By Akeem Soboyede
Sometime in February 2016, I received via email a couple of photographs from a former friend who is one of the high-ranking officials in the present President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration in Nigeria. The pictures mostly showed my erstwhile friend / journalism colleague shaking hands with the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, with President Buhari standing just a few yards away, smiling approvingly. This was during a state visit by President Buhari to Saudi Arabia at that time. And it was the only set of pictures I have ever received from this former friend—unsolicited too, I should add—from the many numerous foreign visits he has made so far as a ranking member of the present administration in Nigeria.
On closer scrutiny of those pictures my then-friend had chosen to dispatch to my in-box (meaning there might have been others I did not have the “luck” of getting from that particular jaunt), I immediately realized there was someone missing from the Saudi side. “So these guys from Aso Rock didn’t even see MBS”, I muttered to myself. “Then who did they really meet in Saudi Arabia?” Even back then, while he was “merely” the deputy Crown Prince of the kingdom and only 30 years old MBS was the man pulling the strings of power in the oil-rich Kingdom where one of the world’s major religions has its distinguished roots.
Sadly, within the past fortnight, the entire world has now had the tragic privilege of “meeting” Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the 33 year-old scion of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, effectively the successor-in-waiting to King Salman, who is the sixth King in the line of such monarchs that have ruled the Kingdom since the death in November 1953 of the enigmatic founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.
King Abdulaziz founded modern Saudi Arabia when he finally conquered competing tribes in the area in 1932, then deployed enormous diplomatic smarts by marrying the daughters of tribal leaders he vanquished, thus ensuring their eternal loyalty towards the fledgling Saudi Arabia project and cementing the new Kingdom’s internal stability. All the kings that have ruled Saudi Arabia since the death of Abdulaziz Al Saud have been his sons, meaning each son that has ruled ensured he was succeeded by his brother from the same father. That was before the present King, Salman, named his own son, MBS—rather than a nephew, as it was expected and proper in such circumstances—as heir to the throne. MBS, in fact, replaced one of his uncles, Mohammed bin Nayef, who had been named Crown Prince before the ambitious Prince usurped that position.
Watchers of events in Saudi Arabia and its elite have literally never seen anything like this 33 year-old young man who wields very enormous powers in the Kingdom, covering all spheres of life from defence to the economy. It is not just that MBS is far from the most qualified among his father’s children to hold such a prestigious and powerful position as Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, if it is indeed the father’s selfish wish to restrict the kingship of Saudi Arabia to his direct scions, and deny the same opportunity to descendants of his own brothers from the same father, the founder of the Kingdom. For one MBS is not the eldest of his father’s children, nor the most educated, nor the most accomplished. Among King Salman’s more older children are Sultan bin Salman, who became the first royal, Arab and Muslim to fly in outer space when he flew aboard the American Space Shuttle, Discovery, in June 1985. Another son, Abdulaziz bin Salman has been the Kingdom’s deputy minister of oil, since 1995. Yet another son, Faisal, is the governor of Madinah province, a frequent launching pad to the kingship of the oil-rich Kingdom..
I am convinced a proper understanding of the current Jamal Khashoggi scandal in which the Saudi Crown Prince is enmeshed—to the consternation of every decent sensibility the world over, notwithstanding one’s religious, political or other persuasions—should start with an understanding of the young man’s wily, very manipulative and ruthless nature. It is said that when it was time for him to attend College, the calculating MBS refused to toe the path of many young Saudis, especially those members of the Al-Saud royal family like himself, and enroll in a foreign university, especially in the United States. Instead, he chose to remain in Saudi Arabia where he eventually read law at a local university. Aside from using that particular fact to burnish his “image” as an “authentic, home-grown” Saudi royal, the strategic move helped “endear” the young manipulator to his father, who was also at the same time, rising within the political ranks of the royal family and holding positions that would eventually lead to the headship of the kingdom. Not surprisingly, when the other Al-Salman children returned to the Kingdom from their educational and professional exploits overseas, they realized they had been eclipsed by their younger brother who had “shunned” everything Western and had become their father’s “favorite son” and trusted adviser.
These schemings were to pay off handsomely when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King Salman’s predecessor in that office, died in January 2015. The new King Salman quickly named his “favorite son” MBS, then a very young 29 years, to the post of deputy crown prince, among other high positions of state, and delegated many powers, duties and functions to the inexperienced but wily prince.
This was when the manipulator in MBS came to the fore. He didn’t just want to be the second deputy to his father; he moved in very calculating ways to become the heir-apparent and successor to his father, in ways that would upend the procedures of royal succession known to the kingdom. But MBS had two problems with this seemingly-impossible dream. First was the person and antecedents of the man who occupied the position he sought. Muhammed bin Nayef was a leading member of a group of rising second-generation Saudi princes—and grandson of the founding King, Abdulaziz—who had burnished his reputation in the Kingdom’s fight against Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups that plagued the Kingdom for many decades. MBS’ second obstacle was history: no king in Saudi Arabia who ruled after the Kingdom’s founder, Ibn Abdulaziz, had ever succeeded his own father on the throne.
