Amid his father’s continuing health battles and the economic and political shakeups he has presided over, Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck believe understanding the man known as MBS is more important than ever.
In Blood and Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, Hope and Scheck explore the rise of the aggressive and outspoken crown prince, his foreign and domestic policies, and his impact both as the next in line to the Saudi throne – and the effective “CEO” of the oil-rich nation’s vast oil wealth and investment portfolio.
Hope sat down with Al Jazeera Digital’s Managing Business Editor, Patricia Sabga, to discuss what he sees as MBS’s biggest missteps, the impact of Khashoggi’s murder on MBS’s international standing, and how the US election could affect US-Saudi relations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Patricia Sabga: The Saudi royal family is something of a black box. It’s largely impenetrable to outsiders, including people who have spent decades visiting and studying in Saudi Arabia. How do you go about carving a window into that black box?
Bradley Hope: It’s always easier to understand what’s going on – whether it’s a business feud, a political feud or a royal family feud – when there’s an actual feud. If there’s people that are really aggrieved on one side and people alienated – people who are in the circle and then out of the circle – those are a lot of opportunities that you have.
But the other thing that we mentioned in the author’s note is that a lot of people have this kind of conception about foreign correspondents – I’m not saying this is a rule, but that you need to be based in Cairo, based in Riyadh on the ground hearing what the shopkeepers are saying. But when it comes to the Gulf countries, the best place to be is London, and then the second-best place is probably New York or Paris, because those are the places where you can meet people who come out of those countries, whether they’re consultants or actual members from those countries, and really speak to them in a more free environment.
I would never attempt to kind of go to Saudi Arabia or the UAE, for that matter, and do a kind of unauthorised interview, because I know just how extensive the surveillance state is. And not just that, just culturally and in terms of attitude, people don’t want to talk much about sensitive things on the ground.
PS: In your foreword, you urge the readers to bear in mind that he’s not just the leader of the kingdom, but the “CEO” of al Saud Inc. Explain the distinction there and why you felt it was so key to readers understanding MBS and the kingdom.
BH: Take Aramco [Saudi Arabia’s state oil giant] for example. Historically, Aramco was almost its own domain. They left somebody in charge of it, it was never a royal that was the kind of the chairman of the board, so to speak, it was really kept separate. And the idea was this is such a crucial institution, we don’t want anybody interfering with it. Then one of the first things MBS did was take over Aramco himself, put himself in charge, and really take control of all the arms of the economic machinery of the state and start having them all go in the same direction that he envisioned. So that’s one thing.
He quickly became deeply entwined with the fabric of the global financial system. He’s the cornerstone investor in the $100bn Vision Fund. He is the cornerstone investor in this big infrastructure fund that Blackstone set up that’s largely doing infrastructure work in America. And he developed all these relationships with everybody from the CEO of Six Flags to the CEO of Boston Dynamics that makes those crazy robotic-looking dogs.
I think that’s really important because when it came to the blowback after the murder of a Jamal Khashoggi, it was harder to disentangle him than it could have been for a different kind of prince. A different kind of prince could have been sort of jettisoned.
PS: He’s made so many missteps since his father became king. You’ve got the war in Yemen, which has become Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam. You’ve got the blockade against Qatar, which has failed to bring Doha to its knees. And then you’ve got the shakedown of wealthy Saudis at the Ritz. The most notorious misstep, of course, was the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And then this year, there was the oil price war, Of all these missteps, which one has been the most profoundly damaging not to MBS himself, but to Saudi Arabia and the people of Saudi Arabia?
BH: I think I would have to say the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, even though it is a reflection on MBS himself, many Saudis, if you speak to them, no matter how high-ranking they are – even in the government – they’ll all say to you, this was wrong. This is not how Saudi does things. This is a shame on all of us. And those same people don’t blame MBS for it, but they all feel the same kind of guilt about it for being Saudis. And I think the world has sort of now viewed Saudi Arabia through that lens.
PS: It earned him the nickname Mr Bonesaw, which dovetails with his initials MBS. But I find it really fascinating that people from the kingdom are so ashamed of this episode, and yet they still don’t blame Mohammed bin Salman for this.
