Saudi’s im­pa­tient, worka­holic prince with a very thin skin

Mo­hammed bin Sal­man cul­ti­vated an im­age as a re­former. But he strug­gles to ac­cept any crit­i­cism

The Observer - - Worlcdhallenge - PRO­FILE Emma Gra­ham-Har­ri­son

Loom­ing over the dis­ap­pear­ance and pre­sumed mur­der of a dis­si­dent Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi is a 33-year-old prince, whose ruth­less pur­suit of power could have been lifted al­most di­rectly from the pages of a Shake­speare play to the head­lines of to­day.

Mo­hammed bin Sal­man is nom­i­nal heir and de facto ruler of the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia, one of the world’s few re­main­ing ab­so­lute monar­chies. These are coun­tries – all are cur­rently run by men – where the king is head of state and govern­ment, con­trol­ling all levers of power. He lives sur­rounded by the trap­pings of lux­u­ri­ous moder­nity, from yachts to art mas­ter­pieces, but wields power in a sys­tem that would have been fa­mil­iar to a me­dieval ruler.

This pre-mod­ern po­lit­i­cal world, where one man has to­tal au­thor­ity over all oth­ers, is the only one Bin Sal­man has ever lived in and known in­ti­mately. “[The crown prince] can­not re­late to the world out­side Saudi. He was raised in a palace, be­ing told you can do ev­ery­thing you want,” said one Saudi, who asked not to be named. “His big­gest is­sue is that he never ac­cepts mis­takes.”

Many of the Saudi elite – princes and the up­per ech­e­lons of so­ci­ety – spend at least a few years abroad, pick­ing up de­grees at pres­ti­gious western uni­ver­si­ties. While there, they are swad­dled by wealth but still ex­posed to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal and so­cial sys­tem.

Bin Sal­man chose in­stead to stay in Saudi Ara­bia, close to his fa­ther who is now King Sal­man, study­ing law at King Saud Univer­sity, then tak­ing a string of jobs at his fa­ther’s side. This al­lowed him to ce­ment their ties and be­come the power be­hind the throne. King Sal­man is well into his 80s and thought to be in the early stages of dementia, ac­cord­ing to Bruce Riedel, se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

The ex­act de­tails are not clear, with the state of his health “a closely guarded se­cret”, but Bin Sal­man has re­port­edly acted as gate­keeper to his fa­ther. He even kept his par­ents apart for sev­eral years as he en­gi­neered his as­cent from the ranks of thou­sands of vir­tu­ally anony­mous royal princes, NBC re­ported.

Aca­dem­i­cally suc­cess­ful, im­pa­tient, and a worka­holic known to spend 18 hours a day in his of­fice, he has a strong be­lief in his in­tel­lect and the judg­ment that car­ried him to power.

But crit­ics say he also strug­gles to recog­nise er­rors, or ac­cept even mild crit­i­cism. “Peo­ple who tried to say no even gen­tly and diplo­mat­i­cally faced con­se­quences,” said one source from Saudi Ara­bia, who asked not to be named. This thin skin was put on in­ter­na­tional dis­play when a sin­gle tweet from Canada, call­ing on the king­dom to re­lease jailed ac­tivists, prompted the king­dom to sever diplo­matic and trade ties. It was par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing given the ef­fort Bin Sal­man had poured into pre­sent­ing him­self as the young face of change, at home and abroad. Nearly two-thirds of Saudis are un­der 30, and he claimed to be their cham­pion.

“Es­pe­cially when he was un­of­fi­cially cam­paign­ing to be the next king, the mes­sage he wanted to get across was ‘I rep­re­sent the younger gen­er­a­tion’,” said one con­sul­tant who worked on Saudi is­sues and asked not to be named.

Bin Sal­man al­lowed women to drive, re­opened cine­mas af­ter decades, and curbed the pow­ers of the much-feared moral­ity po­lice. He also vowed to re­turn the coun­try to “mod­er­ate Is­lam”, re­strain­ing the reach of hard­line cler­ics who pro­mote ex­trem­ism, and to re­ju­ve­nate its econ­omy.

It all pro­vided plenty of ma­te­rial for up­beat me­dia cov­er­age of a “re­former prince” on brief of­fi­cial trips to the US and other western coun­tries. A cas­cade of Saudi wealth, chan­nelled through PR firms and lob­by­ists, helped un­furl the red car­pet. Ear­lier this year he made a tri­umphant two-week progress around the United States, where he was feted by every­one from film stars, in­clud­ing Mor­gan Free­man, to Sil­i­con Val­ley tech bil­lion­aires, to Don­ald Trump at the White House. Pre­vi­ous trips have in­cluded per­sonal tours of the Face­book head­quar­ters with Mark Zucker­berg.

Yet un­der Bin Sal­man’s rule, Saudi Ara­bia has launched a bloody war in Ye­men, presided over the kid­nap­ping of the prime min­is­ter of Le­banon and forced him to re­sign, and im­pris­oned dozens of his own elite in a lux­ury ho­tel as part of a touted crack­down on cor­rup­tion.

Bin Sal­man sig­nalled clearly that his push for change did not ex­tend to pol­i­tics, round­ing up dozens of in­tel­lec­tu­als in sweep­ing crack­downs at home, and lift­ing op­po­nents from the streets of other coun­tries to bring them back to Saudi jails.

Khashoggi, who used his po­si­tion to high­light these con­tra­dic­tions, was among those Bin Sal­man wanted to tar­get, hop­ing to lure him home then de­tain him, ac­cord­ing to US in­tel­li­gence in­ter­cepts re­ported by his em­ployer the Wash­ing­ton Post.

It is not clear if the crown prince con­sid­ered Khashoggi a gen­uine threat, be­cause of his prom­i­nent in­ter­na­tional plat­form and ex­tra­or­di­nary net­work of jour­nal­ist and power-bro­ker friends around the world, or just bri­dled at his crit­i­cism.

But it is clear that the crown prince wanted his voice si­lenced. The ques­tion the world is now ask­ing is, what price might he have paid for that?

‘He can’t re­late to the world out­side. He was raised in a palace, told you can do any­thing you want’

Anony­mous Saudi

Getty

Bin Sal­man this year lifted the ban on women driv­ing in the king­dom.

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