Will tensions in the U.S.-Saudi relationship reach a breaking point in the next few years? This is not the central question of New York Times Beirut bureau chief Ben Hubbard’s recently published book, “MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman.” Yet in time, the book may serve historians as a detailed chronicle of the individuals and events that drove these long-time partners apart.
Aware of Hubbard’s long experience in the region and his current position at the Times, Saudi watchers had anticipated Hubbard’s book as a window into the little-known background of the powerful young royal. A few disappointed critics have complained that the book did not divulge much new information about the prince. But rather than providing gossip for Saudi experts, the book seems aimed primarily at Hubbard’s usual audience, New York Times readership. Hubbard focuses on the episodes that the average reader is likely to recall from headlines: the imprisonment of MBS’s rivals at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh in November 2017, his visit to the U.S. in March and April 2018, and his removal of the ban on women driving in June 2018.
Hubbard’s account reiterates the familiar contours of MBS’s narrative, filling out details but not altering his established image. Among the Times’ readership, that image shifted from MBS as the ambitious young leader determined to transform his society, to the brutal thug willing to use violence to achieve his goals, specifically violence against one individual.
Parallel to MBS’s rise from royal nobody to de facto ruler, Hubbard tells the story of Saudi insider turned reluctant dissident Jamal Khashoggi. As the figure that most profoundly altered the average reader’s view of MBS, Hubbard provides more obscure details about Khashoggi than he does about the crown prince, including text messages exchanged with Khashoggi’s long-time friend Maggie Mitchell Salem. After Khashoggi escaped Saudi Arabia in September 2017, Mitchell Salem helped set him up in DC as a columnist for the Washington Post.
Invitations to Thanksgiving and other gatherings eased the loneliness of Khashoggi’s exile, as did the company of Hanan al-Atr, an Egyptian woman Khashoggi briefly married, as well as his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Khashoggi’s gruesome murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul serves as the book’s culminating incident, and reflects the extent to which this event altered readers’ perceptions of the crown prince far more damningly than his ongoing imprisonment of female Saudi activists or his blockade that continues to starve the population of Yemen.
The attention that Americans paid to Khashoggi’s death surprised Saudis in general. When I visited Riyadh in March 2019, Saudi colleagues asked me to explain why his murder had so captivated the U.S. media. “Americans are responsible for deaths all over the world. Why did this one individual matter so much?”
They mused that it was because Americans had to preserve the image of caring about journalists, since press freedom was in our constitution. I tried to explain that no, the difference was that deaths and injustices usually remained separate from the commentariat. Whereas journalists and Middle East experts in DC saw Khashoggi as one of themselves, therefore his murder felt intensely personal, as well as threatening. And those individuals were in positions where they could repeatedly express their outrage and horror, through the outlets that employed them, and they kept Khashoggi’s death foremost in the image of Saudi Arabia. When the 116th Congress convened in January 2019, one of their first acts was to try to pass a bill punishing Saudi Arabia, which President Trump vetoed.
The choice to center the book on Khashoggi and MBS, as well as high-profile Westerners like Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Richard Branson, reflects Hubbard’s awareness of his audience’s tastes. But Hubbard admitted that he had originally hoped to write about the vast changes underway in Saudi society. In a book talk webinar hosted by the Center for Global Policy on April 23, Hubbard explained that when he first visited the kingdom in 2013, he noted a dearth of books on the ordinary lives of Saudis, especially when compared to the abundance of such studies on other Arab states like Egypt and Syria. Although he found there was little interest in such a book, he managed to include some of his observations in this one.
His interviews with a group of clerics reflect doubts shared by many Saudis about the viability of social reforms: “The problem here is that the girls are daring and hysterical. If you give them space, they’ll go crazy” (214). Given the level of repression experienced by generations of Saudi women, it is remarkable that they have not in fact gone crazy.
Saudi women I spoke with in Riyadh and Jeddah supported the reforms, noting that many began under King Abdullah, though women in more rural areas pointed out that little had changed for them. The wealthy urban Saudis I interviewed mirrored frustrations voiced by some of Hubbard’s interlocutors, the exasperation that no matter what Saudi Arabia did, the U.S. and the rest of the world continued to criticize it. For example, the Americans had critiqued Saudi Arabia for acting too cautiously, but howled in response to MBS’ decisive actions. The Americans had repeatedly told Saudis to stand up for themselves, but when they bombarded Yemen, they were criticized again.
Yet ordinary Saudis are insulated from the effects of their country’s war on Yemen. U.S. policies, specifically intelligence support for Saudi forces as well as a mountain of weapons sales, also directly harm Yemen. In his book, Hubbard repeatedly brings up Saudi Arabia’s war on its impoverished neighbor. When I asked Hubbard if he had hoped the book might prompt the American public to focus more on the conflict in Yemen. Hubbard responded, “That was not my primary motivation in writing the book, but if it manages to remind readers about that terrible war that is often forgotten, I’d consider that a benefit.”
Hubbard’s reports from a trip to Yemen in fall 2016, such as “US Fingerprints on Attacks Obliterating Yemen’s Economy,” appear to reflect his frustration at Americans’ lack of focus on the humanitarian tragedy there, as well as their role in it. In “We Visited the Place the World Has Forgotten,” Hubbard narrated short videos by Times photographer Tyler Hicks of their encounters with Yemenis struggling to survive. It was only when Americans were primed to blame Saudi Arabia following the death of Khashoggi in October 2018, that Declan Walsh’s “The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War,” with Hicks’ photos of starving Yemeni children, really grabbed Americans’ attention.
The book is unsurprisingly journalistic. Hubbard reports on what he observed, but tends to avoid editorializing. Yet I was left wishing Hubbard had offered more of his own insights. Observations such as those related to Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Wahhabism around the world include sentences such as, “Saudi Arabia had lost control of the effect of its own teachings” (216), yet then Hubbard moves on.
Hubbard explains MBS’s friendship with the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Zayed or MBZ, and how MBZ helped to pave the way for MBS’s “charm tour” of the U.S. in spring 2018, but does not elucidate the implications of the UAE seeding money into Washington think tanks in an effort to cultivate a positive image of itself as tolerant and open-minded.
Following Khashoggi’s death, MBS’s younger brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., left DC and the kingdom had no ambassador between October 2018 and July 2019, when Saudi Arabia sent their first female ambassador, Princess Reema Bint Bandar. During that time, Yusuf Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador to the U.S., was instrumental in convincing U.S. policymakers that there was no alternative to MBS, despite their hopes that perhaps the Saudi royal family would remove the rash Millennial. Likewise, Hubbard does not explore the deeper implications for U.S. policy that likely result from the close relationship between Kushner and MBS.
As Hubbard explained in his webinar, he does not intend to predict the future, and he submits no insights into how the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia may evolve. Yet based on the extent to which both Democrats and Republicans have exhibited dismay at Saudi policies, from the war on Yemen to the oil price war with Russia, it is only MBS’s connection to Kushner and Trump that has preserved the kingdom’s special status thus far.
American and Saudi interests are increasingly mismatched, as the U.S. seeks to extricate itself from the region and from its reliance on oil. A Biden administration may reopen negotiations with Iran, and even a different Republican administration would likely be more motivated to end endless wars in the Middle East, given the popularity of this stance among the American public. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly signaled that it will not suit its policies to American preferences, as it pursues an independent path as a regional leader. The U.S.-Saudi partnership was always going to evolve eventually, but Hubbard’s book may serve as the definitive history of the factors that altered it.
This review was originally published in Responsible Statecraft.