An excerpt from “MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman,” a new book by the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times.
Introduction: The Celebrity
By the time the young prince who was running the Arab world’s richest country was due to speak, a standing-room-only crowd of international investors, businessmen, millionaires, and billionaires had packed a luxurious hall under massive crystal chandeliers to await his appearance.
It was fall 2017, and all had come to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, for a lavish investment conference that had unofficially been dubbed “Davos in the Desert” to give it the same ring of exclusivity and consequence as the annual meet-up of global powerbrokers in the Swiss Alps. This conference, however, had a different goal: to convince the assembled moneymen that the time was now to bet big on Saudi Arabia.
Over the previous days, the kingdom had worked hard to convince its thousands of guests that any preconceptions they had about Saudi Arabia were not true, or were at least on their way to not being true. The country was changing, they were told, opening up and shedding its past as a hyper-conservative, insular Islamic kingdom.
Saudi Arabia had long been known for two things: oil and Islam. The first was pooled in such great quantities under the kingdom’s sands that it had turned its royal family, the Al Saud, into one of the world’s richest dynasties, giving the country that bore their name a geostrategic importance it otherwise would have lacked. The massive oil wealth had shaped the Saudi economy, giving an elite class of princes and businessmen tremendous wealth while most citizens either stayed home or earned salaries from government jobs that paid well and often required little work.
The official Islam of the kingdom was not any Islam, but Wahhabism, the ultraconservative and intolerant interpretation that was woven into the kingdom’s history. It taught the faithful to be wary of non-Muslim “infidels,” saw murderers and drug dealers beheaded in public squares, and deprived women of basic rights. The kingdom was far stricter than most other Islamic societies, but its status as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina, gave it unique clout among the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.
Saudi leaders knew their kingdom’s troubled reputation, so the conference had been carefully planned to challenge how attendees saw the country. Guests had dined on grilled lamb and chocolate truffles at private dinners hosted by princes and officials in opulent homes with swimming pools, art galleries, and hidden liquor cabinets. Women featured prominently in the program and mingled freely with men in the coffee shop of the Ritz-Carlton, with no obligation to cover their hair, as they had to elsewhere.
Slick presentations courted investors for grand initiatives. Saudi Arabia would become a global shipping and transport hub. Entertainment options for its 22 million citizens would proliferate, with amusement parks, cinemas, and concert venues, all of which had long been forbidden for religious reasons. Tourism would boom, with the development of long-neglected historic sites and the creation of a world-class eco-resort in the Red Sea. And in case anyone doubted that the changes were real, the kingdom was finally going to reverse the regulation that had long stood as the primary example of its oppression of women: In June 2018, it would let them drive.
The message was clear: Titanic changes were afoot in Saudi Arabia, and the man driving them was a mysterious, workaholic son of the king, named Mohammed bin Salman. He was 32 years old and out to remake the kingdom — and the wider Middle East — as fast as he could.
Seated in plush chairs or on the tan carpet, the conference attendees had come to take the measure of the young prince. Was he for real? Was he a visionary leader who would drag Saudi Arabia from its conservative past or a rash upstart who would drive it into the ground?
Murmurs raced through the hall as a side door opened, and the prince appeared.
He wore the standard outfit for Saudi men: a long white gown with snaps down the front, known as a thobe; a red-and-white-checkered headdress held in place with a black cord; and black sandals. He was chubby, due to his fondness for fast food, and he wore a scruffy beard that climbed high up his cheeks, telegraphing that he was too busy working to waste time on superfluous grooming. Flanked by aides and trailed by photographers and television cameras, he ascended the stage and sank into a white armchair.
He had emerged from obscurity less than three years before, a prince among thousands of princes, who had charmed and plotted his way to the top of the kingdom’s power structure. When his elderly father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015, he gave his son oversight of the kingdom’s most important portfolios: defense, economy, religion, and oil. Then, shoving aside older relatives, he became the crown prince, putting him next in line to the throne. His father remained the head of state, but it was clear that Prince Mohammed was the hands-on ruler, the kingdom’s overseer and CEO.
To distinguish him from the mass of his royal relatives, Saudis and Saudi watchers referred to him by his initials, MBS. He was a large man with a presence that filled up rooms. In public and private, he dispensed with the formal Arabic customary among Arab leaders and spoke rapidly in dialect, gesticulating with his large hands, his voice deep like a growl. He often overflowed with energy, his thoughts coming so fast he interrupted himself midsentence. During audiences with foreign officials, he would sometimes hold forth on his vision for the future for an hour or more without pausing for questions. One foreign official recalled that the prince’s leg never stopped bouncing during their meeting, making him wonder if the prince was nervous or on some kind of stimulant.
