Contributor Perspectives

The Rapid Rise of Mohammed bin Salman

9 MINS READDec 6, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
Saudi Defense Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, stands for a photo-op with his counterparts from other countries in Saudi Arabia's Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition at a meeting in Riyadh.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, is equally fond of tough talk and tough action, an approach that has raised eyebrows in and outside the kingdom.


The young Saudi crown prince's tough approach and brusque demeanor rub some in and outside the kingdom the wrong way. But the shake-up he's carrying out may be just what Saudi Arabia needs to survive in a new era....

Something extraordinary is happening in Saudi Arabia. The new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, as many call him, has embarked on changes that could alter the world.

Breaking Taboos

His ambitious plan for the kingdom's future, Saudi Vision 2030 — worked out with help from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. — envisages a whole panoply of reforms. The measures range from health care and education initiatives to a $500 billion project to build a new city to proposals for treating the Saudi economy's "addiction to oil." Along with reform, MbS is taking on his country's cultural and political taboos. He wants to break the taboo against selling off any part of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., better known as Saudi Aramco, by floating an initial public offering for less than 5 percent of the huge company. Proceeds from the sale would go toward creating the world's largest sovereign investment fund, which, as MbS described in his first interview on Al-Arabiya television, would "take control over more than (10) percent of the investment capacity of the globe" and "own more than (3) percent of the assets on Earth." MbS is also breaking the long-standing taboo that forbids women from driving.

And perhaps most significant, he wants to break the hold of the hard-line Wahhabi clerics who came to power in 1979, when militants occupied Mecca's Grand Mosque at the time of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Public entertainment has been banned since then, but MbS will bring it back. As he said to a gathering of some 3,500 visitors he hosted at an economic development conference Oct. 24, Saudis "are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world ... We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today." He then vowed to "eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon."

MbS doesn't stop at tough talk; he's equally fond of tough action. In early November he had his minions round up more than 200 of the kingdom's rich and powerful, including 11 princes, and imprison them in the lap of luxury at Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel on corruption charges. "My father (King Salman) saw that there is no way we can stay in the G-20 and grow with this level of corruption," MbS said in an interview with Thomas Friedman. "In early 2015, one of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption — at the top. This team worked for two years until they collected the most accurate information, and then they came up with about 200 names." The crown prince told Friedman that 1 percent of the people arrested for corruption were able to prove their innocence, and 4 percent insisted they would try to do so in court. Yet the remaining 95 percent of the detainees agreed to return a total of about $100 billion to the kingdom's coffers. As Friedman put it tersely, "You don't see that every day."

Sharp Elbows

The anti-corruption campaign is hardly the crown prince's only tough action. His main rival for the throne once his father dies is said to be under house arrest. The Saudi air campaign in Yemen, meanwhile, is creating a humanitarian disaster. In a long piece in Buzzfeed on Nov. 27, Borzou Daragahi quotes a Western diplomat who served for years in Saudi Arabia:

"There were all sorts of stories about his personal behavior. It was ambition. He had very sharp elbows. That's what people thought of him, and they didn't want to cross him. What you see is someone who is incredibly ambitious and is prepared to put heat on people to get his own way."

Another person interviewed for the same piece confirms the diplomat's assessment:

"He doesn't even say, 'Hi' … He says, 'You. What do you have? You. What do you have?' He doesn't have time for niceties. He just gets into business. He's on some kind of turbocharge. He's hyper and he wants to get things done and he doesn't want anyone to stand in his way. If anyone stands in his way, he takes them out."

These accounts don't describe a nice person. In fact, some people in and out of the kingdom see the crown prince as a bully. (He has, however, won over the kingdom's vast youth population, a largely underemployed, increasingly well-traveled, foreign-educated group with waning patience for the heavy hand of the Wahhabi fun police.) But hold on. There may be another interpretation of the young crown prince's haste. Yes, he is a man in a hurry. Then again, Saudi Arabia is in so many ways behind on the arc of history — as a country, as an economy and as a society — that the shake-up MbS is carrying out may be just the kind of "turbocharge" it needs.

