MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman. By Ben Hubbard. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2020. 384 pp.
Is there any less promising terrain for the emergence of liberal, democratic government than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Debates rage over the precise alchemy that transforms dictatorships into democracies, but whatever one’s preferred ingredient, Saudi Arabia is almost sure to be bereft of it. The country’s history is entirely authoritarian, its people denied even the barest hint of political participation. The Kingdom’s performance on the Polity IV Index—a common measure of a country’s degree of democracy—is impressive in its dismal consistency: Saudi Arabia has earned the lowest possible score every year since 1946 (the first year for which data are available), a feat unmatched even by tyrannies such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, or Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.1 Culturally, Saudi Arabia is tribal, patriarchal, and religiously conservative—characteristics ideally suited to the maintenance of absolute monarchy. Autocracy is even encoded into the Saudi economic formula, in which the ruling elite draws liquid from the ground, sells it to foreigners, and uses the resulting windfall to buy off would-be dissenters and to acquire implements of violence to deploy against those who cannot be bought. If all that were not enough, the Kingdom’s peculiarly premodern form of government has been sustained by a geopolitical bargain with the world’s most powerful democracies, which offer protection and support in exchange for uninterrupted access to the elixir that flows beneath the sands.
Given the obstacles arrayed against it, how might the political emancipation of Saudis ever be achieved? If this question had been posed prior to 2 October 2018, one could have been forgiven for pointing to Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old heir to his country’s throne and, as the New York Times‘s Ben Hubbard reports in his penetrating new biography, the [End Page 172] real power behind it. When the crown prince—known in the West by his initials, MBS—burst onto the scene, he seemed to many (including the author of these lines) to be the deliverer that the Kingdom had long needed. No one, of course, thought that the man was a democrat, but he presented himself—and was presented to us by the likes of the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius and the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman—as a modernizer in the tradition of Japan’s Emperor Meiji and Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In this telling, MBS was a farsighted leader who recognized the need to liberate his country from both its addiction to oil and the shackles of old-time religion. To read MBS’s “Vision 2030″—the national economic and social roadmap he put forward in 2016 (with the help of a passel of high-priced McKinsey consultants)—was to catch a glimpse of a Saudi Arabia that might one day be a candidate, if not for democracy, then for more participatory, inclusive governance than it had hitherto enjoyed. In addition to promising “a vibrant society,” “a thriving economy,” and “a tolerant country,” MBS pledged to “adopt wide-ranging transparency and accountability reforms,” and to “be transparent and open about our failures as well as our successes.”2 This was not language one was accustomed to hearing from the leaders of that most absolute of absolute monarchies.
With the talk came action. The same month that Vision 2030 was announced, a law was passed weakening Saudi Arabia’s feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—a force of religious zealots primarily responsible for shuttering shops during prayer times, harassing women whose appearance they deemed improper, and generally cowing people into conformity with their cramped conception of the faith. “With a single royal decree,” Hubbard writes, “MBS had defanged the clerics, clearing the way for vast changes they most certainly would have opposed” (p. 63). Nowhere was the prince’s commitment to “unlinking the clerics from the monarchy” (p. 279) more evident than in his efforts to challenge the country’s clerically sanctioned edifice of sex segregation and female subjugation. In 2017, public schools were finally forced to offer physical-education classes for girls, “in defiance of clerics who argued that exercise could harm their femininity” (p. 163). After MBS had maneuvered himself into the position of crown prince, he would leapfrog over clerical objections and revoke the regulations that had famously prevented Saudi women from driving their own cars. In 2018, the Kingdom would pass a sexual-harassment law “in order to [End Page 173] preserve the individual’s privacy, dignity, and freedom” (p. 211). And in 2019, MBS engineered a royal decree that abrogated much of the country’s hated “guardianship law,” which had required Saudi women to seek permission from their senior male relatives before they could do such things as travel or take jobs or obtain medical treatment.
The crown prince did not just tame the men of religion, he also domesticated the royal family itself. It is difficult to exaggerate how exalted a position the members of the House of Saud enjoyed before MBS’s appearance. As Hubbard reminds us, the entire country “bore the name of the royal family, and there had never been a clear line between family and state funds” (p. 121). The kingdom’s “thousands of princes and princesses” not only received monthly stipends, they also managed to “siphon money from the government’s coffers in myriad ways,” such as taking loans from banks with no intention of repaying them, using insider information to appropriate the choicest morsels of land, demanding kickbacks from foreign companies in exchange for the right to do business in the Kingdom, and running protection rackets on local workers (p. 190).
