When the last King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah, was buried in an unmarked grave as per Wahabi tradition, a wit remarked that in a billion years, he would be oil. That is the truth of kingship in Saudi Arabia. With the passing away of each king, his heirs and hangers-on who had wallowed in uber-luxury are slowly forgotten and sidelined. With each death, the battle begins anew in Riyadh’s sole power centre — the Royal Court — for a grab at the fabulous billions that float beneath and in Saudi Arabia’s palaces.
In 2015, with Abdullah’s death, the battle among Saudi Arabia’s 7,000 princes and princesses had been especially vicious. And it still continues. After brother Salman took over, his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) announced his entry on the world stage by administering a resounding slap to the Royal Court’s Chief Keeper for withholding from him the gravity of uncle Abdullah’s illness. In two years after Abdullah’s death, his son Mohammed bin Nayef, who as Crown Prince would have taken over from Salman, was jack-knifed politically and finally personally to make him a broken man, in no position to ever challenge MBS.
Since then, the deserts of Arabia have been roiled by an impatient king-in-waiting who seeks to distill power to just himself, is unwilling to tolerate dissidents in the family fold, and has declared war on Yemen, triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. That, say the author-journalists, was just the entrée course for MBS. In a graphic account, Riyadh’s bid to economically strangle Qatar unravels, dissidents are coaxed and coerced to return to Riyadh where a seven-star hotel becomes a makeshift prison in which hundreds of sheikhs are disgorged of the billions they had filched from the treasury.
On the flip side, the man is willing to let women drive cars, allows mixing of sexes in Riyadh’s cafes and is trying to move the Saudi ship away from complete dependence on oil to the high-tech future that envisages a $650-billion city, peopled by robots and flying saucers. All the while, he has to be fleet-footed to avoid being politically tripped by a marginalised clergy and status-quoist octogenarian cousins.
MBS is a Force 10 gale. Any book trying to capture his time at the Saudi tiller would have some part left out, such is his speed. Covid-19 was the perfect pause that helped the two authors catch MBS’ previous five years. Both Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck are well suited to tell the tale of blood and oil, for they have specialised in white-collar crimes. And here in Saudi Arabia, where dollars flow like water, there were plenty of carpet baggers swarming around MBS with billions to disburse as he chases the dream of converting Saudi Arabia into a G-7 lookalike. The authors keep their noses close to the ground and tap hundreds of these Americans who gather around the Royal Court — they include well-heeled politicians who double up as mediators for New York banks — for the main course or even the crumbs that fall from MBS’ table.
It is a matter of poetic justice that after MBS had somehow tided over the Khashoggi butchery and tried to draw the curtains on the Yemen war, his attempt to dazzle the Trumps and the Modis with glamour, hospitality and networking at the G-20 summit got upended by Covid. Despite his many missteps that have cost lives and money, it is a brave duo that has penned his vulnerabilities and “ruthlessness”. The world, however, is willing to give MBS a free pass, largely because the man who controls every sinew of Saudi Arabian political power is set to rule the desert kingdom for another half a century.