When asked how much risk would be involved in his Public Investment Fund, he responded, in characteristic fashion, by asking, "What will the size of the risk be if we did not take such a step?"

Mohammed bin Salman's Growing Power

Thinking Big in a Hurry

Is it a power-hungry personal ambition that drives MbS, or is it a sense of mission? Much of what I read about him reminds me of another man in a hurry, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, Space-X, SolarCity and the Boring Company. Like MbS, Musk is known for working incredibly long hours. And like MbS, Musk is very demanding of his employees. Interviewed by Ashlee Vance for his book on Musk, a senior employee at Tesla said, "Some people thought Elon was too tough or hot-tempered or tyrannical … (b)ut these were hard times, and those of us close to the operational realities of the company knew it. I appreciated that he didn't sugarcoat things." Vance summarizes Musk's drive for excellence:

"Either you're trying to make something spectacular with no compromises or you're not. And if you're not, Musk considers you a failure. This position can look unreasonable or foolish to outsiders, but the philosophy works for Musk and constantly pushes him and those around him to their limits."

Neither man is shy about splashing money around. Musk took delivery of a McLaren sports car, one of only 62 in the world. While on vacation on the French Riviera, MbS took a fancy to a 134-meter (440-foot) yacht and sent his agents aboard to buy it for $550 million the same day. If it ends up serving as a roving embassy where the crown prince can entertain other heads of state in a secure environment, it might actually be a good investment, not a frivolous whim.

Both men think big — really big. But that is precisely what some challenges demand. The barriers to entry in the space industry and the automobile industry are immense. You can't get into those industries by taking small, incremental steps. That's why Khalid Al-Dakhil, a Saudi author, historian and columnist for pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, may have gotten it wrong by saying, "When you want to make changes, especially political and constitutional, you always face resistance. So you want to take it step by step."

As Brinley Burton wrote for NBC News, "'Transformation' is a mantra that follows MbS around." Likewise, Google co-founder Larry Page, one of Musk's good friends, says, "That's why I find Elon to be an inspiring example. He said, 'Well, what should I really do in the world? Solve cars, global warming, and make humans multiplanetary.' … (N)ow he has businesses to do that."

Some understand the truly systemic dimensions of the struggle in the kingdom. "We are witnessing an emergence of a new social contract in Saudi Arabia, economically and socially," Ibrahim al-Assil, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said to Newsweek. "Saudi Arabia is facing many challenges in a region that is full of turmoil and conflicts. Economic reforms won't be sufficient if it's not accompanied by social reforms."

Machiavelli's (Crown) Prince

The sheer scale of the interlinking challenges that MbS is facing call to mind a famous quotation from Niccolo Machiavelli: "One always ought to remember that there is nothing more difficult to undertake, nor more dangerous to administer, nor more unlikely to succeed, than to introduce a new political order." Machiavelli is, of course, famous for endorsing the kind of "sharp elbows" that MbS and Musk wield. As he put it:

"It is essential to understand this: that a prince — and especially a 'new' prince — cannot always follow those practices by which men are regarded as good, for in order to maintain the state he is often obliged to act against his promises, against charity, against humanity, and against religion."

The descriptor "Machiavellian" is often associated with treachery. But we owe to our own Philip Bobbitt a reinterpretation of Machiavelli that shows how he crafted his philosophy entirely in the service of the public good. He was not interested in defending the power of the prince for his own sake; he was interested in the good of the whole. As Bobbitt notes in his book Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made, "Then, as now, the emergence of a new constitutional order loomed over men whose eyes were firmly fixed on the ground, even as it was shifting beneath them."

Like Friedman in his Nov. 8 New York Times column on MbS, I worry that the Saudi crown prince's ambition and the bad advice of others might lead to war with Iran. And yet, like Friedman in a later column from Nov. 23 — written just after spending over three hours with MbS — I come away rooting for the man.

I'll give the last word to Friedman, whose words, published on Thanksgiving morning, probably didn't get the exposure they deserve:

"I never thought I'd live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.           

"Unlike the other Arab Springs, all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia, this one is led from the top down by the country's 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe."

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