By Karen DeYoung and Kareem
he hosted last October's glittering global investment conference in Saudi
Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had the world at his fingertips.
Thousands of investors, corporate chieftains and government leaders flocked to
the kingdom to hear the charismatic young heir to the Saudi throne outline his
plans for modernization of the reclusive kingdom, and to be invited along for
the ride and the profits.
dreamers are welcome to join," Mohammed told his audience.
second conference approaches this month in Riyadh, Mohammed, 33, seems far less
dashing. Over the past week, many who had planned to attend have abruptly
canceled, scrambling to distance themselves from what they now see as a runaway
train headed for disaster.
distress stems from the still-unfolding story of Jamal Khashoggi, the
self-exiled Saudi journalist allegedly killed and gruesomely dismembered this
month by Saudi agents inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, after he dared to
publicly criticize the crown prince and his government.
some of Mohammed's foreign admirers, it is still inconceivable that the
ebullient and charming prince - widely known by the initials MBS - could be
responsible for such barbarity. The Trump White House has insisted it has
reached no conclusions about what happened.
that if the journalist ended up dead at the hands of Saudis (no body has been
found, and Saudi Arabia denies any knowledge of his disappearance), it must
have been a kidnapping gone wrong or a rogue operation. Mohammed, they say, has
made too great effort courting the West, and is far too intelligent and aware
of the potential fallout, to have ordered Khashoggi's killing.
others, many of whom have spent time with the prince, say they would be shocked
but not surprised. They describe a dark and bullying side of a young man in a
hurry, one who has absolute power and does not tolerate dissent.
never would have happened without MBS's approval. Never, never, never,"
said a former senior U.S. diplomat with long experience in the kingdom through
and people who know him assert that his Western admirers have always
misunderstood his intentions, projecting their own hopes for the transformation
of Saudi Arabia onto a prince who is the antithesis of the cautious, elderly
leadership that has ruled the kingdom for decades, and seemed brash enough to
push through his modernization plans.
doesn't hide the fact that he's authoritarian. He's not embarrassed by
it," said one person close to the royal court who, like most of those
interviewed for this article, spoke only on the condition of anonymity to offer
frank assessments. "He definitely sees himself in messianic terms, as a
man of history," the person said, adding that Mohammed "cares deeply
about the country."
Mohammed's fans in the West have seen him as a future Lee Kuan Yew, the
modernizing first premier of Singapore, MBS himself is known to refer to China,
with its authoritarian leadership and soaring economy, as a better model for
Saudi Arabia. He has chafed at the criticism of his human rights record,
complaining that it has received more Western scrutiny than that of Russian
President Vladimir Putin or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
didn't call myself a reformer," the crown prince said in a Bloomberg News
interview this month.
- - -
Khashoggi's disappearance shocked Westerners, they were simply not paying close
attention to events in the kingdom, and the lengths to which the crown prince
has been willing to go to quash dissent, say seasoned Saudi human rights
initial wave of executions after Mohammed's abrupt installation as the
immediate heir to his father, King Salman, followed by waves of arrests over
the past year, he has been ruthless in asserting power. Saudi authorities have
spread fear by detaining billionaires and grass-roots activists alike, showing
that no one is untouchable. And they have worked to ensure that the arrests are
hardly discussed, threatening the relatives of those arrested and forcing them
to sign pledges of silence, and holding trials in secret, the rights advocates
style of governance has occasionally made for odd spectacle. A few months ago,
when a prominent women's rights advocate was arrested at her home, the
authorities surrounded it with so many klieg lights and armed men that
residents thought it was a film shoot, according to Yahya Assiri, a
London-based Saudi human rights activist. When people wandered out to see what
was happening, they were rounded up and told never to speak of what they had
seen, he said.
maintenance of silence may be one of the crown prince's greatest successes.
Assiri said his networks of activists on the ground in Saudi Arabia has
withered, with more and more people who reported on rights violations and
arrests leaving the secure chats rooms where they once shared information.
large number are in prison. Some are afraid. Some completely disappeared, and
we know nothing about them," he said in an interview in his London office
a few days before Khashoggi's disappearance.
not just dissidents who have gone quiet. In the hyper-nationalist environment
the crown prince has nurtured, there is no benefit to sticking one's head up,
whatever the topic. "Everyone wants to prove that he or she is a
patriot," said one well-known political analyst in Saudi Arabia.
