck note. MbS was easily elevated into a position where he could radically change the course of the nation.
So far, MbS has succeeded in spending billions of dollars of official money abroad on everything from stakes in Uber and Tesla to SoftBank’s Vision Fund, but his annual Future Investment Initiative confab hasn’t secured the inward investment needed to underwrite his economic transformation plans. One positive for him is that it’s unclear how much of a difference the Khashoggi affair has really made. Investors were quick to mingle again with the prince, albeit somewhat more in private, but still with the hope of extracting funds.
In “Blood and Oil”, MbS’ adventures in power seem like those of an entire lifetime of any ordinary politician or leader. Kingly but not yet king, it is probably just the beginning of a highly disruptive legacy.
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