‘He Is a Devil, and the Devil Is Learning From Him’
I was very interested to read the new book on the Saudi crown prince, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, by Ben Hubbard of The New York Times. It is an engaging work that does a very good job of describing Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power and his destructive policies, and Hubbard combines this with his own experiences in reporting in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to paint a picture of an increasingly repressive state ruled by an impulsive and inexperienced prince. There is a telling quote from the relative of one of the Ritz-Carlton detainees that describes the crown prince in the most unflattering terms:
“He is a psycho. He has spite. He wants to break people. He doesn’t want anyone to have an honorable name but him,” she told me. “He is a devil, and the devil is learning from him.” (pp. xvii)
Given the subject of the book, it would have been easy for Hubbard’s account to become a polemic, but he does not do that. He writes very matter-of-factly about how the crown prince maneuvered his way to the top of the Saudi government, and he delivers a fair accounting of what the crown prince has done with the power he has amassed. Hubbard weaves together the story of Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power with that of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi insider-turned critic and Washington Post columnist whom the crown prince had murdered in October 2018. The book concludes with the gruesome murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the ensuing international backlash against the kingdom. Khashoggi’s murder is just the most egregious example of the repression and cruelty that have defined Mohammed bin Salman’s tenure. Hubbard puts it this way:
His murder crystallized, and made it harder to ignore, the ruthlessness of the MBS era: the uncounted deaths in Yemen; the kidnapping of a foreign prime minister; the lock-up at the Ritz; the arrests and torture of activists and clerics; and the harsh, new, with-us-or-against-us environment that considered those who did not cheer, or cheer loudly enough, enemies. (p.276)
There is one anecdote about Mohammed bin Salman from the Obama years that stands out as an early example of his arrogance and excessive ambition. While visiting the U.S. with his father in the fall of 2015, Mohammed bin Salman attended a dinner at John Kerry’s house, and this happened:
During a discussion of Middle East politics, MBS surprised his host again by suggesting that he could determine who ruled where in the Arab world.
“If I want Sisi out, he’ll be out,” he said, referring to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.
None of the Americans present knew how serious he was, but when the official report on the dinner made its way around the White House, many were taken aback by the prince’s cockiness.” (p.44-45)
When Mohammed bin Salman said this, he was not yet crown prince. It shows his hubris that he thinks it was in his power or the power of the Saudi government to decide this. That same overconfidence in being able to dictate terms to other countries in the region has led Saudi Arabia into one blunder after another. Observers that keep expecting him to learn from his previous errors don’t appreciate that this is how he operates and how he looks at the world. Hubbard casts Mohammed bin Salman as a Machiavellian operator (“a truly Machiavellian prince”), but I’m not sure that this comparison is quite right. The crown prince is undoubtedly ruthless and possesses some low cunning with respect to political maneuvering inside his own country, but he seems utterly clueless about the rest of the world and consistently miscalculates how others will respond to his aggressive behavior. If Machiavelli had seen the last few years of the crown prince’s recklessness, I suspect he would use it as a cautionary tale of what rulers should not do.
One of the most informative chapters detailed the activities of Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s right-hand man who was also responsible for organizing Khashoggi’s killing. Hubbard writes about how al-Qahtani presided over the creation of “a new kind of electronic authoritarianism” that sought to track down dissenters and punish them. “MBS recognized the power of these technologies and deputized al-Qahtani to deploy them.” This electronic authoritarianism was how the Saudi government set out to hunt down dissident in the diaspora and to identify and punish domestic regime critics, and it was also how the government would propagandize and enforce loyalty to the crown prince’s policies:
Thought control was one thing; pursuing dissidents in the real world was another, and MBS authorized al-Qahtani to do that, too. Sometime early in his father’s reign, MBS had ordered al-Qahtani and his organization “to target his opponents domestically and broad, sometimes violently,” according to an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Saudi intelligence service issued a standing order to bring home dissidents from abroad, but without spelling out how to do it. Figuring that out fell to a team of operatives that al-Qahtani oversaw, called the “Rapid Intervention Group.” Over time, it would engage in surveillance, harassment, and kidnapping of Saudi citizens overseas, as well as their detention and sometimes torture inside palaces belonging to MBS and his father. (p.144)
The book reminds us of the fate of many of the Saudi government’s victims over the last few years. Hubbard calls attention to the cases of the women activists who were detained, interrogated, and tortured, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who still remains in detention to this day. He writes about the Ritz-Carlton detainees who were physically abused and tortured. He recounts the finals days of Khashoggi and describes the grisly murder at some length. Remarking on the premiere showing of the movie Black Panther in Saudi Arabia, Hubbard writes:
MBS clearly wanted to be Saudi Arabia’s T’Challa, but his deputies were increasinly acting like Erik Killmonger. While the prince was off charming Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Saud al-Qahtani and his team had ramped up activities against those they perceived as threats to the kingdom–and to MBS. (p.229)
The details of these episodes recounted in the book will be familiar to those that closely follow Saudi and Yemen-related news reports. Readers that are looking for a lot of new information about the crown prince will not find much that hasn’t been previously reported, but Hubbard has done a real service in synthesizing all of these events and tying them together into a coherent narrative. For those that haven’t been following the crown prince’s record as closely, it provides a useful reconstruction of the first several years of Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power. There are some amusing asides that crop up here and there, such as the fate of the “orb” (stored away in the U.S. embassy in Riyadh), but reading an account of the crown prince’s ugly record is an unavoidably grim affair. Despite that, I found that I couldn’t put it down, and I read it all the way through this afternoon.
My only major criticism of the book is that it did not spend enough time spelling out the disastrous consequences of the Saudi government’s war on Yemen. I would have preferred to see more extensive coverage of both the war and the humanitarian crisis, since the war is still dragging on and remains the signature policy of the crown prince. That said, the account of the war and the descriptions of the Saudi coalition’s war crimes that he does include are both accurate and damning. The war on Yemen remains the main example of what Hubbard calls Mohammed bin Salman’s “hands-on approach” to foreign policy, and this book reminds us that those hands are very bloody.