Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to as MBS, is just one of the thousands of princes in Saudi Arabia. However, he just so happens to be the most important one.
MBS is the sixth son of the twenty-fifth son of the founding father of Saudi Arabia. In youth, he was relatively unknown, hidden behind the thawbs (traditional Arabic robes) of his forefathers and more important relatives. However, in a move that was deemed impossible, implausible, and extremely Machiavellian, MBS now reigns as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. In this book, Ben Hubbard brilliantly sheds light on the seemingly unforeseeable rise to power of the young prince, and his brutal yet progressive politics that he's brought to the forefront of Saudi Arabia.
Before we dive deeper, you might be wondering what a book about the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has to do with investment and finance, right? Well, just about everything! MBS is one of the world's most extravagant spenders and investors. His Bugatti and various other supercars, his €500m euro luxury yacht and countless palatial residences, and his $450m Leonardo Da Vinci Salvator Mundi painting only confirm this. However, his penchant for investing doesn't stop at luxury items - as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, he effectively owns Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil-producing company, and by far the most profitable business worldwide. MBS was also behind the [rejected] takeover of Newcastle United Football Club earlier this month. But, most importantly, MBS is the architect and investor behind a better, more progressive future for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Let's get one thing clear - MBS is not the official king of Saudi Arabia. However, given his rising autocratic status and the deteriorating health of his father and current king, Salman, MBS is the king in all but title. The way in which he rose from obscurity to become a despotic, lavish ruler is intricately outlined by the author in this book. While remaining so far from the media spotlight, as well as from the knowledge and circles of global leaders, MBS had always stood out among his extended royal family. Before he "burst onto the scene" in 2015, he was one of the few princes who did not have experience running a company. He also did not have any military experience, never studied abroad like his siblings and cousins, and had never "mastered, or even become functional" in a foreign language.
As a result, Ben Hubbard addresses the following questions in his book, dedicating significant time and detail to each one:
Who really is MBS, and what does he stand for?
How did he manage to cunningly usurp the next-in-line and former Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN)?
Is he a force for good that will modernise and secularise the once-ultra-conservative Wahhabi kingdom? His friendship with Trump and Kushner, as well as Zuckerberg, Bezos, Cook and Pichai suggest that this is the case.
Or, is he actually an "aspiring dictator whose lack of experience and rash decisions are destabilizing the world's most volatile region?"
The truth is that Hubbard's portrayal of MBS is mixed and contradictory. He casts the Crown Prince in a paradoxical light - one in which he is willing to place over 350 powerful Saudis under house (in this case, luxury hotel) arrest to crack down on corruption, but refuses to shed light on the true source of his own wealth and extravagant lifestyle. MBS is shown as an ambitious leader hoping to bring about aggressive reforms to his kingdom, including ending the ban on women driving, and the creation of a domestic entertainment industry, yet he's unwilling to secularise the country too much in fear that it strays too far away from its insular Islamic roots. An advocate of free(r) speech, MBS locked up his own mother, and was allegedly behind the shockingly brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He also employs a team of 'secret police' who create fake Twitter accounts to post inflammatory statements about the kingdom and its royal family to silence dissidents and to see if anyone online concurs with these views. And if they do, you can be sure that they won't have a happy ending!
So, is MBS a visionary? Is the Crown Prince a pioneer of change, who's looser Islamic social codes and unprecedented close relationship with Israel and the United States, will finally help to bring peace to the Middle East and social, gender, and religious equality in Saudi Arabia? Or, as many fear, is he a brutal dictator-in-the-making, who, at the age of 34, still has plenty of years ahead of him to look forward to, in which he'll be able to rule unchallenged, as a dangerously despotic king? Only time will tell!
MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, by Ben Hubbard, is a must-read, and is available to buy on Amazon here.