On stage that day, MBS addressed the moderator in English to show his foreign guests that he could, then switched to Arabic to unveil yet another hyper-ambitious project: NEOM, a city that would rise from an isolated plot of desert near the Red Sea, where businessmen would write the laws and entice the world’s top minds to innovate on Saudi soil. Planning for a post-carbon future and taking advantage of the Saudi sun, the city would be powered by solar energy and staffed by so many robots that they might outnumber the human inhabitants. NEOM, MBS said, would cost $500 billion and be a place for “dreamers.” It was not an economic development project, but a “civilizational leap for humanity.”
The lights dimmed and the audience watched a flashy video about the proposed city. Then the moderator, a foreign woman journalist, asked whether the kingdom’s religious conservatism would hinder a project so focused on the future. MBS dismissed the idea that intolerance was part of Saudi history, insisting that the kingdom sought to engage with the rest of the world for the benefit of everyone.
We were not like this in the past. We are only returning to what we were, a moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world, and to all the religions, and to all traditions and peoples.
Seventy percent of the Saudi people are younger than 30 years old. With all truthfulness, we will not waste thirty years of our lives dealing with any extremist ideas. We will destroy them today, immediately. We want to live a natural life, a life that translates our religion into tolerance and our good customs and traditions, and we’ll live with the world and contribute to the development of the whole world.
Such a vow had never been made in public by a Saudi leader. The audience erupted in applause.
Two weeks later, a harsher reality set in.
Over a few days, officials from the Royal Court and the secret police rounded up hundreds of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest and most powerful men, including a number of MBS’s royal relatives — and even some who had attended his wedding. They were stripped of their cellphones, guards, and drivers and locked in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, turning the investment conference’s luxury setting into a five-star prison. There was a new future on the way for Saudi Arabia, and it would involve more than robots and women driving.
The government said the detentions were a crackdown on corruption, and many Saudis welcomed the idea. They had long watched princes and businessmen muscle their way into lucrative contracts or run other schemes to siphon fortunes from the government’s coffers. Some of those locked in the Ritz were among the worst offenders.
But other well-known offenders remained free, including some of King Salman’s closest nephews, raising doubts about the crackdown’s true goals. Other aspects were strange, too. While the arrests were taking place, the committee leading the investigations was announced. It was led by MBS, the source of whose own wealth had never been scrutinized. Hadn’t the prince himself spent nearly a half-billion dollars on a yacht? What about his French château, hailed in magazines as “the world’s most expensive home”? Later, a proxy buyer said to be acting for MBS plunked down $450.3 million for a Leonardo da Vinci painting. Where did all that money come from?
The detainees in the Ritz were told they were guests of the king, but their treatment was far from benign. As their ordeal dragged on, their loved ones cautiously reached out to me to curse MBS. One was from a storied Saudi business family who said she had heard nothing from her detained relative for weeks until he suddenly called.
“I am fine,” he told her, convincing her that he was anything but. The call ended in three minutes.
She saw the crackdown as a ploy by MBS to commandeer the kingdom’s capital for his own ends while tarring the reputations of all who might challenge him.
“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.”
In only a few years, Mohammed bin Salman has become the dominant force in Saudi Arabia and one of the most dynamic and scrutinized leaders in the world.
His prominence was not preordained. For much of his life, he was lost in the crowd of richer, more experienced princes and low down the totem pole in a family where seniority reigned. So how did he do it? This book tells the story.
MBS could prove to be Saudi Arabia’s most momentous ruler since his grandfather founded the kingdom eight decades ago and made it a key partner of the United States. MBS’s rise came six decades after his grandfather’s death, during a time of serious threats to the Arab world’s richest country. The price of oil was crashing, sapping its economy. Two-thirds of its citizens were under age 30, scrambling for jobs and chafing under strict social restrictions. In the wider Middle East, the jihadists of the Islamic State were rampaging through Iraq and Syria and bombing the kingdom. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis, was taking advantage of the region’s turmoil to expand its influence.
Exacerbating these challenges were doubts about the commitment of the kingdom’s most important ally: the United States. President Barack Obama had little fondness for the place. Before becoming president, he had dismissed Saudi Arabia as a “so-called” ally and criticized its exportation of Wahhabism for fueling intolerance in the Muslim world. His administration would forge a nuclear deal with Iran while Congress passed legislation allowing Americans to sue Saudi Arabia over the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; fifteen of the nineteen hijackers, as well as their leader, Osama bin Laden, were Saudis. Both moves were stinging slaps to a kingdom that depended on the United States for protection, spent billions of dollars on American weapons, and expected a certain loyalty in return.
MBS would attack all these problems and more, plunging the kingdom into a war in Yemen; launching a plan to overhaul the economy; charming executives from Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley; kidnapping another country’s prime minister; and forging a strong and unlikely bond with President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Inside the kingdom, he would defang the clerics, open cinemas and concert venues, and shatter traditions, locking up other royals — including his own mother — and putting in place a technological authoritarianism that would put his spies in people’s phones, manipulate social media, and lead to a gruesome murder that would shock the world.