BH: MBS has himself said publicly that he takes responsibility for it. I think most people don’t understand what that means, but what that means is that essentially, he’s admitting – without saying it so specifically – that I told my black-ops team to take care of the Jamal Khashoggi situation. That’s the sort of subtext that’s not kind of communicated. He told them, take care of this problem. What we’ll never know, probably – and even the CIA doesn’t seem to know the answer – what was the exact order? Was it: Please kill Jamal Khashoggi, that guy is a traitor? Or did he say: Take care of this guy – and then the team sort of went above and beyond? I think that we’ll just truly never know the answer to that, because whenever that was spoken, it may not have been spoken on a phone line or in a room with more than one person. So on one hand, I think Saudi people – especially the youth who feel so empowered by him and who feel like they give him the mandate – he has made a difference in their lives. They don’t want to turn back the clock. They have a lot riding on him, and that’s part of it.
PS: This is a country with a massive youth population, and Vision 2030, which is MBS’s blueprint for weaning the kingdom off of fossil fuels, [involves] reinvesting that money into sustainable industries of the future to create jobs for all those youthful workers. If you had to give a report card to Vision 2030, how would you say it’s going?
BH: I would say it’s probably not going well in terms of achieving this idea of a complete – or even really taking large steps away from oil towards a diverse economy. But there’s other ways to look at it.
For example, if you think this is a country where subsidies are just way overboard, people were just having excessive amounts of electricity, water – it was a huge wasteful situation in the economy, some of those things have been dealt with. Subsidies have been drawn back. There’s kind of the introduction of the first sense of taxes. Some of the out-of-control benefits have been cut back. The royal family itself has been cut down to size by MBS, and those guys were responsible for a lot of wastage.
PS: Vision 2030 wasn’t just about modernising the kingdom, it’s really about keeping the al-Sauds in power. They have to transform their economy, and this is a blueprint that really requires, number one, foreign direct investment [FDI] – foreigners actually pouring their money into the kingdom to help it transform, as well as wealthy Saudis also banking on their own country’s future. And by both measures, it’s falling very, very short.
BH: Well, that’s true, and that’s always a problem for any of the Gulf states. I’ve always seen it. The experienced people become very cynical, because all the big high-flying CEOs and bankers, they love to come for a visit – a flying visit – on their private jet. But then everyone gets the distinct impression that if they’re being offered a deal, it’s like the thirdhand deal – it didn’t work out for the other people, so they came to bring it to the Gulf. And the same thing goes for the investment: They may kind of make sounds or commit something, but ultimately, it’s not very real.
The one thing Saudi Arabia has going for it, though, is it has a larger population than some of these other countries, and that means it has a kind of domestic consumption possibility. So they’re in there building movie theatres right now and there is some investment from the company that’s building those, but nothing is happening on the FDI front that’s headline-grabbing.
I think all of these missteps created an environment of uncertainty, and even if you were considering investing in Saudi Arabia, you may have definitely pulled the plug or just decided to wait a few years because you don’t know, is this place even a secure country? Is Mohammad bin Salman going to be the crown prince still? Is he going to stick around, or is somebody new going to come in with a new vision?
PS: Let’s take a look also at the other side of the equation, wealthy Saudis investing their money in the kingdom. How is it going on that measure?
BH: I think it’s not going particularly well. A lot of those guys felt pressured to buy into the Aramco IPO to make it reach the right levels. A lot of what happens in Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, is still about the image. Justin [Scheck] and I wrote a big story about how the sovereign wealth fund props up the stock market whenever there’s bad news. So after the Jamal Khashoggi murder and other bad news moments, the sovereign wealth fund goes in and buys the biggest stock, which was, I think at the time, SABIC, the Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation, and it lifts the whole index to make it look either flat or slightly up. It’s a huge waste of money, it doesn’t actually help anyone, it just looks good.
PS: It’s interesting that you mention the Aramco IPO and the shenanigans by the sovereign wealth fund pouring money into the Saudi stock market to boost it during times of stress. So what does this say if everybody knows the system is being gamed? What does that say about not only confidence in the kingdom, but confidence in MBS?
