A boy walks on rubble of a house destroyed by recent airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen, on Dec. 29, 2017. Picture by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. While Thomas Friedman was taking Mohammad bin Salman’s claims about fighting corruption at face value, many were seeing extortion, and an abuse of power. Consider what follows, all of which also mysteriously escaped Friedman’s journalistic acumen:
In the summer of 2015, while vacationing in Southern France, MBS purchased, on a whim, one of the biggest and most expensive yachts in the world from Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler (who incidentally made his fortune selling vodka), after spotting it once in the bay. The deal was finalized right there without further waiting, for a staggering $500 million (twice the cost of the most expensive house in the United States, itself already the ultimate billionaires’ dreamland.) While indulging himself with such lavish luxury purchases, His Highness was pushing for and implementing economic reforms of the IMF type, meaning, drastic austerity measures, budget cuts, salary cuts, freezes of government contracts and so on and so forth, following the drop in oil prices which has since resulted in the KSA losing a stunning one third of its currency reserves in less than three years since 2014.
This itself would be enough to prove that MBS, supposedly a paragon of morality, moderation and integrity, a “wise king”, is one of those morally and politically corrupt rulers and “wealthiest 1%” (0.0001% in his case) for whom austerity, “necessary sacrifices”, and belt-tightening measures apply to others but never to oneself.
But there is worse.
In less than 2 years, our wise ruler bought for himself two luxury yachts for over $600 million
The Serene was actually the second yacht MBS bought (at least the second that we know of). Less known is the fact that in 2014, namely not even a year before that July 2015 half billion “impulse purchase” of the Serene, MBS had already bought a yacht, the Pegasus (now Pegasus VII) for $120 million, at a time when he was special advisor to the royal court and state minister.
So, in less than 2 years, our wise ruler bought for himself two luxury yachts for over $600 million, while making his Saudi subjects tighten their belts. It is also to be noted that the KSA currency reserves were already at that time being depleted faster than the speed of light, yet that did not seem to matter either for MBS. It would be interesting to know what else he bought and how much of the Kingdom’s shrinking oil money he has spent on himself during his shopping binge.
Furthermore, let us remember that by the time he bought this second yacht, MBS was the head of the Royal Court as well as Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister (he was appointed to that crucial position by his father on January 23, 2015). He had also already started his bombing campaign in Yemen (“Operation Decisive Storm” was launched in March 2015), to devastating consequences for the civilian population, who quickly ran out of food and medicine and started dying en masse from a lethal mix of hunger and disease, provided they were not killed by the Houthi rebels or MBS’s own indiscriminate air strikes.
So, what we have here is a Defense Minister who shortly after initiating a murderous bombing campaign in one of the poorest countries on earth, quietly goes on vacation in Southern France, indulges himself for weeks there, and on a whim buys a second yacht to the tune of half a billion, while imposing austerity on his own Saudi people and killing thousands of civilians in Yemen.
Which Defense Minister just leaves the country for weeks on end (MBS even extended his French Riviera stay by 10 days just so he could finalize the contract) to vacation in France (or anywhere else) shortly after launching a major military intervention in a neighboring country? That incredibly casual, reckless, and criminally irresponsible behavior is highly reminiscent of Bush spending weeks on his Texas ranch after being warned by his own intelligence agencies that an Al Qaeda commando had managed to infiltrate the U.S. and was preparing a major attack on American soil (this was 9-11); or Trump, another buddy and ally of our Crown Prince, spending half his time as president of the United States on golf courses. MBS, evidently belongs to that category of heads of states.
And there’s even more that keeps coming if one digs a little.
As revealed by France’s top daily Le Monde and the Paradise Papers / International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (this remarkable ongoing investigation on a global scale involving a network of nearly 400 journalists and financial experts who have coordinated their efforts to track down how the rich and famous hide their money and other assets to escape tax evasion through legal and illegal means), MBS and Yuri Shefler hired the British Appleby law firm (the same one at the center of the Paradise Papers scandal itself) to organize for them a complex and opaque financial montage of fake off-shore companies in the Isle of Man (one of the world’s Top 10 tax havens) whose sole purpose was to allow His Majesty to escape paying the 84 million euros in taxes he should have paid to France, where he saw and purchased the boat (Le Monde, which is part of the Paradise Papers consortium, was able to get a leaked copy of the actual yacht contract signed by the two men.) Though the English-language press does not seem to have kept up with this, MBS’s deal with the Russian owner of the yacht is actually one of the thousands that has been exposed by the Paradise Papers investigation.
