March 20, 2020 / 12:44 PM / 17 days ago

Breakingviews - Review: A loose cannon on the deck of the world

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Ben Hubbard has good timing. The extraordinary story of Mohammed bin Salman has been crying out for a deeply reported and definitive study ever since he came to prominence five years ago. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is particularly in the spotlight right now – and not just because the kingdom is presiding over the G20 amid the worst pandemic to hit the globe in a generation.

On March 6, Russia sent global oil prices tumbling by failing to agree to a proposal by Saudi to cut supply. But the real shock – which sent Brent crude down another 20% and further since - was Riyadh’s reaction to the snub. The kingdom said it would now pump to its full capacity to grab market share, and promptly slashed prices to do so. It was shock-and-awe, imbued with a certain brutal logic - but also fundamentally self-defeating. It was a signature move by the man universally known as “MbS”.

Since outmanoeuvring and displacing his predecessor Mohammed bin Nayef in 2017, the crown prince – who is just 34 – has established an astonishing record of vaulting ambition and ruthless suppression. He has fanned a war with southern neighbour Yemen which has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe; locked up hundreds of senior business people and Royal family members at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton in return for $106 billion of compensation for alleged corruption; arrested and held the Lebanese head of state for over a week; self-sabotaged his nation by blockading neighbouring Qatar; and centralised power to an unheard-of degree in the name of overhauling Saudi’s oil-dependent economy.

None of this is unfamiliar territory to Middle East-watchers. But Hubbard, Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times, brings more to the table. Having regularly visited Saudi since 2013 – before MbS’s father King Salman ascended to the throne – he knows the kingdom well enough to have a network of contacts that give an informed but non-government point of view. That’s essential, because the crown prince’s record and personality contain important nuances.

In his better moments, which were more numerous before October 2018, MbS comes across like a sort of Gulf-area Tony Blair. He charmed journalists, think-tankers and businessmen at home and abroad by being very different from the stereotypically laconic, conservative Saudi leader. The fervour with which he has pursued his goals occasionally yields impressive oratorical results, as when he wowed an assembled crowd of western dignitaries at the 2017 Future Investment Initiative by harking back to a more tolerant Saudi society. And he has attracted various pop stars, heavyweight boxing title fights and World Wrestling Entertainment hoopla to the kingdom, allowed women to drive, and acknowledged the need to pivot the economy away from oil.

Other actions, however, always look unhinged. A $500 billion plan to create NEOM, a new city on the Red Sea replete with passenger drones and robots, looked unlikely even before oil prices crashed below $30 a barrel. And some are thuggish, or sinister. Hubbard devotes a fascinating chapter to the crown prince’s associate Saud al-Qahtani, nicknamed “Lord of the Flies”, who has marshalled a social media army to carpet-bomb those issuing critical opinions online. MbS’s corruption crackdown is compromised by the inability of outsiders to see how the crown prince, who does not emanate from the richer side of the Al Saud family, suddenly found himself affording $456 million for a 440-foot yacht.

All these strands lead up to what has clearly been MbS’s fatal miscalculation – the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 by Saudi agents in Istanbul. Hubbard, who knew Khashoggi, gives a fine, balanced portrait of a man whose Afghan exploits in the 1980s anti-Soviet Union jihad clearly marked him out as more than an impartial journalist, but whose butchering was an insane overreaction to measured criticisms of the new regime. It has shone a spotlight on the detaining of other dissenting voices in the kingdom, which Hubbard worries is on the rise. 

Hubbard’s narrative suffers slightly by stopping before one of MbS’s other big miscalculations – the listing of national oil giant Aramco that failed to secure the private sector capital which would have lent the whole affair credibility. His suggestion that MbS will determine where his story goes next also needs to be seen against President Donald Trump’s consistent support, even post-Khashoggi, for a regime that fits with a wider anti-Iran strategy. That critical backing could change if Trump loses this year’s election, or if he just changes his mind. 

Still, this is a compelling contemporary history, full of vignettes that give those who haven’t had the strange experience of a trip to Saudi interesting insights – from hotels with wallpaper that looks like it was hung in the 1970s to the passive-aggressive granting-and-rescinding of visas. The most poignant of these comes at the end, when a valuable kingdom contact responds to a request to chat by regretfully making clear it is no longer safe to do so. MbS may have enabled Saudis to see the latest title fight or WWE smackdown, but they may also be even less free than they were.

Breakingviews

Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.


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