MBS’s rise rode the waves of global trends.
As more of the world’s wealth was concentrated in fewer hands, populist authoritarians used nationalistic rhetoric to rally their people while shutting down outlets for opposition. Like the Communist Party in China and rising dictators from Egypt to Hungary, MBS saw no need for checks on his power and crushed all threats to it, perceived or otherwise. His was an era of Saudi Arabia first, and he would stop at nothing to make Saudi Arabia great again, on his terms.
The nationalistic tide rose in Western nations, too. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of President Trump in the United States turned their citizens and governments inward, cutting their authoritarian allies considerable slack. Those two events also showed that in politics truth often mattered less than the passions one could stir on social media. That was a lesson that MBS learned well, and put to use in his own kingdom.
MBS is a hugely divisive character, praised by supporters as a long-awaited game-changer in a region aching for it and dismissed by foes as a brutal dictator in the making. Inside Saudi Arabia, he is a giant whose face is everywhere — printed on cellphone covers and hung over entrances to shopping malls — and whose every initiative is sold as a masterstroke by loyal boosters and journalists. But much about him remains mysterious. Waves of arrests have shut down public discussion of his background, the wisdom of his plans, or his ability to carry them out. In some sectors, enthusiasm abounds, as social life loosens up and women get jobs their mothers never dreamed of. But fear is so widespread that a stray social media post or a private comment could lead to arrest or jail that many Saudis avoid talking on the phone or put their devices in the fridge when they meet.
MBS is at the root of both phenomena, driven by two tendencies that came into focus in late 2017 when he nearly simultaneously charmed the investment conference and locked people in the Ritz. He is determined to give Saudis a shining, prosperous future, and exercises an unflinching willingness to crush his foes. Combined in different doses, those attributes will likely guide his actions far into the future.
Some may consider it unwise — if not foolhardy — to write a book about such a young leader who could rule his country for decades. This book does not seek to tell MBS’s full story, but to narrate his remarkable rise and its effects on the kingdom, its relationships with the United States and the wider Middle East. MBS will determine where his story goes next. Here is how it began.
Chapter I: The Kingdom
In 1996, a British-Algerian man teaching at an elite school in Jeddah on Saudi Arabia’s west coast got a unique job offer.
A prince named Salman bin Abdulaziz was coming to town for a few months with one of his wives and her children, and the family was looking for an English tutor.
The teacher, Rachid Sekkai, knew a bit about Prince Salman. He was the governor of Riyadh Province, which put him in charge of the Saudi capital, and he was a son of the king who had founded Saudi Arabia, granting him high status among the thousands of princes and princesses who made up the royal family. The job sounded interesting, and would probably pay well, so Sekkai accepted, and for the next few months a chauffeur picked him up from school at the end of the workday and drove him to the royal compound where Salman and his family were staying.
Entering for the first time, Sekkai saw “a series of jaw-dropping villas with immaculate gardens maintained by workers in white uniforms,.” he wrote in an article for the BBC. He passed a parking lot full of luxury cars, including what appeared to be the first pink Cadillac he had ever seen in real life. At the palace, he met his charges: Salman’s four sons from his second wife, the eldest of whom was a mischievous 11-year-old named Mohammed bin Salman.
The young princes clearly had more interest in playing than in studying, but Sekkai did his best to keep the younger boys focused, an effort that collapsed when MBS showed up.
“As the oldest of his siblings, he seemed to be allowed to do as he pleased,” Sekkai told me. During the lessons, MBS would take a walkie-talkie from one of the guards to make “cheeky remarks” about his instructor and joke with the guards on the other end of the line to regale his siblings.
After a few lessons, MBS informed Sekkai that his mother considered the tutor “a true gentleman.” Sekkai was surprised, as Saudi Arabia’s gender segregation had prevented him from meeting the mother, much less giving her a chance to assess his character. Then he realized that she had been watching him through the surveillance cameras on the walls.
That left him feeling self-conscious, but he pressed on. The boys did not make much progress in English, and into his late twenties, MBS avoided speaking the language in public. They made even less progress in French, which the princes’ mother requested that Sekkai add to the curriculum. But by the end of his tenure, Sekkai had grown fond of the spirited young MBS, years later recalling his “imposing personality.” Sekkai assumed it came from his status as the eldest of his mother’s sons and the attention his immediate family lavished on him.
“He was the admired figure, which gave him that sense of ‘I am in charge here,’” Sekkai said. “In that palace, he was the one that everybody looked after. He got the attention of everybody.”
MBS’s father, Salman bin Abdulaziz, was a handsome, hardworking prince with jet black hair, a goatee, and a reputation for rectitude and toughness.
