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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.