Although King Salman’s predecessor King Abdullah had tried to curb such antics, it was MBS who broke the wheel. In 2017, the government announced the formation of a new anticorruption committee headed by MBS, and within a few weeks, hundreds of members of Saudi Arabia’s economic elite—including several royals—found themselves under investigation. When MBS locked up some of the committee’s most high-profile targets in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton, many observers, including Hubbard, saw the move as a shakedown by a testosterone-fueled palace intriguer, but there is evidence that the average Saudi saw things differently. Hubbard reports that many of his Saudi interlocutors “cheered on the crackdown . . . taking pleasure in seeing figures who had flown so high brought so low” (p. 197).
More than schadenfreude was at work, however. The prince’s declaration that “anyone who is involved in corruption will not be spared, whether he is a minister, a prince, or whoever he is” (p. 193), pierced forever the aura of impunity and invincibility that surrounded the cosseted House of Saud. And though MBS displays neither frugality nor probity in his own consumption habits—he famously spent half a billion U.S. dollars to buy a Russian oligarch’s superyacht and another $300 million to acquire what is reportedly the world’s most expensive house—for Saudis accustomed to suffering thousands of rapacious princes, having to put up with only one seemed like progress. As one Saudi woman told Hubbard, “Before, a prince could do anything—steal, seize properties. Afterward, everyone will walk on the straight path” (p. 211).
Progress was less evident, or at least less dramatic, in the economic realm. MBS’s 2016 prediction that “by 2020, if the oil stops, we’ll be able to live,” has decidedly not come to pass (p. 68). In 2019, oil still [End Page 174] accounted for almost 70 percent of the country’s public revenues, and if that figure proves lower in 2020, it will not be because of successful economic diversification, but because of a collapse in oil prices.3 A planned initial public offering of shares in Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, yielded far less foreign investment than originally expected, with most of the money coming from Saudis (who were incentivized to buy stock with low-interest loans). The trimming of government benefits may mean that more Saudis are doing things like driving Ubers and opening small businesses, but aside from oil, Saudi Arabia still does not produce things that other nations want to buy. Although MBS has spoken of making Saudi Arabia into a top tourism destination, most visitors to the country remain, as they have been for more than a millennium, religious pilgrims to the shrines in Mecca and Medina.
If the above were all that we knew of MBS’s record, it would have been safe to concur with Thomas Friedman that the man was a genuine reformer whose “biggest sin may be that he wants to go too fast.”4 But, on 2 October 2018, MBS’s henchmen murdered Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, whose sole crime was polite, if relentless, criticism of the crown prince. Suddenly, MBS looked less like Atatürk than like Saddam Hussein. The reassessment was long overdue. As Hubbard reports, before Khashoggi was strangled to death in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, MBS’s dungeons were already filled with activists, intellectuals, and other inconvenient people. Even as MBS lifted restrictions on women driving, several women who had long agitated for the right to drive were thrown into jail, lest observers conclude that the changes in Saudi Arabia had resulted from their activism rather than from the crown prince’s benevolence. And then there was the war on Yemen. By the time of Khashoggi’s death, it was estimated that MBS’s bombing campaign in that beleaguered country had resulted in the starvation of 85,000 children.5 The number is much larger now.
Were we wrong to have thought that MBS could bring progress to Saudi Arabia? I am not sure. At a 2018 investment conference, MBS electrified his audience with a breathless pronouncement of his commitment to midwifing a Middle Eastern renaissance. “I believe that the new Europe will be the Middle East,” he declared, adding “I do not want to leave this life without seeing the Middle East in the first rank of nations.”6 Of course, Arab leaders have been saying things like this for years, but what was always different about MBS was that he seemed to have a surer grasp [End Page 175] than his predecessors and contemporaries of what it would take to get there. In contrast to Islamists, who peddled a return to seventh-century religion; or Arab nationalists, who sought to resurrect hoary notions of autarky and étatism; or ossified presidents-for-life who saw no problem at all, MBS—in his rhetoric, at least—seemed to understand that for his country and the countries of the region to advance, they must join the world, and the West in particular.
“We have been influenced by you in the U.S. a lot,” he told David Ignatius. Without U.S. influence, he testified, “we would have ended up like North Korea.”7 Hubbard reports that MBS spends close to a billion dollars a year on Western consultants (p. 65), and critics rightfully see in this a fanciful attempt to buy a shortcut to modernity.8 The fact remains, however, that in looking westward, MBS at least seems to have gotten the direction right. Contrast his foreign-advisor–dependent development strategy with that of Egypt—where state-building has been entrusted to a distended military apparatus that specializes in mid–twentieth-century tank maneuvers and the erecting of Soviet-style two-star hotels—and it becomes tempting to forgive Saudi Arabia’s young leader his many trespasses.
It is a temptation that Hubbard flirts with as well (even if he decisively rejects it). Although his distaste for his subject’s machinations permeates the book, Hubbard opens it with a potentially exculpatory epigraph from Niccolò Machiavelli’s manual for monarchs, The Prince: “There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes.”
