Adonis Diaries

Archive for August 8th, 2020

The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)?

This young “prince“ never earned a dime, never ran a company,  never acquired military experience, never studied at a foreign university, never mastered a foreign language. He never spent significant time oversea… and he is running this Wahhabi Saudi Kingdom

And how Saudi Kingdom has gone bankrupt?

By March 9, 2020

A review of “The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman”. By Ben Hubbard

On the final page of his book “MBS,” the detailed and disturbing portrait of Saudi Kingdom crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ben Hubbard admits that, given what he learned in the course of his reporting on the kingdom’s de facto ruler and the ways his ruthless minions have pursued their boss’s perceived enemies, he “did wonder, while walking home late at night or drifting off to sleep, whether they might come after me as well.”

Anyone who reads Hubbard’s clear and convincing narrative will find the concern all too plausible.

And where could you turn if the prince did lash out?

Certainly not to an American administration that believed M.B.S. ordered the 2018 murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi but gave the prince a pass.

It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did, maybe he didn’t!” said President Trump, who always equivocates about inconvenient facts.

Trump went on “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country.” Not the least of those interests: more than a hundred billion dollars’ worth of arms deals.

Hubbard, The New York Times Beirut bureau chief, puts the story of Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent in a context that extends well beyond the region.

“MBS rise rode the waves of global trends. As more of the world’s wealth was concentrated in fewer hands, populist authoritarians used nationalist rhetoric to rally their people while shutting down outlets for opposition.” In such a world, the prince fit right in.

“M.B.S. saw no need for checks on his power and crushed all threats to it. … He would stop at nothing to make Saudi Arabia great again, on his terms.”

While there are no big news revelations in “MBS,” the book’s strength is the thoroughness of its reporting.

Hubbard interviewed contacts inside the kingdom until the Saudis stopped giving him visas in 2018.

Many of those he talked to chose to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation. Those he cites by name are very brave, or else as arrogant and unrepentant as M.B.S. himself.

Hubbard acknowledges that much of what M.B.S. has done for his country and its people, especially its young people, has been as admirable as it is overdue, but in this age of incipient tyrants he also understands that authoritarian rulers can be tremendously popular even when they are terribly feare

“Will M.B.S. mature into a wiser monarch, or will unpleasant surprises continue to punctuate his reign?” Hubbard asks.

The record to date is hardly auspicious. Khashoggi’s murder is only the most famous of those surprises. There is also the alleged hacking by M.B.S. of a cellphone belonging to Jeff Bezos, the C.E.O. of Amazon (and the owner of The Washington Post), who had shared his private number with the prince.

More recently, to consolidate his hold on power, M.B.S. arrested an uncle, two cousins and a former crown prince. There is every reason to believe that M.B.S., who is just 34, will be around for decades to come — a frightening prospect.

Reading Hubbard’s book, one is constantly reminded how young M.B.S. really is. He was born in 1985 and was not quite 5 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

He was barely 16 when his renegade compatriot Osama bin Laden attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

ImagePresident Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the 2019 G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

M.B.S. did not grow up nurturing expectations that he would one day rule.

He was the eldest son of the third wife of the 25th son of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founding king of the nation that bears the family name.

As such, M.B.S. was very low in a line of succession that had, since the death of Abdulaziz in 1953, passed the crown from one brother or half brother to another without any clear picture of when or how it would move to the next generation.

But by the second decade of this century, the gerontocracy was no longer sustainable.

The brothers in line for the throne were dying off before they could sit on it, finally opening the way for one of the last of them, Salman bin Abdulaziz, the father of M.B.S., to take power in January 2015.

Salman was 79 and, by many accounts, would soon show hints of dementia. (The Saudi royal court has denied that King Salman suffers from mental impairment.)

M.B.S. had several older half brothers, including one who had flown as an astronaut on the American space shuttle, but by the time his father ascended the throne, the brash 29-year-old M.B.S. was well established as the favorite.

While the others were educated abroad and lived much of their lives outside the kingdom, M.B.S. had stayed close to home and to Salman, the governor of Riyadh.

He “never ran a company that made a mark,” Hubbard writes. “He never acquired military experience. He never studied at a foreign university. He never mastered, or even became functional in, a foreign language. He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe or elsewhere in the West.”