When he traveled abroad, he sported suits with wide lapels and striped ties that invited comparisons to Wall Street bankers or characters from James Bond films. At home, he wore traditional, princely regalia and presided over the Saudi capital and surrounding areas as the governor of Riyadh. Residents joked that they could set their watches to the sight of his convoy heading to work in the morning, hours before other princes got out of bed. To run the capital, he kept tabs on the area’s tribes, clerics, and big clans — including his own. For years, he was the disciplinarian of the royal family. If a fight between royal cousins over a piece of real estate got out of hand, if a princess bailed on an astronomical hotel bill in Paris, if a prince got drunk and caused a scandal, it was Salman who would bring down the hammer, locking up egregious offenders in his own private jail.
No one would play a greater role than Salman in propelling MBS’s rise.
Salman traversed the titanic changes that revolutionized life in Saudi Arabia during the 20th century. He was a scion of a dynasty that had twice failed to create a kingdom in central Arabia before succeeding so phenomenally that the desert-dwellers who had pioneered the idea would have had a hard time believing how it ended up.
In the mid-1700s, in a sunbaked oasis of mud houses and date palms, Salman’s ancestors had made the first attempt, when a chieftain named Mohammed Ibn Saud created the first Saudi proto-state around his home village of Diriyah. Mohammed was not from one of the major tribes that formed the primary social structure of Arabia at the time. Instead, the Al Saud were settled farmers who grew dates and invested in trade caravans.
Battles between tribes and clans were common, but Mohammed got an edge by forming an alliance with a fundamentalist cleric that underpinned how Arabia was ruled for generations to come. Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab preached that Islam had been corrupted by traditional Arabian practices such as the veneration of idols and trees. He called for a purification of the religion by rooting out “innovations” and returning to the practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions centuries before. The sheikh’s views got him chased from his hometown, and he sought refuge in Diriyah, where the Al Saud bound his religious message to their political project.
The alliance benefited both parties. Backed by Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, the Al Saud were no longer just another Arabian clan out for power, but crusaders for the one true faith. In exchange, they gave the sheikh and his descendants control over religious and social affairs. The alliance proved to be potent, and as the first Saudi state grew, those communities that refused the sheikh’s message were branded infidels who deserved the sword.
When the state’s territory expanded to include the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the Ottomans struck back by sending troops that toppled the state, reduced Diriyah to rubble, and scattered the surviving members of the Al Saud. Their descendants tried to reestablish the state in the 19th century in the nearby town of Riyadh, but the effort collapsed in infighting over who should be in charge.
In the early 20th century, a descendant of the Al Saud named Abdulaziz — MBS’s grandfather — revived the campaign to conquer the land of his forefathers.
He led troops on camelback and reestablished the alliance with the descendants of Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, who provided religious justification for his rule. Over three decades, Abdulaziz brought much of Arabia under his control, ruling it from the new capital, Riyadh.
But the rise of this new, fundamentalist polity disconcerted the Western powers who were establishing themselves around the Persian Gulf, and King Abdulaziz faced a choice: to continue expansionary jihad, which would have invited conflict with the British, or to create a modern state. He chose the latter, and declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Saudi Arabia would most likely have remained a desert backwater of minor interest to the rest of the world had it not been for the discovery of oil in 1938. That attracted speculators, technicians, oil companies, and representatives of Western governments seeking access to the kingdom’s black gold, including the United States. In a secret meeting in 1945 between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz aboard an American warship in the Suez Canal, the two leaders hit it off, laying the groundwork for a lasting agreement that guaranteed American access to Saudi oil in exchange for American protection from foreign attacks. That arrangement became a pillar of American policy in the Middle East into the next century.
The influx of oil wealth turbocharged the inheritances from the kingdom’s history. The Saudis financed the international propagation of Ibn Abdul-Wahhab’s teachings, making Wahhabism a global religious force. Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s oil monopoly, became the world’s most valuable company — by far. The Al Saud became one of the world’s wealthiest dynasties. By the time of his death in 1953, King Abdulaziz had married at least eighteen women and fathered thirty-six sons and twenty-seven daughters. His offspring did not skimp on procreation either, expanding into a sprawling clan whose country bore their name and who enjoyed tremendous wealth and privilege.
There were thousands of them, all subsidized by the Saudi state. In 1996, an American diplomat visited the office that distributed their monthly stipends and found a stream of servants picking up their masters’ allowances, which varied based on their status. The sons and daughters of King Abdulaziz received up to $270,000, his grandchildren up to $27,000, and his great-grandchildren $13,000. The most distant relatives got $800. Princes also got million-dollar bonuses to build palaces when they got married, as well as perks for having children. The diplomat estimated that the stipends cost the state more than $2 billion per year, but that was merely a guess.
Much of that money trickled into society to earn the royals the loyalty of the population.
