DUBAI: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shaken up the conservative kingdom with groundbreaking reforms, while obliterating all threats to his status since he became de facto ruler of the world’s largest oil producer five years ago.
The hard-charging heir was met with international distaste after Saudi agents killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but US President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom this week appears to be restoring his foothold on the international stage, forcing world leaders with him to go whether they like it or not.
A towering figure with a full-face beard, deep growling voice and seemingly boundless energy, Prince Mohammed is known for his huge ambitions, from building the futuristic mega-city NEOM to waging the seven-year-old war in neighboring Yemen.
The brash 36-year-old, commonly known as “MBS” and reportedly fond of fast food and the “Call of Duty” video games, is also fabulously wealthy, owns a $500 million yacht, a French chateau and, according to official reports, a $450 million painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
Unlike other Saudi princes with their British accents, sharp suits and Oxford degrees, MBS embraces the country’s Bedouin roots, usually dressed in traditional robes and sandals, while treating friends and relatives to sumptuous roast lamb meals in luxurious desert camps.
After charting his path to power from relative obscurity, Prince Mohammed oversaw the greatest transformation in modern history for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil and host of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
Under his rule, the kingdom’s religious police have been dismantled, cinemas have reopened, foreign tourists have been welcomed, and Saudi Arabia has a film festival, operas, Formula 1 Grand Prixheavyweight boxing, professional wrestling and a huge rave festival.
Yet he has also jailed critics and, in a sweeping purge of the country’s elite, detained and threatened some 200 princes and businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh in a 2017 crackdown on corruption that gripped his grip. power strengthened.
His image was most severely tarnished by Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, which led to the crown prince’s conviction, despite Riyadh’s insistence that rogue agents carried out the murder.
“MBS is a hugely divisive character, hailed by supporters as a much-anticipated game-changer in a region that yearns for it and dismissed by enemies as a ruthless dictator in the making,” wrote Ben Hubbard in “MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman”.
“He is determined to give the Saudis a bright, prosperous future and exercises an unwavering willingness to crush his enemies. Combined at various doses, those traits are likely to guide his actions well into the future.”
Prince Mohammed, son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was born on August 31, 1985. He is one of the hundreds of grandchildren of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, and grew up in a palace in Riyadh with his mother, Fahda, one of his father’s four wives and his five brothers.
“As the sixth son of the king’s 25th son, there was little reason to expect him to become famous,” Hubbard wrote. “And for most of his life few people did.”
He received a law degree from King Saud University in Riyadh, but never studied abroad and soon worked as a special adviser to his father, the then governor of Riyadh.
When King Salman took the throne in early 2015, he appointed Prince Mohammed as defense minister. Soon, the young man was also coordinating economic policy, overseeing the state oil company Saudi Aramco and overseeing the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen.
Within a year, he had so many wallets that diplomats called him “Mr. Everything.”
The prince – now father of three boys and two girls, who unlike other Saudi royals has only one wife – reportedly worked 16 hours a day and was inspired by “The Art of War” by Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu.
His rise was rapid, replacing his older cousin Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to become heir apparent in 2017. Three years later, Prince Nayef, along with a brother of King Salman, was reportedly detained.
Prince Mohammed has pledged to forge a “moderate” Saudi Arabia and is advocating for international investors for his broad Vision 2030 plan to diversify the oil-dependent economy.
“We want to live a normal life,” he once told business leaders in Riyadh. “All we’re doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam open to all religions and open to the world.
“Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30 and frankly, we will not be preoccupied with extremist ideas for the next 30 years of our lives. We will destroy them today.”
As he rose to fame, he toured the United States and charmed leaders in the White House and on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
New York Times writer Thomas Friedman told how in an interview that lasted late into the night, the prince “exhausted me with a fire hose full of new ideas to transform his country.”
Perhaps his most hyper-ambitious initiative is the $500 billion NEOM project on the coast of the Red Sea, which is powered by solar energy and manned by robots, which the prince describes as a “civilization leap for humanity.” .
Reflecting the hopes of the country’s youthful population, Prince Mohammed has relaxed restrictions on women’s rights, allowing them to drive, attend sporting events and concerts with men, and obtain passports without the approval of a male guardian.
However, along with the reforms came a crackdown on dissidents, including intellectuals and women’s rights activists, as part of an apparent strategy to stamp out any trace of opposition before a formal transfer of power from King Salman.
Internationally, he has pursued a more assertive foreign policy, plunging the kingdom into a quagmire of regional rivalry: the war in yemenhostility to the Shia power Iran, a three-year blockade of Qatar until 2021, and the reported detention of the Lebanese prime minister for several tense days.
Prince Mohammed, who once publicly berated US President Barack Obama for his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s rights, forged a strong bond with Donald Trump and especially his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who served him well during the fallout of his death. from Khashoggi.
The prince was initially re-examined by Biden, who released an intelligence report saying that MBS had “approved an operation” to capture or kill Khashoggi.
Biden took no action against the crown prince, however, and this week the pair will meet on Saudi soil, despite a previous pledge to make the country a “pariah”.
This shift is perhaps an admission that Prince Mohammed, still in his thirties, could rule Saudi Arabia for half a century or more.