BH: The people who are more charitable think Saudi Arabia was locked in an almost time warp where things weren’t progressing, everything was moving so slowly, the social fabric was antiquated, to say the least. And now, here comes this young prince who is shaking everything up, and he’s going full guns blazing on every direction. Some of it’s working, some of it’s not working at all, and some of it’s blowing back on him in a big way, but they feel glad that somebody is willing to shake things up. That would be the more charitable side.
The less charitable side is that he’s uncontrollable to some extent – that would be the criticism. That’s why the economy can’t develop, because there’s not a sureness or a basis in the rule of law, for example. That’s really the problem with the Ritz crackdown. It did send an image or a message to Saudis and to people in the government and in the royal family about how things are going to be different. But it doesn’t give business people any kind of security going forward.
PS: I also have to ask you about the blockade of Qatar. Full disclosure, Al Jazeera is majority-funded by the government of Qatar. This blockade was intended to really just bring Doha to its knees and bend it to Riyadh’s will and effectively make Qatar, if you will, a vassal state of Saudi Arabia. And it’s failed. So far, to date, it has absolutely failed.
BH: I think it’s definitely failed to convince Qatar to change its foreign policy, and it hasn’t been good economically. Probably it’s not that important economically, but I think it just comes down to this idea that the early years of MBS, he was willing to take just such dramatic actions – and we look back now and just think how over the top it all is. And very few of those big bets have paid off. The only ones that have, have been things like, for example, believing that Saudi Arabia could handle women driving. A lot of princes and kings before thought Saudi Arabia couldn’t handle it, and he kind of called that bluff and found that actually, Saudi society was very ready for that kind of change. But some of these other big, foreign gambits just did not pay off.
PS: The Trump White House enjoys what some would describe as a very friendly relationship with the Saudis and with MBS. How would you describe it?
BH: Well, I think one of the points of our book is that MBS sort of played Trump better than Trump sort of played MBS. At that time when Trump was first elected, MBS was still trying to secure his power. He still had one cousin who was in front of him in the line of succession, and he hadn’t even convinced, perhaps, some of the other influential people in Saudi Arabia that he was the effective man for the job. And he was only a few years into this, he couldn’t have had absolute confidence that he could pull it all off.
So he really dedicated himself to convincing the Trump administration to come over to Saudi Arabia for their first foreign trip, and they really listened and paid attention. He put all of his team on it.
They lavished him with gifts and white tiger fur and all these different things, and of course, he ate it all up. And later on, when push came to shove, the Trump administration was loath to ever push back on the Saudi side. So I think MBS got a lot more out of the equation than Trump did.
PS: Do you think that Trump’s very cosy relationship, if you will, towards Saudi Arabia plays for or against his bid for re-election with voters?
BH: Well, it seems like this whole normalisation of the Gulf states [the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain], two of them so far with Israel, is actually a big plus for him. There’s a lot of conservative voters who care about that issue and who are very pro-Israel. I think that’s got to be a positive, probably, more than a negative. They’re not going to convince the left-leaning people who already have certain preferences in that dispute, but he may persuade some of those people in the middle who are kind of on the fence. People who are thinking, you know what, I don’t really like this aspect of the Trump presidency, but then this could be an issue that tips them back into his camp. So I think it probably is a net positive for him and it’s probably a net positive for the Gulf states who are cooperating in the future. Because if another president came in – like Biden – it doesn’t mean that they can be jettisoned tomorrow. Because now they’ve become a crucial part of the Middle East strategy.
PS: So in that sense, do you think that Biden would do anything differently vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia?
BH: I think there’ll be a lot of sounds. There might be some investigations, but I think at the end of the day, Mohammed bin Salman has become so centrally powerful and he’s likely to become the king for decades, that the people [Biden] brings in to intelligence, defence, foreign affairs, they’re going to say to him: This is not a situation where we can actually change the outcome. There is not somebody waiting in the wings to take over. And even if there was someone that they thought could take over, the idea of them taking over is a very bloody, scary situation. Nobody wants to encourage any regime change in Saudi Arabia. So ultimately, they’re just going to have to be realistic. They’ll try to put some pressure on issues that they prefer, but I really can’t see them doing much differently.