One of Salman’s sons said he spent more than a million dollars of his own money during the holy month of Ramadan, hosting feasts for his subjects. But the royals still lived large, commanding fleets of yachts, building palaces from Los Angeles to Monaco, and taking foreign vacations so lavish that they caused economic booms in the communities where they landed.
The royals were so numerous that they formed a micro-society that functioned according to its own rules, including deep discretion and a respect for seniority so ingrained that they memorized one another’s birthdays. That is what allowed them to shuffle into line from oldest to youngest at functions with the ease of geese forming a V to fly south for the winter.
The mud walls and ramparts of Diriyah, the oasis where it all began, still stand a short drive from Riyadh — now a modern capital of 8 million people, studded with malls, skyscrapers, and broad motorways.
It was there that Salman spent his life — and prepared his son for the future.
Salman was born three years after the foundation of Saudi Arabia and would recall later in life that when he was a child, his family had still lived in tents for part of the year. But by the time he was a young man, oil wealth had transformed the royals into palace-dwellers and players on the world stage.
The family respect for seniority shaped how the kingdom was ruled. After King Abdulaziz died in 1953, rule passed to a succession of his sons, from oldest to youngest, with some brothers skipped over because they did not want to rule or because the rest of the family deemed them unfit. (Women had no political prospects.) Under the king, the country was run by senior princes who shared the main portfolios: internal security, the military, the National Guard, and foreign affairs. They made major decisions by consensus.
Salman was the twenty-fifth of his father’s thirty-six sons, which put him so low in the royal pecking order that, for most of his life, the prospect of his becoming king was remote. There were simply too many others ahead of him in line. Nor was he put in charge of a powerful ministry that he could use to promote his sons. Instead, in his twenties, he was named the governor of Riyadh Province, a job he would hold for nearly fifty years as the city grew from a desert outpost to a metropolis.
Running Riyadh made him a key interface between the royals and society. He maintained relations with the tribes and knew their genealogies, rivalries, and histories. Riyadh was the largest city in the Wahhabi heartland, the region of Najd, and Salman often hosted the clerics in his court. But Salman’s main job was receiving subjects who appealed for help. Those with ailing relatives sought money for operations. Businessmen solicited contracts. Farmers came for mediation in land conflicts. Families with sons on death row appealed for intercession to prevent beheadings.
Over the years, Salman fathered an impressive brood. His first wife, Sultana bint Turki Al Sudairi, hailed from a prominent family and bore him five sons and a daughter. The eldest, Fahd, attended universities in California and Arizona and got involved in British horse racing, which familiarized him with the West. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Fahd spoke often with the Western reporters who flooded into the kingdom to cover the war.
The next son, Sultan, was a colonel in the Saudi Air Force who became the first Arab and the first Muslim to go to space, on the shuttle Discovery in 1985. He loved skiing, ran the kingdom’s tourism commission, and was so fond of the United States that he once told an American diplomat, “Some of the best days of my life were in the U.S.”
Next was Ahmed, who studied at the Colorado School of Mines and graduated from Wentworth Military Academy before also joining the Air Force. He later attended the University of California, Irvine, and served as the chairman of the family’s media company. In 2002, he caused a horse racing upset by buying the thoroughbred War Emblem for $900,000 three weeks before it won the Kentucky Derby. Acquaintances recalled him to the Los Angeles Times as “an elegant man with clipped mustache and pocket handkerchief, unexpectedly casual for a member of Saudi royalty.”
The next son, Abdulaziz, was a rare royal to work in the kingdom’s oil sector, where he championed efforts to modernize the industry and was later named energy minister.
The youngest of Sultana’s sons, Faisal, earned a Ph.D. from Oxford, was a research fellow at Georgetown, founded a Saudi investment company, Jadwa, and also had a taste for thoroughbreds.
Salman’s first wife had one daughter, Hassa, who worked with the kingdom’s human rights commission and later ran into legal trouble in France after a plumber accused her of ordering her bodyguard to kill him.
At some point, Sultana developed a kidney ailment that worsened over time, leaving her surrounded by doctors and sending her frequently abroad for treatment. So Salman married Fahda bint Falah Al Hathleen, a short woman from a prominent tribe who would bear him six more sons. (Salman also had a short marriage to a third woman that produced one son, Saud.)
Fahda’s eldest son was Mohammed bin Salman, born August 31, 1985.
As a prince, MBS grew up steeped in inherited and unearned privilege, socializing in palaces, shuttled about in convoys, and fussed over by nannies, tutors, and retainers.
Only close friends and relatives called him by his name. To everyone else, he was tal omrak, short for “May God prolong your life,” or “Your Royal Highness.” But if his father was far down the royal pecking order, MBS was even farther. As the sixth son of the twenty-fifth son of the founding king, there was little reason to expect that he would rise to prominence. And for most of his life, few people did.