Meanwhile, MBS does not seem particularly keen on helping the world, and his fellow Muslims, deal with that mammoth refugee crisis: “As Amnesty International recently pointed out, the ‘six Gulf countries — Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.’ This claim was echoed by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.” What a shame for a regime who brags about being the “guardian of Mecca”.
A clear and present danger
On foreign policy, MBS is the worst thing that could have happened to the Middle East at this particular, already volatile moment. In a mere few months, he has proven to be the main threat to stability and peace in the region, and with Assad and groups like ISIS, a major agent of destabilization and violence. As if the Middle East needed more of that.
Like with all powerful men, when he fails, it’s others who pay the price
There are at least four reasons why MBS is both a danger for the region and the Saudi people. First, he has acted as the most hubristic Saudi supremacist in the kingdom’s history. Second, there is his paranoia about, and against, Iran, KSA’s regional rival. Third, his character, which has a lot of common with Trump’s: behind his misleadingly mild manners there is a toxic mix of recklessness, extremism, amateurishness, lack of experience, absence of good and wise advisors around him, substandard education (a B.A. in law when the standard at the Saudi royal court is often a Ph.D. in one of the world’s top elite institutions), greed (for power, money, luxury etc.), indifference to the suffering he is causing around him, and brutality—including against members of his own family if he thinks they could one day become rivals. His good connection to some of the Saudi youth and his populist appeal to them will not be enough to redeem that. And fourth, largely due to that character, unfit for a head of state especially that of a major world power, his quasi systematic failures in pretty much all his enterprises. The problem is that like with all powerful men, when he fails, it’s others who pay the price.
When it comes to failure, our Prince of Mayhem fails a lot, as we have seen these past several months. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
His blockade of Qatar and attempt to bully that nation, even to bring it to its knees (for reasons evidently different from those he stated, the usual “fight against terrorism” invoked by all of the region’s despots) failed miserably, and actually backfired by pushing Qatar in the arms of Iran, Turkey and other regional powers. MBS’s poorly-conceived anti-Qatari “policy” actually resulted in the creation of a strong tactical Iran-Qatar-Turkey axis likely to undermine his own supremacist regional ambitions.
His laughable yet dangerous Lebanese /Hariri operation (also initially meant to counter Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon) failed equally miserably. Prime Minister Hariri has now rescinded the resignation that MBS forced upon him, and even received a true hero’s welcome when he returned. Again, the bullying backfired.
The Hariri adventure shows the reckless and dangerous nature of MBS: had he succeeded, Lebanon may have been profoundly destabilized with risks of civil wars and additional violence on its soil. The crown prince also revealed that he would not hesitate to trigger yet another war on Lebanese soil by using Israel as his attack dog against Hezbollah and Iran. Israel, was wiser and more cautious than to play into the Saudi bullying.
In Iraq, he has also failed to counter the ever-growing influence of Iran at all levels of government and society.
For many analysts, MBS has fallen into the Yemen trap set up for him by the much smarter and subtle Iranian regime, thus shooting himself, and his country with him, in the foot, as researcher Elizabeth Kendall explains here.
But it is Yemen that remains his worst, bloodiest adventure and most atrocious failure so far.
Launched in March 2015, operation “decisive storm”, now mockingly referred to as Operation indecisive storm, has turned out to be a quagmire in which the KSA and its coalition have been stranded for almost three years now. And again, it is the civilian population who is paying the very heavy price of MBS’ adventurist, violent and criminal policies. He, on the other hand, as mentioned earlier, went on vacation in Southern France buying luxury yachts shortly after pushing the KSA in this new and amateurishly-conceived military operation.