Transforming an entire society is a perilous undertaking, and it is perhaps to be expected that a leader who has set this task for himself would err—sometimes grossly—along the way. One might even go so far as to argue that it takes a certain imperiousness and imperviousness to the will of others to believe that you can, or should, change things that your forefathers took for granted. In this telling, the bad is necessary to achieve the good: Only someone like MBS could do the hard work that needs doing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This defense might pass muster if one could be sure that MBS’s project really is about national progress, rather than the personal accumulation of power; that his social reforms reflect even a rudimentary appreciation for individual freedom, rather than a cynical calculation of what pacifies Western patrons; or that his vision for Saudi Arabia’s future extends beyond tall buildings and “a beach with glow-in-the-dark sand” to the actual substance of modernity (p. 282). Alas, the evidence compiled by Hubbard suggests otherwise.
Although MBS is often breezily compared to the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it is a comparison that, when performed seriously, makes clear the Saudi prince’s limitations. There are surface [End Page 176] similarities, of course. Like MBS, Atatürk was a Westernizer. Also like MBS, he was a dictator who did not hesitate to visit state violence on his enemies. But what is remarkable about Atatürk, and what is entirely absent in the case of MBS, is the former’s deep understanding of why the West was worth emulating. At a time when all of Europe was flirting with fascism, Atatürk paid a remarkably steady lip service to what, in this reviewer’s view at least, is that continent’s greatest achievement: democracy. According to Atatürk biographer Andrew Mango, when a German visitor to Turkey in the late 1920s described Atatürk as a dictator, the Turk declared, “I do not want to be recorded in history as a man who bequeathed a tyranny,” and compelled one of his associates to form an opposition party (volunteering his own sister as one of its earliest members).9 Although that attempt to build a two-party system did not take, Mango reports that even the one-party state over which Atatürk presided “respected the forms of constitutional democracy.”10 And when the old man died in 1938, he “left behind him the structure of a democracy, not of a dictatorship.”11
There is one Saudi who did recognize what Atatürk recognized, that the genius of the West lies in its distinctive form of government: Jamal Khashoggi. In 2015, he told his friend Hubbard, “Saudi Arabia wants to be a modern country without democracy. Can we do that? . . . We want to improve the performance of the government and local authorities, but without checks and balances” (p. 131). He was doubtful it could be done, and his skepticism would prove as fatal as it was warranted.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is in his mid-thirties. As Hubbard notes, if he lives as long as his father has, he could remain on the Saudi throne for half a century. A lot can happen to a man over the course of a life that long. Hubbard even offers indications that the prince is learning: “He now listens a bit more and talks a bit less . . . He seems to enjoy having his ideas challenged, at least by foreigners,” and he has promised to “accept responsibility and ensure justice” in the matter of Khashoggi’s murder (p. 281). While it is clear that MBS will never develop an Atatürk-like commitment to even the forms of democracy, it is equally clear that, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally does achieve representative government, historians will record his tenure as a necessary phase on the road to it. The question is whether this will be because the reign of Mohammed bin Salman proved—after an unpromising start—to have been an era of [End Page 177] progress in which the groundwork for decent institutions was laid, or a time of tyranny so dark that Saudis vowed never to repeat it. [End Page 178]
1. Saudi Arabia’s Polity IV scores from 1946 to 2013 are from www.systemicpeace.org/polity/sau2.htm. Of the 167 countries covered by the Polity IV project, only Saudi Arabia and its archrival Qatar receive the lowest possible score for every year they appear in the dataset.
2. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, “Vision 2030,” 7, 13, https://vision2030.gov.sa/sites/default/files/report/Saudi_Vision2030_EN_2017.pdf.
3. The 2019 revenue estimates are from https://home.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/sa/pdf/2018/kingdom-of-saudi-arabia-budget-report.pdf.
4. Thomas Friedman, “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last,” New York Times, 23 November 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/11/23/opinion/saudi-prince-mbs-arab-spring.html.
5. Palko Karsz, “85,000 Children in Yemen May Have Died of Starvation,” New York Times, 21 November 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/world/middleeast/yemen-famine-children.html.
6. Al-Arabiya, “Mohammed bin Salman: I do not want to leave this life before I see the Middle East advanced globally” (in Arabic), YouTube, 24 October 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcyAp54LR5s. Author’s translation.
7. David Ignatius, “A Young Prince Is Reimagining Saudi Arabia. Can He Make His Vision Come True?” Washington Post, 20 April 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/a-young-prince-reimagines-saudi-arabia-can-he-make-his-vision-come-true/2017/04/20/663d79a4-2549-11e7-b503-9d616bd5a305_story.html.
8. See Calvert W. Jones, “All the King’s Consultants,” Foreign Affairs, May–June 2019, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/persian-gulf/2019-04-16/all-kings-consultants.
9. Andrew Mango, Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey (New York: Overlook, 1999), 471–72.
10. Mango, Atatürk, 480.
11. Mango, Atatürk, 534.
Copyright © 2020 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press