MBS later said that his father oversaw the education of him and his siblings, assigning each child a book each week and then quizzing them on it. His mother brought in intellectuals to lead discussions and sent her children on educational field trips. Both parents were strict. Showing up late for lunch with his father was “a disaster.” His mother was harsh, too.
“My brothers and I used to think, ‘Why is our mother treating us this way?’ She would never overlook any of the mistakes we made,” he told reporters from Bloomberg.
He later concluded that such scrutiny made him stronger.
MBS has rarely spoken publicly about his youth, nor have others who knew him at the time. That makes it hard to paint a detailed picture of his early life. Exacerbating the challenge is the power he would wield later, guaranteeing that public utterances about him would be complimentary and that anything scandalous would be buried. But to get a sense of where he came from, I have spent the last few years tracking down Saudis and others who knew or crossed paths with him in his youth. Most still live or have relatives or business in the kingdom and so spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves.
Salman lived with his first wife near the Royal Court in a palace with a white-columned façade; people jokingly called it “the White House.” MBS’s mother and her children lived elsewhere, but she had ambitions for them that could be achieved only through their father, so she packed them off frequently for lunch at “the White House” so they could be close to him. But MBS and his brothers were not warmly welcomed by Sultana, who looked down on the children of the second wife for their tribal background (and probably out of jealously toward their younger, healthier mother). She did not hide her contempt, which her children sometimes echoed, making fun of MBS while leading jet-setting lives and filling their résumés with businesses and foreign degrees.
MBS’s trajectory was profoundly different — largely domestic and deeply Saudi. But through his teens, he was mostly lost in the crowd of royals, with few obvious ways to elevate his standing. That would change because of two series of deaths in the family.
In 2001, Salman’s oldest son, Fahd, who had helped out reporters during the Gulf War, died suddenly at age 46. A year later, his brother Ahmed, the Kentucky Derby winner, died, too, at age 44. The declared cause in both cases was heart attack, but the underlying reasons were never made clear.
The sudden, untimely deaths of two sons threw Salman into deep mourning. While his older children were off pursuing careers and taking care of their own families, MBS, then 16, stuck close to his father in his time of pain, deepening the bond between them. MBS’s mother pressed Salman to spend more time with MBS, and the young prince often shadowed his father as he ran the Saudi capital as governor. It was an immersive education in the state of the kingdom, as MBS saw who came and went, learning who mattered in which tribe, which clerics held which positions, which businessmen had tapped which parts of the economy, and which royals had found innovative ways to rip off the state.
One member of the family’s entourage during that time recalled that MBS’s social life centered around using his royal privilege to build bonds with the people. In the summer, his family would decamp for the Red Sea coast, where MBS would rent a fleet of Jet Skis for the young men. In the winter, they would set up camp in the desert, where MBS would have the biggest camp, serve roast lambs on huge platters of rice, and keep fleets of buggies for the Bedouin who dropped by to greet the royals. MBS’s world was Saudi Arabia, and he seemed to love it as much as his cousins loved London, Geneva, or Monaco. His father appreciated his fondness for the kingdom, and their bond grew stronger, as MBS accompanied him at weddings and funerals and prayed near him at the mosque.
MBS’s mother and her children eventually moved into their own mansion, and some summers, Salman would vacation at a palace built by his brother, the late King Fahd, in Marbella with his first wife and her children, then pop in to see his second wife’s family in Barcelona. Later, MBS’s mother would take over a portion of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, shunning its French cuisine for Saudi food prepared by cooks she brought from home.
In his teens, MBS developed a reputation for misbehaving. Fellow royals and others who knew him say he seemed frustrated and angry, erupting at times in fits of rage. At least once, he dressed up as a police officer and went to an outdoor mall area in Riyadh to show off. The actual police officers could do little because they knew he was the governor’s son.
Accompanying his father immersed MBS in contemporary Arabia, but he was also a son of the twenty-first century.
As with many Saudis of his generation, his sense of the rest of the world was shaped by Hollywood movies, American and Japanese cartoons, and social media. Old friends said he would sometimes lose himself in video games and was the first in his circle to become addicted to Facebook.
MBS was 16 when the hijackers dispatched by Osama bin Laden attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. He told a delegation of Americans years later that his mother had called him to see the news and he had reached the television just in time to watch the second plane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center. While MBS did not want his comments during that meeting to be directly quoted, the delegation’s head, Joel. C. Rosenberg, told me his impression was that MBS recalled feeling a sense of horror that the world was going to hate Islam because of the attacks and that it would be harder for Saudis to feel comfortable abroad.
That feeling may have affected how he ruled later on.
“I think he grew up deciding,” Rosenberg told me, “‘I don’t want to live in a country that the world thinks of this way, and that I think of this way, and I’m going to hunt down anyone who could think up something like this or who could lead us to be perceived as a backward, crazy country.’”
