The Sunday Magazine

Unlocking the mysteries of MBS, the presumptive king of Saudi Arabia

The House of Saud has committed countless violations of human rights, it is politically corrupt, and its war on Yemen is one of the world's biggest humanitarian disasters, but it has suffered few consequences on the world stage. Ben Hubbard, The New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, is the author of MBS, a biography of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the presumptive king of Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed bin Salman, a study in contrasts

U.S. President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Howls of outrage resounded around the world when news broke about the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The Saudi Arabian journalist and critic of the Saudi government was renowned for his courage and for the political persecution he endured, all because of what he wrote about the Saudi royal family's regime. Khashoggi had been living in self-imposed exile because the government not only muzzled him, it had threatened him.

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up the documents he needed to get married. His fiancée waited for hours for him to emerge. But he never walked out. He was murdered. His body was cut up with a bone saw and then carried out in pieces for disposal. Many world leaders, including our own prime minister, thought that while the House of Saud had gotten away with countless violations of human rights, political corruption and the war on Yemen, it would not get away with this. They were wrong.

Ben Hubbard is Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times and the author of MBS, a new biography of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. (Tasneem Alsultan)

Despite evidence that the assassination had the official or unofficial blessing of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, he absolved himself of responsibility, and trade and diplomatic relations with the Saudis continued as usual.

"MBS is known to be a bit of a micromanager," said New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard. "And so I think the idea that an operation this risky or this complicated could have gone ahead without him having some idea about it, I think most people find hard to believe."

Hubbard is an Arabic speaker who has been covering the Middle East for more than a decade. He is Beirut bureau chief for the Times and the author of MBS, a new biography of Mohammed bin Salman, the 34 year old who is in line to become the next king of Saudi Arabia, when his father King Salman dies. 

There aren't all that many cases where, you know, standing up for human rights is going to take precedence over economic issues- Ben Hubbard

MBS was considered an unlikely successor to the throne: he was sixth in line for the crown; he had a lacklustre resumé; he had never studied abroad; he had never run a company; and he had never served in the military. What he did have was a strong work ethic and a firm grasp on the pulse of a youthful nation.

"So for somebody who's going to come in and — within a very short time after his father becomes king — be put in charge of oil policy, be put in charge of economic policy, become the minister of defence, launch the kingdom into a military intervention in Yemen. I mean, these are huge momentous decisions that involve exercising a tremendous amount of power," said Hubbard. "And there's really nothing in his resumé that points to him being qualified to make these kinds of decisions."

Hubbard's book describes MBS's rise to power. It tells the story of his administration of rough justice against some of the most powerful and wealthiest people in Saudi Arabia — including members of his own family — in what he portrayed as a crackdown on corruption. It describes the reforms MBS has introduced, including more freedom for women and the relaxation of strict religious laws. The book also delves into the war MBS launched on Yemen, seen as one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. It has been conducted with the cooperation of countries that continue to sell military arms to the Saudis, including the U.S. and Canada.

Hubbard is not surprised by this.

"There aren't all that many cases where, you know, standing up for human rights is going to take precedence over economic issues," he said. "At the end of the day, selling weapons is good for the domestic economy."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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