MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman
Ben Hubbard, William Collins, £20.00 

In 2009, an American diplomat sought out one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known journalists, an insider whose thoughts on the country’s future the diplomat was keen to garner. The kingdom was in transition, the journalist told him: within ten years, it would have a new leader from a younger generation. ‘No one knows who this will be,’ he added.

The journalist was Jamal Khashoggi, and he was to give the man who did emerge as leader, Muhammad bin Salman, a much bigger headache in death than he did in life. 

Barely six years ago, MBS was little known even to Saudi-watchers. Taking notes but rarely speaking, he stuck close to his father, Prince Salman, the long-serving governor of Riyadh who was named defence minister and then became crown prince in 2012.

What Ben Hubbard has been able to dig up about MBS’s obscure formative years sheds a good deal of light on his extraordinary rise, and his equally extraordinary behaviour.

Unlike his five older half-brothers, who preferred an international jet-set life, studying abroad and spending much time in the United States and London, MBS stayed at home, studying law at a Riyadh University, where Hubbard says he told a fellow student: ‘I want to be the next Alexander the Great.’ 

He immersed himself in Saudi Arabian life, loved the desert and had a penchant for the internet. His knowledge of the world beyond Riyadh largely consisted of exposure to American films and cartoons. 

His commitment to Saudi Arabia, and the fact that he was constantly at his father’s side, ensured that he became the ‘apple of his eye’. 

In 2015, when his father became king, MBS was on the way. He was appointed defence minister and head of the royal court, making him gatekeeper to the king. 

Within ten days, he had drawn up a plan to restructure the Saudi Arabian government. An economic council was set up putting control of the economy into his hands, and a security council that he oversees. Only two months later, he ordered the military to start an anti-Houthi bombing campaign, plunging Saudi Arabia into a war in Yemen that continues today. 

Over the next two years, he ruthlessly eroded the position of his main rival, Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN), who was crown prince and interior minister. Eventually MBN was pressed into resigning, and remains under house arrest.

As crown prince and with the king giving him free rein, MBS embarked on what Hubbard calls ‘a vast social and economic overhaul in tandem with an extreme concentration of authoritarian power’. 

He wooed the west with his ‘Vision 2030’ of a new, modern, high-tech kingdom diversifying from oil, and unveiled plans for a $500 billion megacity called Neom on desert land bordering the Red Sea. 

Women were at last allowed to drive, to own a passport and to travel without the consent of a male relative. Cinemas opened and concerts began to be staged. At the same time, MBS curbed the powers of the religious conservatives, including the intrusive religious police. 

It might appear that western-style social liberalism had arrived but there was a dark side to all this change. For MBS, ‘women's rights’ was a useful slogan, but these were not inherent rights to be demanded. They were privileges bestowed by the ruler as part of his plan to engineer a new society. Women such as Loujain Hathloul who did campaign were locked up. She is still detained, as are many others – clerics, liberal reformists, intellectuals – who dared to criticize, or simply failed to applaud, MBS’s moves.  

These have included some monumental blunders: on top of Yemen, there was the abrupt and gratuitous break with Qatar; the detention and forced TV resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri; and the  incarceration and shake-down in the Ritz Carlton of 350 of the kingdom’s richest and most influential figures. 

All this sowed a climate of fear bordering on terror which is part and parcel of the new regime that the kingdom has become, with all the reins of power in MBS’s hands. 

At the heart of the transformation was his close aide Saud al-Qahtani, who commanded a large scale cyber operation to track and pressure critics, and set up a Rapid Intervention Group given the job among other things of abducting and repatriating dissidents from abroad. 

This was the dark web into which Jamal Khashoggi, a constructive critic who did not regard himself as a dissident, naively fell when he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, unaware that a squad of 15 hit-men from MBS’s inner security circle had been flown in on two private jets to kill him. 

Hubbard tracks Khashoggi’s trajectory from his early years until his final minutes when he was suffocated and his body butchered on the consulate floor. Having seen how MBS carried off earlier outrages, it comes as no surprise to learn that he was apparently taken aback by the global reaction to Khashoggi’s murder. 

Others will continue to buy Saudi oil and sell the kingdom weapons. But the curse of Khashoggi is that whenever the name of MBS is raised, it will evoke this ultimate symbol of the dark side of this ruthless visionary. 

For those who followed the gruesome affair, Hubbard’s book contains no big surprises. But it is full of telling detail, and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the man who, at 35, has established himself alongside Putin, Trump, Xi and Kim as one of the most remarkable leaders in the extraordinary world in which we are currently living. What, we are left to wonder, will this restless, ambitious, dangerous man do as an encore?