"There is no tolerance."
analyst had not easily come to that conclusion, and had cheered Mohammed's most
significant reforms, including his decision to strip power from the religious
police who had enforced moral codes. "Mohammed bin Salman had all the
chances," the analyst said.
"when you are surrounded by people who show no dissent, then you stop
listening," the analyst added.
bin Salman is one of countless cousins descended from the progeny of Saudi
Arabia's founder, Abdulaziz ibn Saud. He is the eldest son of his mother,
herself the third wife of Abdulaziz's son Salman.
father spent much of his career as the governor of Riyadh province and was
known as a peacemaker among his own often-fractious group of brothers, several
of whom preceded him as king. While many royal males are educated abroad and
rise in the Saudi military, or both, Mohammed attended King Saud University at
home and quickly became a senior political aide to his father.
Salman ascended to the throne in 2015, after the death of his brother,
Abdullah, he appointed MBS, already a minister of state, to the post of defense
minister. It was then that Mohammed first came to the attention of the upper
echelons of the Obama administration.
theory of MBS was that he was to some extent an inevitability, particularly
after it became clear he was contesting the second or third spot" for
succession under the king, said one senior Obama diplomat.
of State John Kerry tried to build what he considered a mentoring relationship
with the young prince, then in his 20s. "He knew he was a young guy and
that he would make mistakes," the diplomat said of Mohammed. "He said
he wanted to be told when we disagreed."
"was a policymaker, and we had real policy issues," including the war
he declared in Yemen in 2015, apparently without informing other senior Saudi
security officials or the White House. There were also differences over aid to
rebel forces in Syria and Obama's efforts, despite Saudi objections, to forge a
nuclear deal with Iran.
knew that if meaningful jobs were not found for Saudi Arabia's young and highly
educated population, and if the oil-dominated economy was not diversified,
"they were doomed," this former diplomat said.
had put Mohammed in control of a new economic development council, and gave him
control over Aramco, the massive Saudi oil company. In April 2016, Mohammed
introduced a plan for restructuring the country's economy over the following 15
years. That project, called Vision 2030, outlined diversification from oil,
privatization schemes, technology reforms and sustainable development. The plan
was met with wide international approval.
tried to meet with him "every time we went to Saudi Arabia and every time
he came to the U.S.," although Mohammed's halting English made telephone
communication difficult. On one occasion, at the end of a working dinner at
Kerry's home in Washington, MBS startled the departing guests by sitting at the
piano and playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
diplomat familiar with the Saudis through several U.S. administrations thought
"Kerry was more positive than the rest of us" about MBS. The young
prince, always at his father's side, was prone to lecturing, and he startled
Obama with a lengthy criticism of U.S. foreign policy during a meeting with
CIA, in particular, was suspicious of MBS and preferred dealing with the prince
just above him in the pecking order, interior minister and deputy crown prince
Muhammad bin Nayef.
June 2017, however, Nayef was out and his father, in a ruthless and rapid
change that shocked other members of the tradition-bound extended royal family,
had installed MBS as crown prince.
before reaching the White House, the incoming Trump administration saw MBS as
the portal through which it would build a strong relationship with Saudi
Arabia, using its power in the region to buttress its own policy plans -
reversing Obama's opening to Iran, forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal
that had included a crackdown on terrorism, keeping the oil market in check and
providing more U.S. weaponry to one of the few countries in the world that
actually paid for it.
President Donald Trump courted the aging king, a connection would be made
through the energetic king-to-be, who quickly struck up a relationship with
Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. When he visited Washington
in early 2017, Mohammed dined at Kushner's house and had lunch with Trump, but
largely kept off the public screen even as he and Kushner planned for the
president's first overseas trip, to begin with great fanfare in the kingdom.