Yet suddenly there he was, the rising star in the royal palace.

M.B.S. immediately acquired important portfolios as minister of defense and became the gatekeeper for the king as head of the royal court.

He would later brag that in the first 10 days of his father’s rule, “the entire government was restructured.”

The pace of disruption was extraordinary and very quickly became dangerous.

In March 2015, barely two months after he took over the Defense Ministry, M.B.S. ordered the until then mostly decorative Saudi Air Force to start bombing Yemen, which was in the midst of a civil war.

The operation was supposed to last weeks and intimidate Iran, which has supported one of the warring factions.

But the fighting continues to this day, accumulating a grim record of civilian casualties, many of them killed by bombs supplied by the United States to the Saudis. Disease has added to the misery of what has become, according to the United Nations, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Although an older, much more experienced cousin of M.B.S. had been made crown prince and heir apparent, palace insiders could see early on that the cousin would not be around for long.

The bond between M.B.S. and his father the king was too close. “Between the onion and the skin there is only the stink,” was an often repeated saying around Riyadh. And by the summer of 2017, M.B.S. had forced his rival out.

The prince’s reflexive resentment of anyone who questioned him soon became as obvious as his ambition. According to Hubbard, he even locked his mother and two of her sisters away in a palace, apparently to keep them quiet.

In a still more sinister vein, in January 2016, Saudi Arabia announced it had executed 47 men deemed enemies of the state. Many were affiliated with Al Qaeda, but others were activists from the country’s Shiite minority and suspected of having ties to Iran.

The human rights criticism that ensued from the Obama administration did not sit well with the Saudis, especially after Washington’s nuclear deal with Tehran left them feeling unsure about their longstanding American security guarantees.

At a tense meeting between the king and Barack Obama in Saudi Arabia in 2016, M.B.S. intervened to tell the president that he didn’t understand the Saudi justice system and offered to have it explained to him.

“The image that stuck with the Americans,” Hubbard writes, “was that of a 30-year-old prince rising to his feet to lecture the president of the United States. They had never seen anything like it.”

Two months later, M.B.S. went on an extended tour of the United States, meeting many of the richest, most powerful people in the country.

He was touting his grand economic plan, called Vision 2030, and was unapologetic about the virtues of authoritarianism. “There is an advantage to quickness of decision-making, the kind of fast change that an absolute monarch can do in one step that would take a traditional democracy 10 steps,” he said at a meeting in Silicon Valley.

Ominous as that sounded to some, he was also using his power to break through barriers that many young Saudis found suffocating. The religious police had long enforced strict rules on the general population, especially on women, who were required to keep their bodies nearly entirely covered in public.

There was no public mixing of the sexes. There were no movies. Life in a country where the government’s legitimacy rested largely on its custodianship of the holiest mosques in Islam was, when not brutal, brutally boring, and successive rulers had been unwilling or unable to challenge these enforcers of Wahhabi morality. Saudi kings could provide their people with bread, but no circuses.

Then, in April 2016, the religious police suddenly were stripped of their powers. “With a single royal decree,” Hubbard writes, “M.B.S. had defanged the clerics, clearing the way for vast changes they most certainly would have opposed.”

M.B.S. eventually allowed women in the kingdom to drive cars, ending a prohibition that activists had campaigned against since he was a preschooler. But he also threw in jail and tortured some of the women who had fought so long and hard for that right. The message was that good things came from the palace, and only from the palace.

Meanwhile, “circuses” for the masses have begun big time, from operas to professional wrestling, monster trucks and movie theaters, even the Cirque du Soleil.

When Donald Trump, another kind of showman, was elected president of the United States in 2016, M.B.S. was ready to forge a whole new relationship with the White House.

“Early on,” Hubbard writes, “the Saudis identified the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy as transactional, run by deal makers looking out for the bottom line, not by diplomats focused on long-term interests or even, at times, values. Trump’s game was one the Saudis knew how to play.”

Through intermediaries, M.B.S. courted Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, a contemporary of the young prince who had been given the difficult Middle East portfolio.

Kushner knew virtually nothing about the region apart from what he had learned over the years from the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close family friend.

