In his recently published book, MBS: Mohamed bin Salman and the Rise to Power, New York Times Beirut Bureau Chief Ben Hubbard details how the favoured son of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has upended the kingdom’s ultraconservative society and reimagined its place in the world – but not without considerable consequences.
In this latest instalment of Need to Know, I talk with Hubbard about how MBS carried out this power grab and enacted sweeping positive reforms, such as lifting the ban on women driving, movie theatres, concerts, gender mixing and pushing through economic reforms to relieve the Kingdom’s dependence on oil revenue – yet did so by embracing authoritarianism.
We discuss how MBS’ social and economic reforms did not coincide with greater political and civil liberties. Rather they were accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, detentions and disappearances of prominent Saudi royals and activists and the muting of Saudi civil society. As MBS became more authoritarian and thuggish in his actions and outlook, he also took a number of ill-considered, activist foreign policy actions such as entangling Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict, kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, the Qatar blockade and, of course, the notorious murder of journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
We also discuss how support within both the Trump administration and prominent members of the business and tech community in the West enabled and ignored his more destructive impulses in a misguided belief in yet another strongman ally they thought could bring stability and reform.