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Saudi Arabia: The untold story of the rise of Mohammed bin Salman

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: The rise of Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Tuesday, 9 February 2021 19:26, updated on Thursday, 11 February 2021 20:06

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Al Salam Palace in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Monday, June 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is probably the most talked about crown prince in the history of the Wahhabi kingdom, in a political culture where leaders are usually careful not to air their dirty laundry in public and fear abrupt decisions and risk-taking above all else.

This is part 1 of a 6-part series

With a track record that includes the war in Yemen, a boycott on Qatar, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the detention of leading Saudi figures in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton and plans to build a futuristic city in the middle of the desert, MBS makes for a very unconventional crown prince.

Since his rise to power in 2015, the man who is now crown prince has thoroughly shaken up the Saudi status quo, dramatically breaking with his country’s political culture. MBS is not interested in having lengthy, all-night discussions to reach complex compromises between princes and tribal chiefs. Nor does the impulsive bearded prince have the patience to prioritise experience and caution in his decision-making. He prefers to go it alone and act swiftly.

READ MORE Saudi Arabia: Mohamed Bin Salman faces the world alone

As for carrying out the decisions – that is not his problem. He is not worried about stirring up the Saudi gerontocracy or falling flat on his face because his decisions tend to be motivated by a desire to shock rather than some carefully crafted strategy. Whatever the cost, MBS believes in fertile chaos. To his credit, his methods flummoxed his rivals and propelled him in the space of a few years to the highest level of Saudi leadership.

‘Blood and Oil’, written by American journalists Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, was released by John Murray publications on 1 September 2020. (John Murray press)

From prince on the sidelines to crown prince

The man who, barring an unlikely turn of events, will one day ascend to the throne, was not preordained to end up under the biggest spotlight. One of thousands of princes, he is not even King Salman’s eldest son.

‘MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman’, by Ben Hubbard, was published by William Collins in March 2020. (Tim Duggan Books)

When the king of Saudi Arabia was governor of Riyadh, he probably never imagined that one of the sons from his third marriage would become the strongest pillar of the family in his old age. But that has indeed come to pass: whatever MBS’s shortcomings, against all odds he has managed to carve out a path to the crown princeship.

READ MORE Saudi Arabia ends its Qatar blockade, but dispute is not over

Two recently released books trace his journey to the top, beginning with his adolescent years – during which he grappled with fears of inadequacy, even as a member of the royal family – and progressing towards his days of infiltrating and manipulating Twitter and ousting his chief rival from the throne, his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef (MbN).

The first, Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, was written by Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck. The second is Ben Hubbard’s The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman.

In this series of articles, we examine the untold story of the rise of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.


Also in this in Depth:

Saudi Arabia’s MBS: An unlikely prince among the thousands

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has become one of the most powerful leaders in the Arab world. In the second part of our series, we look back at his childhood.

Saudi Arabia’s MBS: How the crown prince got his start in business

Mohammed bin Salman realised very early on that he would need a great deal of money if he wanted to have any political sway in the Saudi kingdom. Accordingly, he decided to throw himself into the business world in his own bold, rough and tumble way." In the third part of our series, we look at how the teen MBS veered onto a new path.

Saudi Arabia: How MBS deposed his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince

Touted as Saudi Arabia’s “prince of counterterrorism”, Mohammed bin Nayef was named crown prince in 2015. His young cousin, Mohammed bin Salman, devised a way to strip him of his title and oust him from the throne. In the fourth part of our series, we look at the events that foreshadowed his cousin's fall.

Saudi Arabia: Yachts, top models, Pitbull concert – MBS’s penchant for the good life

Between 2015 and 2017, Mohammed bin Salman spent a cool $1.18bn on an array of prestige purchases. In the fifth part of our series, we look at the Crown Prince's penchant for extravagance.

How Saudi Arabia’s MBS conquered Twitter and upped his online game

Big into social media, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has become an expert at wielding Twitter to consolidate his popularity, squash his critics and manipulate the conversation. In this final part of our series, we look at how he conquered social media.