M.B.S. offered to explain things. His money and connections and his vision could solve every problem, it seemed, and he was quick to say that Israel was not his enemy — Iran was. Plus, there was money, money, money on the table.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2018.
Credit…Amr Nabil/Associated Press

In the spring of 2017, when M.B.S. became the official heir apparent to the Saudi throne, his operations to consolidate personal power went into high gear.

He broke relations with the neighboring emirate of Qatar, claiming it supported terrorists and was too cozy with Iran, and demanded that it shut down the contentious Al Jazeera television network.

Trump initially backed the play until he was told more than 10,000 U.S. troops use Qatar as a vital regional base. Al Jazeera is still on the air.

Then, in another stunning operation, M.B.S. imprisoned hundreds of the kingdom’s richest and most influential men in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, forcing them to sign over to the government — his government — tens of billions of dollars’ worth of assets he claimed were ill-gotten gains.

Some people noted that M.B.S. had bought an enormous yacht for $456 million and what was called the “world’s most expensive home,” a French chateau (actually more of a modern mega-McMansion), for $300 million, but criticism was muted.

Real fear had begun to settle on Saudi society. Despite the opulent surroundings of their “prison,” many of those held at the Ritz-Carlton suffered real abuse, according to Hubbard.

At about the same time, the crown prince invited Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, to Riyadh, where he was put under arrest and forced to announce his resignation.

Under duress Hariri appeared on television denouncing the role Iran and its client militia Hezbollah played in his country, which was a good way to start a new civil war there. Hubbard writes that is exactly what M.B.S. wanted: “Gradually, the details of the Saudi plot came out. They were crazier than anyone expected.”

The Saudis apparently believed troops from Hezbollah were fighting against them and their clients in Yemen, and if there was civil war in Lebanon, they’d have to return home. In the end, virtually nobody accepted that Hariri had resigned in good faith, but it took an intervention by the French president Emmanuel Macron to extract him from Riyadh.

Woven through Hubbard’s recounting of these events is the story of Khashoggi, his exile from Saudi Arabia, and his gruesome murder. It’s a narrative whose tragic end many readers will know in advance. But Hubbard does a brilliant job helping us understand Khashoggi the man as well as the operation that killed him.

The death squad was allegedly organized by Saud al-Qahtani, a former hacker and a top aide to M.B.S. who had built much of his power by monitoring and manipulating social media.

According to a C.I.A. assessment quoted by Hubbard, early in M.B.S.’s reign he had ordered al-Qahtani and an organization that became known as the Rapid Intervention Group “to target his opponents domestically and abroad, sometimes violently.”

On Oct. 2, 2018, a 15-member team caught up with Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate when he went there to pick up a document necessary to register his marriage. He never came out.

Turkish intelligence eventually allowed the C.I.A. and investigators from the United Nations to listen to tapes of the murder and dismemberment. The movements of the Saudi hit team were caught on surveillance cameras as well. The group had included a forensic pathologist expert in dissection who had brought along a bone saw, and a portly body double who left the consulate wearing Khashoggi’s clothes to give the impression he’d made a safe exit. By then the corpse was in pieces.

Was there a smoking gun to implicate M.B.S.? After a detailed intelligence briefing, Senator Lindsey Graham said there was “a smoking saw.”

But as Trump announced, the United States would remain “a steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia, and there is every reason to believe the incarnation of that partnership for decades to come will be Mohammed bin Salman.

Christopher Dickey, a former Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post and Newsweek, is the world news editor of The Daily Beast.

The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman
By Ben Hubbard
Illustrated. 359 pp. Tim Duggan Books. $28.

Not her first, her last, or her only 

She loves you now, what else matters?

Bob Marley

You may not be her first, her last, or her only.

She loved before she may love again.

But if she loves you now, what else matters?


She’s not perfect—

You aren’t either, and the two of you may never be perfect together

But if she can make you laugh, and cause you to think twice,

And admit to being human and making mistakes,

Hold onto her and give her the most you can.


She may not be thinking about you every second of the day,

But she will give you a part of her that she knows you can break—her heart.

So don’t hurt her, don’t change her,

Don’t analyze and don’t expect more than she can give.


Smile when she makes you happy,

Let her know when she makes you mad,

And miss her when she’s not there.
 Bob Marley




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