Instead of going abroad for university, MBS stayed in Riyadh and studied law at King Saud University. One of his classmates said it appeared even then that he wanted to be a leader, directing discussions among friends and once telling a group that he wanted to be the next Alexander the Great. Another prince of the same generation would see MBS at weekly dinners their uncle, Prince Sultan, hosted for his nephews.
“He always talked about the government and how he wanted to get involved and what he wanted to change, but I thought he was just saying that because he was the son of the governor of Riyadh,” the prince recalled. “He always wanted to be the one speaking. He always wanted to be in the lead.”
He was also into Margaret Thatcher.
“He always enjoyed talking about the Iron Lady and how she enhanced the economic system of Great Britain,” the prince said.
But MBS remained far off the radars of the foreign diplomats and experts who studied royal dynamics to anticipate who might come to power in the future. In 2007, the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia visited Salman, who asked for help with U.S. visas for his family. His first wife had trouble traveling to see her doctor, and although Salman’s other children put up with the stringent application process, MBS “refused to go to the U.S. Embassy to be fingerprinted ‘like some criminal.’”
MBS graduated from university fourth in his class in 2007 and spent two years working for the Bureau of Experts, a research body for the Saudi Cabinet. After two years, he was due for a promotion but King Abdullah blocked it, so he returned to work for his father. He married a cousin, a petite princess named Sarah bint Mashour, and celebrated at a luxurious hall in Riyadh.
To outsiders, all Saudi royals appeared wealthy, but inside the family, there were vast gradations, and MBS was, yet again, far from the top.
His father was well known, but MBS realized during his teens that compared to other senior royals his father had no fortune. As he moved into adulthood, the differences in wealth began to burn, as his cousins descended on European capitals with fleets of luxury cars and entourages that took over entire hotels. The cash wielded by some royals was mind-blowing, enabling them to vacuum up fancy homes and field house calls from Harrods salesmen with chests of jewelry for their wives and daughters. They gave thousand-dollar tips to bellboys, passed out $100,000 stacks of cash to their entourages if they happened to land near a casino, and could drop $400,000 on watches during a single shop visit.
Part of what the royals paid for was protection from public scrutiny of their lifestyles and spending habits, but details often leaked out. Marbella, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, was a favorite summertime destination, and royal cash drove a high-end economy. Some threw banquets with lamb, shellfish, and caviar that cost as much as $1,000 a head. Bloated hotel bills were further inflated with rented yachts, helicopters, and private jets. Most royals behaved well in public, but hospitality workers noted that many indulged pleasures in Spain that they had to forgo at home, such as alcohol, pork, and all-night parties.
“In the early hours of the morning, it appears the corridors of some hotels look more like catwalks for fashion models,” a local journalist wrote.
Sometimes, scandals drew attention to royal excesses. One princess, Maha al-Sudairi, left behind nearly $20 million in unpaid bills in Paris, including nearly $400,000 to a luxury car service and $100,000 to a lingerie store. Three years later, she was back and tried to slip away without paying a $7 million bill at the Shangri-La Hotel, where she and her entourage had occupied forty-one rooms for five months. The next year, her son celebrated his graduation by booking entire sections of Disneyland Paris, where his dozens of guests were entertained by rare Disney characters. The bill for the three-day blowout came to $19.5 million.
MBS didn’t have that kind of money, but he began playing the Saudi stock market as a teenager. Once he entered his twenties, he dabbled in business to build his wealth. Few of his activities are clear, but money managers in Riyadh suspected him of manipulating the stock market, buying shares in worthless companies, pumping up their price, and selling them for a profit before their value went crashing back down. Finance workers and diplomats who watched the markets then said the so-called “pump and dump” was common and that MBS was not likely among the worst offenders.
Real estate had long been an easy way to generate princely wealth, and MBS tried that, too. At one point, he wanted a piece of land from a businessman who did not want to sell, so MBS pressured the cleric who ran the land registry office to sign the property over to him. The cleric refused to carry out what would have been an illegal transaction, so MBS sent him an envelope with a bullet in it. (There were two bullets in some versions of the story.) Alarmed, the cleric alerted his boss, who informed King Abdullah, who told Salman to get his son in line.
The incident left a bad taste in the king’s mouth and earned MBS the nickname Abu Rasasa, meaning roughly “the bullet guy.” (Saudi officials have dismissed this and other unflattering stories about MBS’s early years as rumors.)
MBS clearly managed to make some money. A retired diplomat recalled asking a luxury car dealer around 2011 about the market for high-end rides.
The dealer broke it down.
The lower princes bought Porsches or BMWs.
The next level up got Maseratis or Ferraris.
The big spenders purchased Bugattis, which cost a few million dollars each.
“Who buys those?” the diplomat asked.
“I just sold one to this guy called Mohammed bin Salman,” the dealer said.
The diplomat had never heard of him.
