After his much publicised trip to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman will visit New Delhi for a bilateral visit late Tuesday.
Salman’s visit comes amid much noise over what Indian diplomacy can achieve with him to isolate Pakistan internationally in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. India may not be able to do much here, but there’s good reason for the noise.
If there is one name that has dominated Middle Eastern affairs since 2015, it is Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS.
In a 2017 column, influential American columnist for The New York Times and oft regarded as the “Saudi Whisperer” in America, Thomas Friedman, hailed MBS.
“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,” wrote Friedman.
However, over the past few months MBS’s image has taken a massive beating after he was believed to have ordered the killing of Saudi dissident, journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Nowhere was this change in perception as evident as in Friendman’s writings. Changing his stand, Friedman wrote a few months ago, “It was obvious, though, I added, that in recent months M.B.S. had undertaken a series of ill-considered steps that were hurting him, Saudi Arabia and us.”
As India prepares for the Crown Prince’s visit, ThePrint looks at 5 things that help us decode the intrigue behind Saudi’s MBS.
#1: Special childhood
MBS was unusually popular among his friends at school. Often after school, he used to host friends deep in desert, where they lit bonfires under the stars. Fascinatingly, during these excursions, his friends used to sing songs in praise of MBS.
It has been reported that from a very early age, MBS saw himself as a special one. Unlike others in the royal family, he was comfortable with Western ways, and his favourite pastime was playing the video game, ‘Call of Duty’.
A couple of more teenage stories help shed light on the man. During his teenage years, he started a fund, whereby he went to various influential Saudi folks to raise money. Notwithstanding the fact that he was Salman’s son and no one would deny him money, he raised close to $30 million.
In another incident, when an official denied to hand him a property he liked, he is said to have sent him a bullet in an envelope. This gained him the street name of “Abu Rassa” (father of the bullet).
#2: Rise of MBS
In 2015, after Salman became the King, MBS was appointed as the deputy crown prince and the defense minister of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, he headed the vital economic planning council, and the world’s most important oil company, Saudi Aramco.
Just a few months into his tenure, he launched a war on Yemen and put together the Vision 2030 programme – his ambitious plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil.
#3: Consolidating power and rise to Crown Prince
For decades the Al Saud family has practised a consensus based system of ruling over their country. And this involves accommodating different members of family, by giving them some influential positions. MBS completely disrupted this norm.
Starting in 2015, he was responsible for removing former King Abdullah’s children, Turki and Mishaal, from their post of governors’ of Riyadh and Mecca, respectively.
MBS completely co-opted the intelligence services, and used it to purge his factional enemies. Furthermore, he reduced the personal staff of Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was then the interior minister.
Cutting down his power substantially, he eventually replaced bin Nayef as the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
#4: Reckless decisions as Crown Prince
By now it was obvious that MBS will be the future king, but moreover, he was already the de facto ruler of the state.
He initially helped launch a series of social reforms, such as allowing women to drive and work, but eventually went medieval in exercising his power.
Over the past year, MBS detained the Lebanese prime minister and coerced him to resign. Along with UAE and Bahrain, put a blockade on Qatar and cut all diplomatic ties. Over a mere critical tweet, he severed all diplomatic ties with Canada.
On the domestic front, he was responsible for using Saudi’s security services for abducting several important critics from foreign airports. He also held several prominent bureaucrats and businessmen at a Ritz Carlton, and only let them go after they paid millions to the state coffers.
#5: The men behind MBS
Although MBS has surrounded himself with a large coterie that helps him sustain his power, two men deserve to be mentioned.
UAE is seen to be Saudi’s junior partner, but Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, is said to be the foremost backer and supporter of MBS.
On the domestic front, Saud al-Qahtani, a former Air Force member, used to manage MBS’ special cell within the Royal Court. He is credited to have helped MBS consolidate power.
It is also reported that Qahtani was responsible for planning Khashoggi’s alleged murder. Initially he became the fall guy and was publicly fired. Though recent reports suggest that nothing has changed, and he continues as an informal advisor to the crown price.
A Saudi Prince’s Quest to Remake the Middle East, The New Yorker
The Khashoggi killing had roots in a cutthroat Saudi family feud, The Washington Post
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.