An adapted essay from Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power
As leaders around the world were just coming to understand the magnitude and economic devastation that the novel coronavirus would bring in 2020, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS, was distracted by a niggling family drama and frustrated by the low price of oil. To achieve his grandest economic dreams, he needed much more money — hundreds of billions of dollars, not the mere $25.6 billion he earned from the domestic Aramco initial public offering.
Standing in his office in a plain thobe speaking to advisors and ministers, he was frustrated with the pace of the 2030 transformation. Oil prices were hovering in the $60 range, well below the level he needed to build all the megaprojects at once while affording an expensive, never-ending conflict in Yemen and a populace still used to handouts. This problem had been gnawing at the kingdom since his father, Salman, took the throne, with a flood of oil from the U.S. fracking boom depressing global prices. And the problem was only getting worse. Saudi Arabia had been collaborating with Russia to limit production in order to keep the prices from tanking, but that deal was fraying.
That was the backdrop for one of Mohammed’s most profound decisions in five years as the day-to-day ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Discussions with Russia broke down, and Mohammed decided to go nuclear. On a Friday evening in early March, he ordered his older half-brother, Minister of Energy Abdulaziz bin Salman, to boost supply and flood the markets. In the staid and formal world of oil negotiations, it was a bombshell.
By the opening of the markets on the following Monday, prices had fallen by more than 20 percent and would continue to fall to the lowest level in decades. Mohammed was hoping that the price drop would put some of the companies responsible for the U.S. shale boom out of business and put financial pressure on Russian president Vladimir Putin to reinstate a production cut. The problem was that Saudi Arabia was even more dependent on oil revenue than Russia. In an effort to boost the long-term price of oil, Mohammed was sabotaging the kingdom’s source of funding for its ambitious transformation projects as well as day-to-day expenses.
At the same time, he was smoothing his path toward coronation. Within hours of Mohammed’s decision to start an oil war, men in black masks stormed the homes of Mohammed bin Nayef, also referred to as MBN, who had been restricted from leaving Saudi Arabia since the night he was forced to resign as crown prince, and Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, Mohammed’s uncle and one of the last surviving sons of the founder of the modern kingdom Ibn Saud who was fully mobile and of sound faculties. It was an odd development for most palace watchers — neither man seemed like any kind of threat.
MBN was broken and grumbling, and Ahmed was a shiftless old codger who seemed to shrink from the occasion whenever family members wanted him to take a stand. He was one of those princes who preferred his rarefied London digs to Riyadh family dramas. His only importance was that he was a full brother of the king, and as the oldest surviving son of King Abdulaziz who wasn’t on the throne, he was supposed to hold sway over the all-but-perfunctory Allegiance Council. But Ahmed hadn’t even assumed that position.
The impetus for the arrests, which later broadened to include other staff and associates of the men, was almost laughable.
By 2019, MBN had a somewhat normal life compared to his house arrest in the months immediately following his withdrawal as crown prince. He was allowed to travel between his Saudi homes, including a ranch where he liked to vacation, and could attend family gatherings. His wife, suffering from cancer, was allowed to visit the United States that summer for treatment, bringing along one of their daughters.
But MBN remained sullen, and his griping was making its way back to Mohammed, who decided it was a problem when Ahmed got involved.
Though he’d long been disengaged from family politics, Ahmed had upset Mohammed and King Salman in September 2018 when he confronted protesters gathered outside his London mansion in opposition to the bombing of Yemen. Don’t blame the Al Saud, Ahmed told the crowd; the bombing is the responsibility of just two men: the king and the crown prince.
Ahmed only returned to Saudi Arabia after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi — a time when the family felt it needed to close ranks — but made sure he got commitments from U.S. and U.K. officials that they would intervene if the Royal Court acted against him. Once back in the kingdom, Ahmed too began griping. He took the portraits of King Salman and Prince Mohammed off his majlis wall — news of the insult quickly spread within the royal family — and his living room became a popular place for disgruntled members of the royal family to vent.
