Saudi crown prince’s care­fully man­aged rise hides dark side

Bay of Plenty Times - - WORLD - Time Mag­a­zine Wash­ing­ton Post The

In a king­dom once ruled by an ever-ag­ing ro­ta­tion of el­derly monar­chs, Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man stands out as the youth­ful face of a youth­ful na­tion. But be­hind the care­fully cal­i­brated pub­lic re­la­tions cam­paign push­ing im­ages of the smil­ing prince meet­ing with the world’s top lead­ers and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives lurks a darker side.

Last year, at age 31, Mo­hammed be­came the king­dom’s crown prince, next in line to the throne now held by his oc­to­ge­nar­ian fa­ther, King Sal­man. While push­ing for women to drive, he has over­seen the ar­rest of women’s rights ac­tivists. While call­ing for for­eign in­vest­ment, he has im­pris­oned busi­ness­men, roy­als and oth­ers in a crack­down on cor­rup­tion that soon re­sem­bled a shake­down of the king­dom’s most pow­er­ful peo­ple.

As Saudi de­fence min­is­ter from the age of 29, he pur­sued a war in Ye­men against Shi­ite rebels that be­gan a month after he took the helm and wears on to­day.

What the crown prince chooses next likely will af­fect the world’s largest oil pro­ducer for decades to come. And as the dis­ap­pear­ance and feared death of Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi in Is­tan­bul may show, the young prince will brook no dis­sent in re­shap­ing the king­dom in his im­age.

“I don’t want to waste my time,” he told in a cover story this year. “I am young.”

Khashoggi, a US res­i­dent who wrote sev­eral col­umns for

crit­i­cal of Prince Mo­hammed, dis­ap­peared Oc­to­ber 2 on a visit to the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul. Turk­ish of­fi­cials have of­fered no ev­i­dence, but say they fear the writer was killed and dis­mem­bered by a Saudi team of 15 men — an op­er­a­tion that, if car­ried out, would have to have been au­tho­rised by the top of the Al Saud monar­chy. The king­dom de­scribes the al­le­ga­tion as “base­less”, but has pro­vided no proof that Khashoggi ever left the con­sulate.

For decades in Saudi Ara­bia, suc­ces­sion passed down among the dozens of sons of the king­dom’s founder, King Ab­dul-Aziz. And, over time, the sons have grown older and older upon reach­ing the throne.

When King Sal­man took power in Jan­uary of 2015 and quickly ap­pointed Prince Mo­hammed as de­fence min­is­ter, it took the king­dom by sur­prise, es­pe­cially given the im­por­tance of the po­si­tion and the prince’s age. He was lit­tle-known among the many grand­chil­dren of Saudi Ara­bia’s pa­tri­arch.

As de­fence min­is­ter, he en­tered of­fice fac­ing a cri­sis in Ye­men, which lies south of the king­dom. Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis had over­run the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, Sanaa. Claim­ing that the Houthis were backed by Iran, Saudi Ara­bia launched a coali­tion war against them. The coali­tion has faced widespread crit­i­cism for its airstrikes hit­ting clin­ics and mar­ket­places, which have killed civil­ians. For Prince Mo­hammed, the con­flict re­mains part of what he sees as an ex­is­ten­tial strug­gle be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran for the fu­ture of the Mid­dle East. “We won’t wait for the bat­tle to be in Saudi Ara­bia,” the prince told the Saudi-owned broad­cast­ing com­pany MBC last year. “In­stead, we will work so that the bat­tle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Ara­bia.” His ag­gres­sive pos­ture against Iran has won the sup­port of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion, which pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal struck by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, whom the king­dom deeply dis­trusted. Be­fore be­com­ing crown prince, Prince Mo­hammed vis­ited the White House and forged a close re­la­tion­ship with Trump son-in-law Jared Kush­ner. Trump made Riyadh his first stop over­seas as pres­i­dent, a visit com­plete with Arab pageantry and op­u­lence.

Saudi Ara­bia soon em­barked on the prince’s am­bi­tious pro­posal to al­low women in the ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Wah­habi na­tion to drive. The re­sult­ing pic­tures of women in long black abayas be­hind the wheel rep­re­sented a pub­lic re­la­tions coup for the im­age­shap­ing firms em­ployed by the king­dom, as did footage of women at­tend­ing soc­cer matches and movie the­atres for the first time in decades.

But then, the king­dom rounded up and im­pris­oned women’s rights ac­tivists, in­clud­ing re­port­edly grab­bing one woman who was in the neigh­bour­ing United Arab Emi­rates.

Prince Mo­hammed has wowed the busi­ness world with prom­ises of an ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing for the state oil behemoth Saudi Ara­bian Oil Co, known as Saudi Aramco, sug­gest­ing it would have a $2 tril­lion val­u­a­tion.

The young prince has trav­elled across the US as part of his busi­ness pitch, meet­ing lead­ers like for­mer New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ama­zon bil­lion­aire Jeff Be­zos. Prince Mo­hammed also hosted a ma­jor busi­ness sum­mit at Riyadh’s Ritz Carl­ton, com­plete with a hu­manoid ro­bot named Sophia be­ing awarded Saudi ci­ti­zen­ship.

Only weeks later, the ho­tel turned into a lux­ury prison as part of a mass ar­rest of busi­ness­men, roy­als and oth­ers or­ches­trated by Prince Mo­hammed in a move de­scribed as tar­get­ing cor­rup­tion. Those re­leased agreed to sign over some of their as­sets, giv­ing it the feel of a shake­down.

“If I have the power and the king has the power to take ac­tion against in­flu­en­tial peo­ple, then you are al­ready fun­da­men­tally strong,” Prince Mo­hammed told CBS ear­lier this year.

The opaque­ness of the Al Saud royal fam­ily makes it dif­fi­cult to see what ef­fect the Khashoggi af­fair is hav­ing at home. State tele­vi­sion con­tin­ues to air footage of Mo­hammed at­tend­ing meet­ings and greet­ing of­fi­cials as if all is nor­mal.

An­a­lysts say he has the full pro­tec­tion of the throne’s pow­ers.

Once asked if any­thing could stop him, the prince gave a twoword re­ply: “Only death.”

PHOTO / AP

Mo­hammed be­came the Saudi king­dom’s crown prince at just 31.

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