The most concrete consequence of MBS’s actions in Yemen has been to throw fuel on the fire of what was essentially a domestic civil war (not an Iranian foreign operation as he is led to believe), and to push 7 million Yemenis to the brink of death by starvation and disease.
His cruel and indiscriminate bombing campaign has turned Yemen’s civilian infrastructures including apartment buildings, schools and hospitals into dust while killing civilians by the thousands, leading even his E.U. allies to call for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt left at this point that this prince has been committing war crimes on a large scale, helped in that by western powers like France and the U.S. who keep selling him billions worth of weaponry, in full knowledge of how he uses them. Which incidentally makes heads of states like Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump themselves war criminals and major sponsors of Saudi (and Egyptian) state terrorism, if words still have meaning.
The cruelty and extremism of MBS became even more apparent when on November 4, he implemented a complete blockade of Yemen well after that population had reached a critical stage and was already being decimated by famine coupled with the world’s worst epidemics of cholera (here, here, here, here, and here). Yet, unfazed, uncaring, solely motivated by his blind hatred of Iran, he did not hesitate for a second to make it even worse. Saudi Arabia has since partially lifted that murderous blockade but it is not nearly enough, and that decision was mostly due to the considerable international pressure and global outrage—even Trump asked the KSA to end its blockade!
Let us remember here that MBS’ blockade of a population that already was in critical condition and dying from a mix of military operations, famine, and disease, even included humanitarian aid, food and medicine.
What kind of leader does this to a defenseless civilian population before giving himself a little luxury vacation on the Riviera, wasting billions of his kingdom’s money on luxury goods bought from offshore fiscal paradises?
The young Saudis, who naively believe his propaganda or put their hopes in that sordid, despotic character with already so much blood on his hands and a long record of abject failures, may want to reconsider.
Let’s also notice how, in that particular context of a mass famine largely, though not solely, of MBS’s own making, it was particularly disgusting for Friedman to gleefully evoke all the rich meals of lamb, “several dishes of them!”, he was served by his autocrat in his " ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja". This little boy here was not served Saudi lamb for dinner, though.
Failure, abject strategies, and bad luck
He has already started to sabotage his own economic plan
When it comes to murderous policies, MBS has been second only to Assad. Even el-Sisi looks like a cautious, wise and reasoned strategist by comparison, and it is no small feat! Despite his attempt at creating a cult of personality around him through individuals like Friedman, MBS should be renamed Prince Shoot Himself in the Foot or The Reverse Midas Touch. He will probably manage to wreck by himself his one good, smart, much-needed and timely project: his grandiose Vision 2030 economic plan aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy for a post-oil future, which he essentially cut-and-pasted from Abu Dhabi’s own…Vision 2030 whose name he did not even bother to change.
And as a matter of fact, he has already started to sabotage his own economic plan: apparently, no one in his “young” entourage explained to him that it is bad for business to scare potential investors away by arresting, kidnapping, robbing then ransoming hundreds of them including the most globally known ones like billionaire and international businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. This may fare well among some Saudi youth, providing them with a populist outlet, but in the world of business investors and high finance that the KSA now increasingly depend on for its future, such a behavior is unacceptable especially at a time when the kingdom is badly in need of hundreds of billions of foreign investment while there’s growing skepticism around Vision 2030 (here, here, here).
In that context, the spectacle of MBS locking businessmen and forcing them through blackmail, threat and actual violence to spit their assets is yet another mark, this time a domestic one, of his recklessness (his brutality, too) as a head of state. Whatever billions he may have obtained that way have probably been offset by the many more he must have already lost right there.
One also observes that, to make things worse, MBS is also a very unlucky man. For example, just when he thought that former Yemen president Saleh reaching out to him would finally help the KSA extract itself from that nightmare of his own making, the man gets killed almost instantly! On Saturday December 2, Saleh makes his overture to Saudi Arabia and everyone thinks this could be the breakthrough that may help end the war. On Monday December 4, the man is dead, the hope for an exit from that quagmire is no more, and Saudi Arabia has to reengage itself even further in Yemen through stepped-up bombings.