In late 2019, MBN was coming to Ahmed to complain, upset that the Royal Court had drained his bank accounts and slashed handouts to him and his family. After his wife’s trip to the United States for treatments, MBN was told she couldn’t travel outside the kingdom anymore until he paid the government billions of dollars that Mohammed accused him of stealing.
MBN maintained that he had no secret stash of money, and on a visit in November 2019, he told Ahmed that his wife and daughters were being “starved” by the financial block placed on his family. It may have been simple venting, and it was certainly hyperbole, but Mohammed’s team caught the exchange. Later that month, MBN was called to attend a meeting at the National Guard — where the crown prince’s childhood friend and close ally Abdullah bin Bandar was in charge — or face consequences. Feeling particularly ornery, he refused to go.
That precipitated the first crackdown. A few days afterward, Royal Court guards showed up at MBN’s palace and escorted away his employees, including secretaries, IT staff, and his closest remaining personal guard. They even built a fence around his helicopter pad, possibly to prevent him from escaping, even though it had been used only to park cars in the preceding months. The guards questioned the employees about any escape or coup plans. The staff were released, but people who answered to Mohammed bin Salman’s Royal Court took over MBN’s security.
A senior government official called members of the Al Saud family to say they were being held on suspicion of treason. Considering the tepid backstory, they clearly weren’t a near and present danger. It was simply the right moment, amid a maelstrom of news and economic drama, to execute another crucial step in MBS’s path to the kingship. With these relatively weak threats extinguished, he had a clear view for going forward.
One clue that the oil war and family crackdown weren’t plotted far in advance was that MBS had been planning a month-long vacation to his chateau in France or the game park his family owned in South Africa just weeks before. Many of his top aides were planning to take some time off, too, after months of working brutal 16-hour days.
That Friday night was a quintessential MBS moment: a bold decision made, in the face of awesome and dangerous consequences, in the hopes that the bet would pay off. Every oil company in the world might curse his name and countries might go bankrupt for his action, but if it meant a better deal for Saudi Arabia, it was worth it. And the family crackdown wasn’t necessary — it risked reinforcing his image as a strongman ruler who bossed around his uncles and cousins — but if it improved his odds by even a small margin, it was worth the risk. It was better to be seen as unnecessarily draconian than as tolerant of criticism.
Mohammed had called the first phase of his Yemen war “Decisive Storm,” or Asifat al-Hazm in Arabic. The phrase captured Mohammed himself. He wasn’t always hasty, but he was definitely decisive. When a decision was made, he went in with guns blazing. And his changes often felt stormy, a pell-mell of decisions made in short succession without much consideration for unintended consequences. When the clouds parted, Saudi citizens couldn’t help but feel a little dizzy. It had been five years of that kind of change.
Mohammed had started out thinking of 2020 as a year of restoring his place in the global power structure. Leaving behind the Yemen war, the Khashoggi scandal, and the bad press about jailing critics, he was planning for a G-20 meeting in Riyadh in the fall that would entrench Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s influential and forward-looking powers, with a young leader who could rule for another half century.
There was no merit system for hosting the summit. It was Saudi Arabia’s turn because of the G-20 chair rotation. But it was a perfect opportunity to showcase the country in almost as big a fashion as when Donald Trump came on his first international trip as president. The kingdom had already undergone major changes in daily life. Parts of Riyadh and other major cities almost felt like Dubai — men mixing with women wearing no head coverings in restaurants and shopping areas. Tourists were beginning to trickle in, inspired by Instagram celebrities paid by the Saudi government to come and spread the word about its offerings.
In characteristically blunt terms, Mohammed told top aides to solve the country’s biggest reputational problems, including the detention of women activists, the war in Yemen, and the blockade of Qatar. Many observers thought of him as hot-headed and emotionally reactive. But these issues were, in large part, numbers on a chart to him. Surveys conducted by Western firms on behalf of Saudi Arabia highlighted them as obstacles to Saudi Arabia gaining its foothold in the world — just like the surveys he conducted at the beginning of his rise to power that identified perceptions of religious extremism and the lack of women’s rights as his biggest problems in the eyes of international audiences.
