Lenore Skenazy is an author, columnist, and president and chief blogger at Let Grow, a non-profit dedicated to overthrowing overprotection. In our discussion I mentioned Risk by John Adams, an excellent book on the topic of risk and risk-aversion.
There’s something happening that you might not have noticed in the news. What’s happening is MBS. If you don’t know what MBS is, then listen up.
First, a little history. Saudi Arabia, as we know it, came into being in the 1930s, the oil business there started in earnest in the 1940s, and by the 1970s it had become the largest oil producer in the world. In 1973 they led the oil boycott in protest against the West’s support for Israel.
To say that Saudi Arabia is conservative doesn’t begin to describe it. Music is banned. Dancing is banned. Cinema is banned. I don’t mean that some films are banned from cinemas. I mean that there are no cinemas at all. They are totally illegal.
Up to recently, it was illegal for women to drive. It’s still illegal for them to go almost anywhere without their father, husband or son chaperoning them. Also, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. There is no pretence of democracy whatsoever. The king’s word is, literally, law. And the kings are old. For the whole of this century, there has been no king aged under 80.
Actually, that’s not quite true, the current King, Salman, was a few months short of his eightieth birthday when he came to power almost three years ago. And how kings come to power is another matter. Islamic law allows a man to have up to four wives. But that’s four wives at a time. In reality, these rich and powerful men have a conveyor belt of wives, with a one-in-one-out system meaning that they are never married to more than four of them at any given time.
This means that there are hugely complex families with sons – girls don’t count for much here – with dozens of sons, nephews, half brothers all competing in the game of thrones for the succession. Usually an uneasy peace is kept. Usually. In 1975, King Khalid came to power when his predecessor King Faisal was assassinated by the king’s nephew, Prince Faisal.
Up to now, the peace has been kept by palace power-broking, meaning that there are complex deals behind the scenes to rotate the throne and other positions between members of different cliques. This is one reason why the kings are so old, they are often compromise candidates, put in place in the knowledge that they won’t be there long enough to consolidate a power base.
These deals go all the way down through the power structure, there are about 3,000 princes, and positions are handed out according to their rank, so every government minister, every mayor of every city, every director of every major company, all these positions go to one of these princes.
The latest king, as I said, is King Salman. A few months ago he did something extraordinary. On June 21st, Salman appointed his son as crown prince, the one who will succeed him to the throne. This was extraordinary for a couple of reasons; the first is that it’s Salman’s son, Mohammad bin Salman – bin means son of – so this goes against the grain of dividing power between the factions.
The second reason is his age. Remember that for the whole of this century Saudi has barely ever had a king aged less than 80. Mohammad bin Salman – or MBS, that’s what they’re calling him. MBS is 32. He was born in 1985. To put that in context, the king was born in 1935, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. MBS was born in Ronald Regan’s second term as president. A-ha were in the charts with Take on Me, the Nintendo Entertainment System already existed when he was born. His father is older than the jet engine. MBS is younger than the space shuttle.
And if you were thinking that this was just a victory for one faction of the clan in the game of thrones, think again. MBS started off his new position with a slew of announcements. Some of them might seem pretty tame anywhere else, but many of them are nothing short of revolutionary in Saudi Arabia. I mentioned allowing women to drive.
More important for most Saudi people is the almost total curb on the power of the Mutaween, the religious police force that previously went around arresting people for crimes against morality such as holding hands. Also on the cards is the end of the prohibition on western media. In October MBS said that the religious nature of the Saudi state is not normal, and that he would transform it into a modern, moderate Islamic country.
But for the real revolution, follow the money. Many of those thousands of princes have made themselves unimaginably wealthy, using their positions to siphon off billions of dollars into private bank accounts.
Last week, MBS took over a luxury hotel and converted it into a prison to hold more than 200 of his extended family members, who he had arrested in a massive move against corruption. His investigators are hunting down hundreds of billions dollars of stolen state funds.
This move is not spectacular just for the number of people locked up, but also for just how big fish they are. Included in those arrested are Al-Waleed bin Talal, a vastly wealthy man how owns major stakes in Citibank, News Corp and Twitter and other major companies, also more than 40 princes of the royal family, several of them government ministers, including the Minister of Economy and Planning, and also the Commander of the Saudi navy.
MBS is not even the king yet, and he’s only in the position of crown prince for less than half the time that Donald Trump has been in the White House. I suppose he doesn’t have to deal with Congress or a supreme court, but even allowing for that, his progress is impressive.
So that leaves us with two questions: first, is he one of the good guys? Is he doing this to, as he said, bring his country out of theocracy and into the modern era, or is this just his way of eliminating the competition, with a veneer of respectability?
And, even if he has good intentions, will he succeed? He’s sure to be making some powerful enemies, and remember this is a family that has murdered its patriarch before.
For the first question, I think the answer might not matter. Freedom is a genie that doesn’t easily go back into its bottle. The people of Saudi Arabia are well educated, and all the censorship in the world can’t hide the miserable comparison between their freedoms and those in the west.
Even if MBS is completely insincere, even if his aim is just to use an anti-corruption drive to grab more loot from himself, he is clearly letting that genie out of the bottle; he would be foolish to think that a system that pays even lip service to the rule of law can avoid trending towards that in the long term. And, the scale of Saudi corruption is such that it cannot function without a massive bureaucracy of people who are themselves being paid off, so whether he knows it or not, whether he intends it or not, if MBS succeeds he will reduce the ability of anyone, including himself, of looting quite so many billions.
If he succeeds.
There are two threats on the horizon. The Arabian peninsula, and its neighbours, are becoming more unstable. MBS’s reforms might be coming too late. Saudi is already at war with its poor southern neighbour, Yemen. Relations with Iran are deteriorating. Both Iran and Saudi are trying to run Lebanon as a proxy state. Israel might be very happy indeed to stoke a war there, which would put all reform off the table. And that’s if his own disgruntled cousins don’t bump him off first, which is distinctly likely.
Either way, this guy is going into the history books. Remember his name. MBS. Mohammad bin Salman.