There was little, if any, talk of human rights.
inaugural Future Investment Initiative conference in October 2017 in Riyadh,
MBS announced ambitious plans to attract foreign investment to the kingdom,
including development of a vast economic zone on the Red Sea coast and a luxury
as he restructured the Saudi economy, MBS moved in 2017 to liberalize parts of
Saudi Arabia's extremely conservative social code. Powers were stripped from
the religious police, who enforced restrictive dress codes for women and gender
segregation in public spaces. The government, rolling back the restrictions,
promoted music concerts, sports events and announced that cinemas would open
for the first time in decades.
kingdom's social strictures, Mohammed frequently argued, were not indigenous to
Saudi Arabia but rather were a consequence of the country's turn toward
conservatism beginning in 1979, when Sunni hard-liners mobilized to counter the
Islamic revolution in nearby Shiite Iran - a theory that Saudi scholars said
was a selective reading of history, at best.
Mohammed gradually worked to open the society, the government announced that,
as of June 2018, women would be allowed to drive in the kingdom for the first
time in decades.
attributed his ability to bring about social reforms with little upheaval to
his negotiating skills with conservative clerics and his own deep knowledge of
Islam. But he made clear that he was not striving for democracy in Saudi
Arabia; it remained an absolute monarchy in which he was fast approaching
absolute power. Clerics who refused to fall in line, or who were seen as too
independent, were thrown into prison.
you come to political reforms, he's as reactionary as the Wahhabi political
establishment," said David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson
Center who has studied Saudi Arabia and written extensively about it.
"While the country used to be run more by consensus of the senior princes,
it is now down to one guy, with a little input from his dad."
though, say King Salman still wields enormous influence, reining his son in at
times and prodding him to counter Iran's influence in the region, a priority
for the ruler.
November, Mohammed ordered the arrest of hundreds of members of the royal
family and the business elite, imprisoning them in the opulent Ritz-Carlton
hotel. Many would later allege physical abuse and the death of at least one
person under torture. The palace said they were corrupt, and most were
eventually released after giving up substantial portions of their fortunes.
prominent American with long experience in the kingdom and with its more
courtly prior rulers expressed concern after several meetings with Mohammed.
"He wasn't interested in listening," he said, describing the prince as
a "bully" who lectured without interruption.
spring, as the world waited for Saudi women to climb into their cars as
drivers, prominent women who for years had campaigned for the right to drive
were quietly arrested and imprisoned.
discovering what this 'new king' is all about, and it's getting
worrisome," Ottaway said. "The dark side is getting darker."
a tour of the United States last March, MBS was hailed by the White House as an
enlightened and powerful leader. From the East Coast cities he visited, to the
industrial heartland, and West Coast high-technology and entertainment centers,
Mohammed - now speaking fairly fluent English - fascinated his American hosts.
many in Congress had protested against civilian deaths caused by Saudi air
attacks in Yemen and had questioned the domestic arrests, numerous lawmakers
gathered to speak with him. Such matters, Mohammed felt, were his country's
domestic concerns and did not diminish the kingdom's value as a strong security
ally to the United States. Nor did they shift Mohammed's focus from his most
urgent priority: reforming an economy heavily dependent on oil.
warm welcome in the United States was hardly a surprise. Both before and after
the visit, the Saudi leadership has weathered several potentially embarrassing
episodes in the previous year, with little international backlash, including
the apparent detention of the Lebanese prime minister and the near-severance of
diplomatic ties with Canada after the Canadians protested the kingdom's arrest
of a women's rights advocate.
at the highest echelons of the kingdom were perplexed that so many Americans seemed
to care when stories began to emerge that Khashoggi had vanished during an Oct.
2 visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, according to the person close to
the royal court. Saudi Arabia's treatment of Saudi citizens, however harsh, was
thought to be the kingdom's business, having nothing to do with foreign
the disappearance, let alone the possible killing, "of a guy who was a
dissident living in the West does have something to do" with them, this
person said. "Even if they're doing it for domestic politics, they have to
be able to read the effect in the rest of the world," he said, referring
to the Saudi leadership.
Mohammed's possible involvement "flies in the face of all the effort that
he's put into improving relations" with the West, "he's also very
inexperienced. I don't think he has a deep understanding. . . . of what the
reaction would be."
is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for The Post.
Kareem Fahim is the Istanbul bureau chief and a Middle East correspondent for
The Washington Post.)
The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the
author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the
views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the