But in the eyes of the rest of the world, the killing of Khashoggi wasn’t going away. Mohammed had remained consistent since Saudi Arabia admitted he’d been killed, saying in meetings with officials and businessmen that he was responsible because he was in charge but that he had no prior knowledge of the incident. Longtime Saudi observers and even some citizens in private moments doubted that such a detail-oriented workaholic could not have known the specifics of such a big operation — or that the employees of a heavy-handed ruler would take such extreme action without his permission.
The affair would surge in importance at times, such as when the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings published her findings in December 2019 and on the anniversary of the killing, but a full-throated indictment never seemed to materialize. Any hard evidence, if it existed, probably lay in U.S. intelligence vaults, and Washington didn’t seem to see any advantage in pressing the matter further. The stain would undoubtedly persist until the day MBS’s obituary was written, but it might grow fainter as the years went by — in the United States and Europe, at least — especially if he pulled off any big-picture moves such as shaking hands with an Israeli leader, something seemingly within reach as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized ties with the country. Saudi Arabia’s turn might have to wait until Mohammed was king.
While Mohammed was planning a way forward, those left behind on his path to power continued to struggle. Saad al-Jabri, the former counterterrorism official and right hand of MBN, remained safely outside the country. But it was hardly a comfortable exile. After years of living under a travel ban, two of Jabri’s children, young adults, were arrested in Saudi Arabia not long after MBN and Ahmed were arrested.
When U.S. contacts asked about the man they knew as Dr. Saad, Saudi officials said he was a wanted man, in control of billions of dollars that he and MBN had taken, and his children wouldn’t be allowed to leave the kingdom unless he returned the money.
Western intelligence officials suspected that the children were being confined to keep Jabri from talking. The man had decades worth of government secrets that Mohammed didn’t want aired in public.
Saad had held back for years, patiently hoping diplomatic negotiations could free his children, but after their arrest he started a public war with the Crown Prince that culminated in a headline-grabbing lawsuit accusing Mohammed of trying to assassinate him not long after the Khashoggi killing. The suit included other details seemingly designed to make Mohammed feel as if he had leaks within his own palace.
All of Mohammed’s plans for the year fell to the wayside in early 2020 as bad news out of China rippled around the globe. The novel coronavirus required the world economy to halt for months, while billions of people sheltered in place to stop the exponential spread of the virus and the collapse of medical systems.
Weeks after his oil war pushed prices under $20 a barrel, close to a two-decade low, he agreed to rapidly cut back production with goading from Donald Trump. Throughout March, the U.S. government suggested it might sanction Russia for its role in the price slump but would only discuss it through diplomatic channels with Saudi Arabia. As Mohammed pulled back on the throttle, he could at least be assured people were taking him seriously. Low oil prices were inflicting plenty of pain in Saudi Arabia, forcing cuts to government spending and plans by the government to borrow tens of billions of dollars. But the move was reminding the world how much power Mohammed had over global markets.
And as Saudis retreated into their homes for lockdowns like people across the globe, they were likely to find social media campaigns lauding their gracious king and his courageous son. Likewise, in places like the Philippines, Hungary, and China, criticism of dictatorial leaders was shunted aside to make way for emergency measures. Surveillance powers increased without protest, and governments became more powerful than ever, bailing out companies and handing out money to millions of unemployed people. This was no time for subtly nudging citizens through behavioral analysis — the most effective policy was ordering people indoors without giving them any choice in the matter.
Without even trying, Mohammed had stumbled into the new era like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It was a time of ascendance for strong leaders, even authoritarian ones. He ordered Mecca shut down and citizens indoors without debate, while he traveled with a group of close advisers to his family’s palace at NEOM, a megaproject development worth hundreds of billions of dollars by the Red Sea. Through the night, the team talked about the years ahead — in consultant-speak, it was a strategy retreat.
Forget the critics, they said. Mohammed had many years to prove his vision. He wasn’t even king yet. His legacy might come in 10, 20, even 30 years.