Similarly, MBS strikes an alliance with Israel (hoping to instrumentalise that country too through a war-by-proxy against Iran), but a mere few weeks later, his other ally Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, provoking outrage throughout the Middle East and beyond and putting our prince in an even more delicate and frankly impossible situation regarding this unholy alliance with Israel, whose regime is hated throughout the whole Arab world including the KSA.
It recently came out that while hypocritically opposing the decision, MBS gave Trump the green light and behind the scenes has been helping Israel and some American zionists grab Jerusalem and the West Bank. Multiple sources including Israeli, Arabic, European and American ones reported that despite his criticism of Trump (for PR to his Arab public), MBS was allegedly from the start in bed with the Israelis and with characters like Trump's son in law Jared Kushner to help them get Jerusalem and more including the West Bank. MBS is probably hoping to put Israel further on his side in his war against Iran. He allegedly also tried to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offering him money in exchange for his acceptance of the pro-Israel deal. In particular, the New York Times, reporting its own version of the meeting on December 3, confirmed through multiple insider sources that MBS offered Abbas “vastly increased financial support for the Palestinians, and even dangled the possibility of a direct payment to Mr. Abbas, which they said he refused.” All this is perfectly congruent with the rest of MBS foreign policy. It is therefore not just with Israel that MBS is fully in bed for cynical anti-Iranian reasons and goals, but with the most right-wing Israeli government and Trump’s White House.
Such a deadly mix of incompetence, inexperience, brutality, adventurist recklessness, and indifference to the suffering caused by one’s ill-conceived policies would already represent a major threat to any country with such a head of state. But coupled as it is with regional supremacism and great power and outreach, it can only mean disaster for the whole region, the KSA included. And it is therefore no surprise that in a few short months since he rose to prominence, Bin Salman has already hurt the region badly (Yemen, support to Egypt’s brutal regime, etc.) or tried to do so (Qatar, Iran, Lebanon). Although he has not killed as many people as Assad, MENA’s worst mass murderer, MBS’ capacity and potential for nuisance is a lot greater than the Syrian president’s.
Contrary to MBS, Assad has no imperialist ambitions and is merely content with staying in power and controlling his little western corner of “useful” Syria. But our prince wants to drag, push and suck the whole region, and the west, U.S. included, in an all-out war without end against Iran, or a series of hot and cold wars, no matter the cost. He has shown he was even willing to use Israel as his attack dog and have it start a war in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Iran. Let’s just imagine the result had he succeeded.
Friedman describes bin Salman as the right person at the right time. Instead, he is the wrong—the worst, actually—person at the wrong time at the wrong place. His belly filled with those “many dishes of lamb” served to him by a despot while 7 million poor people were dying of hunger next door starved by his own princely guest, Friedman, happy like a child and proud of himself at how “important” he felt, had probably stopped thinking at that time. But this remark should have given him cause for concern, as that is the kind of bellicose rhetoric we heard before, for example during Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq:
“Iran’s ‘supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East,’ said M.B.S. ‘But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.’”
When a world leader starts comparing his public enemy number one to Hitler, calling him “the New Hitler”, the “Hitler of the Middle East” and that sort of thing, you know it is not good news for the future.
Besides his important and timely attempt to modernize the Saudi economy, Bin Salman has two essential goals, which help understand each and every one of his domestic and regional policies including his aggression against Qatar, his alliance-building activity with the UAE and Egypt, his war in Yemen, his efforts to secure western support by talking a little “liberal Islam”, and more: the first goal is to prevent a resumption of the ‘Arab Spring’. Those autocrats have all felt the heat in 2011, they feel a bit better now, but they also know that the ashes of that historic revolution are still burning under the snow and ice of the ‘Arab winter’. The second goal is, as mentioned earlier, regional Saudi supremacism and, if he could, the destruction of the KSA’s arch enemy and rival, Iran.
There is nothing this crown prince and future king will not do or push others (Israel, Trump, etc.) to do to accomplish those two goals. If this dangerous character has his ways, it will mean the end of hope for Arab democracy, and wars without end throughout the whole region.
That is why Mohammad bin Salman is now MENA’s main threat to peace, stability, and hope for democratization in the Arab world.