Just as it is notably the practice in Nigeria’s Kano Emirate, this commendable tradition would have ensured a nephew—not the King’s son—succeeded the current monarch, smoothening intra-family schemings regarding the line of succession. But MBS’s apparent manipulative hold over his vulnerable octogenarian father would have none of this common-sense practice.. On June 21, 2017, he orchestrated something akin to a coup, forcing out Bin Nayef, his father’s nephew and having himself installed him Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and next-in-line to his own father in the line of succession, a development unseen in the Kingdom since its founder and first king, Abdulaziz, was succeeded by his own sonSaud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, after Abdulaziz’s death in 1953.
Another disturbing tit-bit: there have been unrefuted speculations making the rounds since the young man emerged in the center of Saudi power that, ever the manipulator, he (MBS) has kept his own mother and wife of King Salman, Princess Fahda bint Falah Al Hathleen, from seeing his father / King for close to two years, in a form of house arrest, because he feared his mother was aware of and opposed to his plans for the power grab he has obviously achieved. The woman is said to believe such schemings could divide the Saudi royal family, which I believe it already has.
Once he assumed greater power with Bin Nayef’s ouster—and even more curiously—the same MBS who had earlier “shunned” being educated in the West’s academies launched a charm offensive aimed not only at dramatically increasing the investment of Saudi oil revenues in Western companies and start-ups—especially in the US technological industry—but also started a so-called “Davos in the Desert” initiative intended to attract Western business and technological ideas into Saudi Arabia, and diversifying its crude oil-dependent economy.
I started to get very skeptical of the MBS “legend” in November 2017, when he ordered the arrest and novel incarceration of about 200 members of the Saudi Royal family and other wealthy businessmen mostly linked to past regimes in the Kingdom; one of those illustrious detainees, who were visibly bewildered by their sudden plight, was Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family well-known all over the world for his entrepreneurial prowess even before MBS was born, and who had spent the greater part of his life growing his estimated $18.7 billion wealth through shrewd investments in profitable Western companies like Citigroup and the Four Seasons hotel chain, among many others. These men of immense wealth and enviable social positions in Saudi society were held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. MBS accused his captives of mostly-unproven acts of graft and corruption, and only let them go piecemeal after each detainee gave up billions of dollars of his wealth to a front, so-called anti-corruption contraption established by the Crown Prince.
It later turned out the Crown Prince was only seeking to stuff his own personal piggy-bank; even as the detainees trickled out of their luxury detention at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, visibly dazed, one started reading of mind-boggling purchases being made all over the world courtesy of the Crown Prince’s money-grab, including the purchase of a Leonardo Da Vinci painting valued at $450; a $500 million yacht formerly owned by a Russian vodka entrepreneur and a $300 million French chateau, among many other unknown and very lucrative holdings that are a product of the “reformer” Crown Prince’s own corruption and tendencies for graft.
This was the time I actually became worried for Saudi Arabia and its future; this was a young man who had apparently conned and manipulated his ageing and malleable father into thinking he had good intentions for a Kingdom that is the spiritual headquarters for close to two billion adherents of one of the world’s major religion, Islam, yet is immersed in corruption, graft and other brazen, uncultured acts that literally make him unfit for the ultimate prize he so visibly eyes:King of Saudi Arabia.
The Jamal Khashoggi saga was not the first episode of MBS exposing his real persona as a combustible, take-no-prisoners person who has very unwisely been invested with high positions of state in Saudi Arabia: within his few years in power, he has prompted and fueled destructive Saudi military interventions in neighboring Yemen, and has clamped down on another neighbor, Qatar, with an economic blockade over political differences involving perennial regional foe, Iran. MBS also orchestrated the forced—and ultimately futile—resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while the latter was on an official state trip to a state he considered friendly, Saudi Arabia.
Against this backdrop, the shocking news of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey did not exactly catch me by surprise; there was even news just before the fatal “fist-fight” at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey that MBS was intent on luring the former Saudi newspaper editor and confidant of past Saudi administrations back to the Kingdom and having him imprisoned. My initial take on the first trickle of news about what might have happened to Khashoggi was that he kept a misplaced faith in the decency of the manipulative 33-year old that now literally controls Saudi Arabia. Equally astounding, I believe, was Khashoggi’s naivete in stepping foot in any Saudi Embassy or consulate anywhere in the world, since he must have known he would literally be in the same Saudi Arabia—and within the reach of a formidable and unforgiving foe like MBS—from which he had fled in the first place.
Even more astounding has been the decision by Saudi authorities—after days of empty, embarrassing denials and foot-dragging about revealing the fate that had befallen Khashoggi—to acknowledge the journalist did die in their Consulate in Turkey but at the same time appointing MBS to lead a body that would investigate the incident and “punish” alleged culprits. Such an ill-advised step demonstrates the unacceptable level of MBS’s manipulative control over his enfeebled, octogenarian father, King Salman. What else can explain naming a man who is strongly suspected of orchestrating a murder to lead an “investigation” into the same homicide, in which he is suspected to have pulled the fingers, sorry, trigger?
A fairly safe assumption, even prediction, is that one way or the other the Khashoggi crisis ultimately consumes the present Saudi monarch and his joke of a manipulative son / Crown Prince—especially in the Western societies he “shunned” but really covets at the same time! That, certainly, will be to the ultimate good of the blessed Kingdom in the Arabian desert.
Soboyede is a Nigerian journalist and US-based attorney