Reviewed in India on 25 May 2021
A man has an uncounted wealth at his disposal. The source of his wealth is never dried. The guarantee for life is the incessant flow of cash and so are the perks and benefits. In other words, he has a surfeit of everything. The man is lucky to be blessed with such a life. Imagine yourself in his position. What you would have done with so much wealth. You would spend on exotic vacations. You would spend on shopping. You would spend on luxury items. You would spend it at a party. You would indulge in everything that you desired. The wealth and security provide you with a dream life. It seems as if your abode is in heaven. It is no illusion, indeed super-rich of Saudi Arabia had been living this life, and the majority of them belong to the royal family. This continued for more than five decades until they were hit by a tornado. The name of the tornado is Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, colloquially known as MBS and he is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. He has a vision, guts, and determination to overhaul the socio-economic lifestyle of Saudi Arabia. He has an intimidating presence at home and dared to eradicate corruption and thereby confronting the rich and powerful. He once said, “You have a body that has cancer everywhere, the cancer of corruption. You need to have chemo, the shock of chemo or cancer will eat the body”. He had won plaudits from Western leaders for reforms and at the same time, criticized severely for his clumsy handling of foreign affairs. He has an astounding personality and yet controversy refuses to leave him. None before him from Saudi Arabia had captured the world's attention in such a manner. Controversy or no controversy, he deserves a thorough reading. Let’s discuss good, bad, and ugly incidents associated with him.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy where the royal family known as “The House of Saud”, plays the key role. The members of the family hold the key positions and have a monopoly over political activities in the country. There are no political activities outside the family. The political parties are banned and press freedoms are limited. The king of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy backed by the family’s support and the law of Islam. Many in the royal families harbour an unspoken aspiration to be king one day. Apart from power, the kings make his son virtually untouchables. They receive income and perks, which run into millions of dollars. Often, they were given powerful roles overseeing branches of government or the military. The death of each king marks a huge transition of wealth and power. An allegiance council was supposed to elect a crown prince who would assume the throne upon the king’s death and name a deputy who would be second in line. MBS father Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud became king in 2015. The prince is however called the de-facto ruler.
The famous Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh was the venue for an infamous crackdown operation. It is called crackdown on rampant corruption. The detainees were hundreds of Saudi Royals, billionaires, and senior government officials. The detainees were brought in at night for interrogation and they were confronted with granular details of their financial assets. The detainees were further subjugated to both physical and psychological abuse. The Royal Court officers kept them in isolation and questioned them for hours. They could escape the ordeal only after reaching a confidential settlement. This was to part away with huge chunks of their assets. We can also say that their properties were confiscated. None accepted to discuss the issue in public. Those rounded up were aware of their fait accompli. With this Ritz roundup, MBS crushed his rivals and potential opponents. The detentions also send a strong message to the people. It is to remind them that their well-being depends on the crown prince and nothing else.
One neighbouring country with whom Saudi Arabia has had a frosty relation since the mid of 1990s is Qatar. There has never been a direct confrontation between the two nations. Qatar’s foreign policy has incensed Saudi Arabia. Qatari royals hosted Islamic leaders, who regularly decried royals and questioned their faith. Another point of contention is Qatar’s support for Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Islamist group in Syria. One of the major irritants for Saudi Arabia is the Qatar-based news channel- Al Jazeera, which follows a Western-style investigation to undermine every regional dynasty except their own. No wonder, it is banned in Saudi Arabia. To make matter worse, Qatar shares a good relation with Iran. In 2017, in order to punish Qatar, Saudi Arabia led an Arab transport blockade against Qatar. After three years, the diplomatic ties between the two nations were restored.
Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign in Yemen along with its Arab allies. The objective was to drive out Houthi rebels, who are considered an Iranian proxy. These rebels had seized control of the capital Sanaa and forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee abroad. The Saudi campaign had made little progress over the past 5-6 years. The fighting had resulted in the death of more than one lakh people. The Saudis have been accused of war crimes. Their action has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Saudi Arabia had been on the receiving end too. The rebels blew up key pieces of equipment at a facility that processes much of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil for shipping. The campaign is going nowhere and it has led to a deadlock. It has turned out to be internecine for both parties.
