MBS knows the kingdom will face a tough reckoning if a Democrat succeeds Trump, and in the coming lean times he will have much less with which to dazzle the West. But he also knows he can ride out a one-term or even a two-term US president: Hubbard quotes an interview where MBS seems to envisage ruling for the next five decades. There will be many more biographies of MBS, but Hubbard’s book is an excellent beginning.
In this engaging account, Ben Hubbard shows both sides of the story, bringing his narrative alive with a host of insights, conversations, anecdotes and details. We learn how, as a young prince, Mohammed forged bonds with other teenagers by renting a fleet of jet skis for them. By royal Saudi standards, the family was not especially wealthy. Before becoming king, Mohammed’s father Salman, governor of Riyadh, had no personal “fortune”, unlike other princes who became hugely rich on commissions.
Ben Hubbard’s account of the life, machiavellian style and ambitions of the de facto ruler of the largest and wealthiest country in the Gulf is a fine example of talented and dogged reporting. He also speaks and reads Arabic, not something you can take for granted among western Middle East journalists or even “experts”. In addition, he works for a highly influential media organisation – the New York Times... Barring unexpected developments, his son (Salman is 84 and in poor health) will, sooner or later, ascend to the throne. It would be surprising if the crown prince came out much better in later drafts of history than this impressive first one.
Unlike the think tankers from Washington and London who like to roll into Riyadh for a couple of days, have a few briefings with royal aides, then leave to pontificate about the Saudi vision for the Middle East, Hubbard gets stuck into the deep societal shifts that the changes are wreaking. In a visit to the conservative city of Buraidah he finds clerics who disagree with MBS’s vision — but know they are powerless to stop it.
Hubbard, a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, is well acquainted with American and Saudi dignitaries. He has spent more time in the kingdom than most other working western journalists and his book reminds me of the British historian Robert Lacey’s two studies, The Kingdom (1981) and Inside the Kingdom (2009). Like Lacey, Hubbard arrives in a country that has a reputation for isolation and extremism, which is both well merited and misleading. He peppers his text with personal anecdotes to demonstrate the contradictions.
Hubbard delivers a highly informed portrait, leavening his narrative with well-deserved skepticism, and leaves the reader wondering what lies ahead for the prince and his kingdom. This does not purport to be a comprehensive biography. Rather, Hubbard focuses on the prince’s rise, his accretion and exercise of power, and weaves past reporting into a readily readable package. As to be expected, the prince declined to be interviewed. Hubbard paints the early years with a broad brush.