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

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

By Amélie Zaccour
Posted on Tuesday, 9 February 2021 20:06, updated on Thursday, 11 February 2021 20:07

MBS on the left as a child © DR

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.

This is part 2 of a 6-part series.

Nothing ever indicated that the young prince, far back in the line of succession and looked down on by his older half-brothers, would someday become the most powerful man in the Saudi kingdom. But he came to be his father’s favourite son. Here’s how.

Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) grew up in magnificent palaces, surrounded by servants, drivers and private tutors – nothing out of the ordinary for a member of the Saudi royal family, also known as the House of Saud.

He is the sixth son of King Salman, who himself is the twenty-fifth son of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Ibn Saud. As one of thousands of princes in the sprawling Al Saud family, theoretically he is not destined to sit on the throne.

READ MORE Saudi Arabia: the inner circle of Mohammed Bin Salman

MBS’s father, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has 13 children from three marriages. He ensured that his sons received a strict education, but one steeped in culture and internationalism, and held weekly dinners featuring writers, academics and diplomats in his Riyadh palace. At his properties in Paris and Marbella, the patriarch invited intellectuals, lawyers and businessmen in order to help develop his sons’ debate and critical thinking skills. Politicians, including members of the Assad family, were among the guests.

Salman put immense pressure on his sons, particularly those from his first marriage (he started his family at the early age of 19), because he wanted them to become statesmen.

Fierce competition

MBS, on the other hand, gave him a hard time. Rather than spend his days reading, he played video games and ate fast food. As a teenager, he was a bad-tempered troublemaker who sometimes behaved outlandishly, like the time he dressed up as a policeman so he could wander around a Riyadh shopping centre. He was caught in the act by actual police officers, but they let him walk free when they realised who he was. The young man’s father was the governor of Riyadh, after all.

Salman had already taken a liking to his son, who he had had at the age of 50 with his third wife, Fahda Al Hathleen, and let him get away with anything. But MBS’s mother was strict about his education because of the fierce competition playing out with Salman’s first wife, Sultana Al Sudairi, a highly influential figure in the royal family.

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

Sultana’s sons had attended elite Western universities and enjoyed successful international careers. Fahd and Ahmed were top executives at a listed media company, raised thoroughbred horses and owned a joint venture with UPS, while their other siblings included an astronaut, oil industry expert and political science professor. To the royal family’s disappointment, Fahd and Ahmed generally preferred partying in London, New York and Monaco.

MBS’s mother pushed him to develop a closer relationship with his father and sent him every week to visit Salman and his first wife, Sultana, even though both she and her sons gave him a frosty welcome. His half-brothers made fun of his mother’s Bedouin ancestry and his hopeless lack of sophistication.

Moreover, they were not fond of their father’s third marriage. In 1983, while Sultana was being hospitalised in the United States for a kidney transplant, Salman told them of his plans to take a third wife, Fahda, who was younger and healthier – not unusual in a country where men can have up to four wives. But with their Western ways, Fahd and Ahmed had strayed from their Saudi culture.

They rejected their father’s polygamous ways and viewed the marriage as demeaning for their mother, especially since she was about to undergo a life-or-death operation. They tried to persuade Salman to back out of the nuptials, but in vain.

MBS would thus grow up with half-brothers who were 30 years his senior, leading successful careers, exposed to international political circles and openly hostile to him.

Special bond

However, a series of deaths would upend this pecking order. In 2001, 46-year-old Fahd died unexpectedly of a heart attack. His brother Ahmed, just 44, met the same fate one year later. Salman went through a dark period after the loss of his sons.

While MBS’s other siblings went about their lives, thoroughly preoccupied with their own careers and family obligations, he began spending more and more time with his father. The teenager was by Salman’s side at weddings, funerals and mosque prayer services. Salman was pleased and the father and son pair developed a special bond.

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

Unlike his half-brothers, the young prince cultivated his Saudi identity, opting to pursue his studies in his home country, even though he had the pick of the world’s most prestigious universities. Out of conviction, he chose to stay in Saudi Arabia.

When his father was still governor, MBS often shadowed him at his offices in Riyadh and was perfectly content attending the long-winded meetings Salman granted to a host of tribal chiefs and businessmen asking for favours.

These visits allowed the prince to take in the kingdom’s political culture, gradually grasp the complexities of Saudi politics and learn how to distinguish those who mattered from those who could be summarily escorted out.

MBS took notes, committing to memory the positions of an array of tribal and religious leaders and which businessmen had the upper hand in which economic sectors. Salman deeply appreciated his son’s strong Saudi identity. The prince never attended a foreign university or spent long stretches of time in Europe and the United States. Like his father, he loved going on trips to the desert and eating meat with his hands.

Despite his deep identification with Saudi culture, he was still a millennial, and it showed. He was, after all, a video game addict and lover of Hollywood movies. Plus, he was an early and enthusiastic adopter of Facebook. Being one of the first Saudi royal family members to use social media would prove to be a critical factor in his political rise.

Also in this in Depth:

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

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.

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.