The Making of Mister Bone Saw
A new account of Crown Prince Bin Salman's reign to date is seriously flawed
Mohammed bin Salman has quickly risen from relative obscurity in Saudi Arabia to become one of the most well-known and notorious political figures in the world in just the last five years. A new book, Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, written by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, recounts how the ambitious and arrogant son of King Salman has consolidated power, crushed dissent, and inveigled himself into the world of global business and financial elite. Though he is not yet king, it is very likely that he will rule for many years to come, and it will be important to understand the man who will be defining the Saudi kingdom for the foreseeable future in order to reassess and change our government’s relationship with the kingdom.
The recurring theme in the history of Mohammed bin Salman’s projects is his frequent overreaching and overpromising followed in most cases by costly and embarrassing failures. An early, relatively harmless example comes from his early business dealings when he made a deal with Verizon that his company never had any chance of delivering on. At the other extreme are the so-called Vision 2030 project and the war in Yemen: one remains pie-in-the-sky fantasy, and the other is a horrific nightmare for which Mohammed bin Salman personally bears much of the responsibility.
While the authors often emphasize his “decisiveness” and brazenness in contrast to his staid relatives, the story they tell is one of a thuggish despot who underestimates the difficulties of the grandiose designs he lays out and fails to learn from his earlier setbacks. No doubt the crown prince is young and energetic, but he has put that energy into committing war crimes, murdering and torturing critics, and attacking his neighbors. He has taken a cautious, authoritarian monarchy and made it even more repressive and disruptive.
He has been helped in this by legions of credulous Westerners that have been only too happy to curry favor with him in the hopes of getting a piece of the action or retaining access to him, and above all he has been aided and abetted by the Trump administration’s determination to back him to the hilt. The chapters detailing Mohammed bin Salman’s many meetings with business and political figures are a valuable reminder of just how eager so many Westerners were to befriend the new crown prince while he presided over creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Fawning media coverage of Mohammed bin Salman prior to the Khashoggi murder was not an accident. The crown prince and his advisers chose carefully to find the writers and reporters that would amplify their propaganda. The authors describe how the prince’s advisers made a list of journalists according to their level of influence and friendliness. The most influential ones that they knew they could rely on were Tom Friedman of the Times, David Ignatius of the Post, Brett Baier of Fox News, and Norah O’Donnell of CBS News. Friedman and O’Donnell stood out in 2018 for their unusually obsequious coverage of the crown prince before and during his visit to the United States.
The book is useful in showing how the Saudis and Emiratis cultivated Trump and the people around him at the beginning, especially Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. The authors show how easy it was for Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi and Mohammed bin Salman to manipulate them by appealing to their fear and loathing of Iran. The Saudis and Emiratis realized earlier than most other governments that the key to gaining Trump’s support was through flattery and promises of big deals, and in exchange the president would give them virtually anything they wanted. For his part, Mohammed bin Salman had “grown up in an extended family dominated by striving, geriatric princes who were terrified of humiliation, desperate for respect, and obsessed with adding to their inherited wealth.” It is no surprise that he knew exactly how to deal with someone like Trump.
Hope and Scheck are financial reporters for The Wall Street Journal, and the book is focused mostly on the crown prince’s real and hoped-for business deals. That reporting can help to account for some of Mohammed bin Salman’s more aggressive moves, including the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose business ties to Saudi Arabia made him a natural target for the crown prince’s ire. It also creates gaps in the coverage of Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent, and it sometimes produces distorted interpretations of Saudi foreign policy moves. The authors refer to the Saudi coalition war in Yemen, but it is usually going on in the background of their account and there is very little discussion of the consequences for Yemen or for the U.S.-Saudi relationship. If you didn’t already know that Yemen was suffering from widespread malnutrition, starvation, and a cholera epidemic as a result of the intervention that Mohammed bin Salman started, you would not learn about it from this book.
Their account of the origins of the war is remarkably brief given its central role in Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, and their explanation for the Saudi-led intervention reads like something that the Saudi government would say. For example, they reliably repeat the Saudi line that Iranian support was crucial to early Houthi successes in Yemen, but in 2014 and 2015 Iranian support for the Houthis was negligible and had nothing to do with their military successes. They assert that it was “Iran’s supply of powerful missiles and military hardware that gave the rebels so much confidence in facing the bigger and better-equipped Saudi armed forces.” This ignores that almost all Iranian weapons transfers have occurred in the years since the Saudi coalition attacked in response to the intervention, and it fails to mention that the Houthis previously engaged the Saudis in combat successfully back in their conflict with them in 2009.
Exaggerating Iran’s role in Yemen has been one of the most common and persistent analytical failures in Western coverage of the war, and Hope and Scheck make this same mistake. Saudi-led intervention in 2015 was not really driven by a fear of Iran or Iranian influence, but rather by the fact that the deposed president they supported, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, had been driven from the capital and then forced to flee the country. It was the loss of a puppet ruler that alarmed them and triggered the disastrous intervention that drags on almost five and a half years after it began.
There are also some other strange, avoidable errors in the book, such as their mislabeling of the ruling dynasty of Oman as “the Al Qaboos.” The dynasty is the Al Said or Al Bu Said. Sultan Qaboos, who died earlier this year, was the longest-reigning member of that family, and he has been succeeded by his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. Calling it “the Al Qaboos” would be like referring to the House of Windsor as the Elizabeths. There is an even more bizarre sentence in the book referring to Al Qaeda as “the terrorist group that drew America into a series of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The U.S. was not drawn into Iraq, and certainly not by Al Qaeda. The group had absolutely nothing to do with the Iraq war until after one of its branches exploited the chaos created by the invasion to wreak havoc on Shia communities. Talking about the Iraq war as if it had been launched to fight Al Qaeda isn’t just wildly misleading, it echoes the worst of the Bush administration’s false propaganda 17 years later. These errors are such glaring mistakes about simple matters of fact that it will give readers pause about what other mistakes might have been made.
The authors treat Saudi intervention in Yemen as if it were an understandable response to an intolerable threat. They cite Houthi bluster about marching on Riyadh as if it were a real objective rather than the empty threat it was. They also understate the extent of U.S. involvement in the campaign, saying, “the White House declined to get involved by began offering intelligence and targets.” This ignores the role of U.S. forces in refueling Saudi coalition jets, which enabled them to remain airborne much longer and to carry out more attacks.
Far from “declining” to get involved, the Obama administration backed the Saudi coalition and continued to arm them despite clear evidence that they were using U.S.-made weapons to commit terrible crimes against the civilian population. Incredibly, the authors claim that “few observers at the time saw what an outright disaster it would become.” Virtually every Yemen specialist and humanitarian relief expert foretold the catastrophe that was about to unfold from the moment the first bombs began to fall in March 2015. These serious mistakes and oversights mar an otherwise interesting account of the crown prince’s career to date.