Mohammed bin Salman, fierce heir who is reshaping Saudi Arabia
The hard-nosed heir has been applauded for allowing women to drive and envisioning an economy less dependent on oil, but he has also sparked widespread revulsion over the horrific murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other state abuses .
A towering man with a full beard, a deep, growling voice, and seemingly limitless energy, Prince Mohammad is known for its outsized ambitions, from building the futuristic megacity known as NEOM to the Seven Year War in neighboring Yemen.
The brash 36-year-old, who is said to have a penchant for fast food and “Call of Duty” video games, is also fabulously wealthy, owning a $500 million yacht, a French chateau and, according to officially denied reports , a million painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
Unlike other Saudi princes with British accents, sharp suits and Oxford degrees, he embraced the country’s Bedouin roots, usually donning a traditional robe and sandals, and treating his friends and relatives to sumptuous meals. roasted lamb in luxury camps in the desert.
After carving his way to power in relative obscurity, he oversaw the greatest transformation in modern history of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil and host to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
Under his rule, the Islamic religious police were abolished, cinemas reopened, foreign tourists were welcomed, and Saudi Arabia held a film festival, operas, a Formula 1 Grand Prix, professional wrestling and a huge rave festival.
Yet he also jailed critics and, in a sweeping purge of the national elite, detained and threatened some 200 princes and businessmen at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel during a 2017 anti-corruption crackdown. who tightened his grip on power.
His image was most seriously tarnished by the brutal murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, which caused an international outcry despite Riyadh’s insistence that rogue agents carried out the murder.
“MBS is a hugely divisive figure, hailed by fans as a long-awaited game-changer in a hurting region and dismissed by enemies as a brutal dictator in the making,” Ben Hubbard wrote in “MBS: The Rise. to Power of Mohammad bin Salman”.
“He is determined to give the Saudis a bright and prosperous future and exerts an unwavering will to crush his enemies. Combined in varying doses, these attributes will likely guide his actions in the future.”
Prince Mohammed was born on August 31, 1985, as one of hundreds of grandchildren of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He grew up in a palace in Riyadh with his mother, Fahda, one of his father’s four wives, and his five brothers.
“As the sixth son of the Founder King’s 25th son, there was little reason to expect him to rise to prominence,” Hubbard wrote. “And for most of his life, not many people did.”
He earned a law degree from King Saud University in Riyadh, but never studied abroad and soon worked as a special adviser to his father, then governor of Riyadh.
When King Salman came to the throne in early 2015, he appointed Prince Mohammed Minister of Defense.
Soon, the young man also coordinated economic policy, supervised the state oil company Saudi Aramco and oversaw the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen.
In one year, he held so many portfolios that diplomats called him “Mister everything”.
The prince – now the father of three boys and two girls, who unlike other members of the Saudi royal family has only one wife – is said to have worked 16 hour days and was inspired by “L ‘Art of War’ by Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu.
His breathtaking rise seemed almost Shakespearean. He replaced his older cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to become heir to the throne in 2017. Three years later, Prince Nayef, along with a brother of King Salman, were reportedly arrested.
Prince Mohammed has pledged to forge a “moderate” Saudi Arabia and has courted international investors for his sweeping Vision 2030 plan to diversify the oil-dependent economy.
“We want to live a normal life,” he once told business leaders in Riyadh. “All we are doing is going back to what we were, a moderate Islam, open to all religions and open to the world.
“Seventy percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 30 and, honestly, we are not going to spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today.”
As he gained notoriety, he traveled the United States and charmed the leaders of the White House and Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
New York Times writer Thomas Friedman recounted how, in a late-night interview, the prince “worn me out with a fire hose of new ideas to transform his country.”
Perhaps his most ambitious project is the $500 billion NEOM project on the Red Sea coast, which will be solar-powered and equipped with robots, which the prince describes as a “civilizational leap for the future”. humanity”.
Reflecting the hopes of the country’s young population, Prince Mohammed eased restrictions on women’s rights, allowing them to drive, attend sporting events and concerts alongside men and obtain passports without the approval of a male guardian.
Alongside the reforms, however, a crackdown on dissidents, including intellectuals and women’s rights activists, was part of an apparent strategy to root out all traces of opposition before a formal transfer of power from the King Salman.
Internationally, he pursued a more assertive foreign policy, plunging the kingdom into the quagmire of regional rivalries: the Yemen war, hostility to Shiite Iran, a three-year blockade against Qatar until 2021 and the announced detention of the Lebanese Prime Minister for several tense days.
Prince Mohammed, who once publicly berated US President Barack Obama for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s rights record, has forged a strong bond with Donald Trump and in particular his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who would serve him well. after Khashoggi’s death.
The prince has come under renewed scrutiny of his human rights record under US President Joe Biden, who released an intelligence report that MBS had ‘approved of an operation’ to capture or kill Khashoggi.
Biden has not taken action against the alleged future king, however. And next month, the US president plans to visit Saudi Arabia, a sharp turnaround after he vowed to make the country a “pariah” during a 2019 debate.
The shift is perhaps a recognition that Prince Mohammed, still in his 30s, could rule Saudi Arabia for half a century or more.