“He’s the governor’s kid.”
But during MBS’s mid-twenties, there was still little reason to expect that he would become more than a middling prince who dabbled in business and pitched up abroad now and then for a fancy vacation.
Then a second series of deaths in the family vaulted his father up the ladder — and MBS with him.
In July 2011, Salman’s first wife lost her long battle with kidney disease and passed away. His full brother, Prince Sultan, who was next in line to the throne, suffered from cancer, and Salman stayed with him in New York until he died later that year. Another brother, Prince Nayef, became the crown prince, but he had coronary heart disease and died in 2012. King Abdullah then named Salman the new crown prince, and suddenly MBS’s father was next in line to the throne and well positioned to empower his favorite son.
MBS has never publicly discussed when he began plotting his political career, but he has talked about his desire to be a new kind of ruler, one who disrupted the old order like the giants of Silicon Valley, instead of one who followed the traditional ways.
“There’s a big difference,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg. “The first, he can create Apple. The second can become a successful employee. I had elements that were much more than what Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates had. If I work according to their methods, what will I create? All of this was in my head when I was young.”
King Abdullah, however, saw MBS as an upstart whose experience fell far short of his ambitions. He named Salman minister of defense, but barred MBS from joining his father in the ministry. The king later relented to Salman’s request and named MBS the head of the crown prince’s court and the director of his father’s office at the ministry, a cabinet-level position.
Much still remains unclear about how MBS spent his twenties, largely because he did so little that drew attention at the time (other than the caper with the bullet) and because so much effort would later go into retroactively polishing his reputation. But what is clear is everything MBS did not do before he burst onto the scene in 2015. He never ran a company that made a mark. He never acquired military experience. He never studied at a foreign university. He never mastered, or even became functional in, a foreign language. He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere in the West.
That background would shape how he wielded power later on.
His deep understanding of the kingdom and its society would enable him to successfully execute moves that few thought possible before he pulled them off. But his lack of experience with the West gave him weak instincts for how allies, particularly the United States, functioned and thought — a blind spot that would frequently lead him to miscalculate how they would view his riskier gambits.
The drastically different backgrounds of MBS and his older, more experienced half brothers poses the question of why his father chose MBS to follow in his footsteps. Salman has never publicly explained his choice, and as an absolute monarch, will never have to. So we are left with little more than informed speculation.
Salman may have shared the views of his own father, the kingdom’s founder, who had rejected the suggestion by an American businessman that he educate his sons abroad.
“In order to be a leader of men, a man has to receive an education in his own country, among his own people, and to grow up in surroundings steeped with the traditions and psychology of his countrymen,” King Abdulaziz said.
That jibed with the theories of two close associates of the Salman family who spoke to me on the condition that I not identify them.
One felt that the older brothers, with their foreign educations, British accents, and horse ranches, had lost touch with their father, who, in the end, was a Saudi traditionalist who liked the desert and eating meat with his hands. So did MBS, and his father appreciated it.
The other said that although MBS’s rough style grated on many of his relatives, it never bothered his father, who may have seen in the young prince a toughness he felt the kingdom needed going forward.
The associate summed up the thinking this way: “To deal with a Bedouin, I need a Bedouin.”
In the spring of 2014, Joseph Westphal arrived in Riyadh as President Obama’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Then 66, Westphal had led a career that moved back and forth between academia and government, working at a number of universities and serving for a spell as the acting secretary of the army. He was a tall, large, avuncular man whose back-slapping style annoyed more hard-driving members of the administration. But it worked well with the Saudis, who appreciated that he liked to chat before getting down to business.
As Westphal settled into his post, someone showed him an old video of Salman getting a tour of some public facility — a factory, or a water treatment plant — elsewhere in the Middle East. Salman was dressed like “a Wall Street banker,” Westphal recalled, and made sure that those giving the tour explained everything to his son, who jotted down copious notes on a small pad.
That was MBS, and Westphal was intrigued.
“There is something very special about this young guy,” he thought. “There was no question that he was the apple of his father’s eye.”
King Abdullah was busy and often ill, so Westphal frequently visited Salman and noticed MBS, usually standing to the side but never speaking. So Westphal requested a meeting with the young prince and got the impression that MBS was excited, because no one as prominent as a U.S. ambassador had ever asked to meet him before.
The two men hit it off, chatting about their families and backgrounds, and the ambassador became convinced that the young man was off to do big things.
“I did believe from the very beginning that this was a young, ambitious guy who was destined to be a leader,” Westphal recalled later. “And he had the platform.”
Ben Hubbard, an Arabic speaker with more than a decade in the Middle East, has covered coups, civil wars, protests, jihadist groups, religion and pop culture from more than a dozen countries, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Yemen. This is his first book.
”MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman,” by Ben Hubbard. Copyright © 2020 by Ben Hubbard. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.