One of the strangest sojourn that a foreign head ever had was in Saudi Arabia and the unfortunate person was Lebanese PM, Saad Hariri. One day on Television, he announced his resignation and publicly blamed Iran. The behind-the-scenes revealed something else. The Saudi authority handed a prewritten resignation speech to him and asked him forcefully to read it. It was a bizarre incident and humiliating too for Lebanese PM. He was just a pawn in Saudi Arabia’s regional battle with Iran. The incident left the world stunned and confused. Whether its pressure tactics or voluntary resignation is subject to debate. Whether it is a fact or conjecture is a subject of debate too. The gap in the story remains and outside Saudi Arabia, no one except PM Saad Hariri is privy to all the details.
One event that severely tarnished Mohammed bin Salman’s image abroad was the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It presented Saudi Arabia in an extremely poor light. The voice of dissentient was suppressed mercilessly. Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia the previous year and used to write columns critical of the crown prince. Prior to his death, he had visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a few times in order to collect some papers that proved that he was divorced. These infrequent visits however alerted intelligence officials in Riyadh who devised a deadly plan to silence their fiercest critic. Inside the consulate, Saudi agents slew him allegedly. His body dismembered and disposed of it. The Saudi government denied its involvement and insisted that it was the result of a rogue operation. The incident also severely dented Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s relations.
This is the story of a prince who rose from obscurity to become the most powerful person in Saudi Arabia. He rose in 2015. He laid down his vision for transformation in 2016. He began to consolidate power in 2017. He ultimately made his global presence in 2018 and in the same year, there was an international setback resulting from blow up after Khashoggi. He regrouped in 2019 and planned to make a comeback in 2020. However, the pandemic did not discriminate and spared no counties around the globe. The Qatar and Yemen campaign was not a fiasco but neither it was successful. It ultimately leads to know where. The incident involving Lebanese PM was clumsy. He threatened to cancel Pakistanis visas if it attends a summit of Islamic nations comprising of Turkey, Qatar, Iran, Malaysia, and Pakistan in Kuala Lumpur. Pakistan ultimately had to bow down to Mohammed’s aggressive approach and cancelled its participation. There was a muted protest against his high-handedness even among friendly nations. All these are examples of a brash new leader who is trying to change the way Saudi Arabia had worked for years. However, these heavy-handed tactics have alienated his staunch allies. It has also resulted in unintended consequences in such a volatile and complicated region. The world could do nothing and they have their stake too. Ritz's crackdown and his consolidation of power enabled Mohammed to hold on even after much-criticized Khashoggi’s murder. He was unstoppable. Saudi’s money was tied up in US infrastructure investments. He had become a vital component of the global economy. He was controlling the price of oil with one hand and doling out billions to major companies, enabling them to compete with others.
Amidst, all these bad and ugly incidents, he is also praised for his visions and reforms. The economy, which is largely dependent on oil, was not flourishing like before. The Saudi budget was also straining under the huge subsidies and host of handouts to the population. Mohammed bin Salman, who had a dalliance in business and market realized that. In order to shift the economy from oil, he unveiled an ambitious plan to bring economic and social changes to the kingdom. It is called “Vision 2030”. In order to reduce dependence on oil, he has identified categories that either need to be invented from scratch or can be scaled up. He has had the financial projections of these categories and the plan includes how quickly this should grow and how much income they could bring in. He felt sure that the era of the oil-based economy was in decline and his reforms would shift the economy to a more sustainable source of income. The plan also includes introducing new taxes and lowering the subsidies. In a society that prohibits public interaction between opposite sexes, smoking, drinking, movie going, dancing, the youth spend their maximum time on YouTube, Netflix, and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. He is also aware of the potential of discontented youth and how they could pose a threat to Al Saud rule, as Arab Spring demonstrated that. To get the youth on his side, Mohammed bin Salman needs to connect with them where they spend their time the most: The internet. He has grasped the significance of social media sites like twitter reveal how the public felt about a policy or a leader. A royal decree was also issued that allowed women to drive. His plan also involved changing the education curriculum, investing in the entertainment sector to create jobs for the young people, opening tourism beyond Mecca and Medina, and increase the participation of women in a male-dominated workforce. In order to modernize the kingdom, he feels that it needs to return to moderate Islam and launch a sweeping anti-corruption drive. He was the man who possesses curiosity, ambition, and work ethics, rare in Royal Court, and displayed them to the foreign leaders to show that he may be the second in line to the throne but he is the only person who matters in the new Saudi Arabia. He wants his country to undergo a similar transformation as the UAE. Is MBS a modernizer or a murderer? Only time will tell. The author deserves a kudos for his dogged research and his ability to navigate through a closed Saudi society. The book provides new insights and is brilliant and compulsively readable. The USP is thoroughness of its reporting.