When Joe Biden took office as US president in 2021, after calling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during his campaign, he avoided dealing with Prince Mohammed, often dubbed MBS. The Biden administration’s insistence that the president would only engage with his ‘counterpart’, King Salman, has been seen as insulting and counterproductive in Saudi Arabia, especially given the global role of MBS and the high probability that he will end up becoming king. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rising oil prices have made gas more expensive at the pump and put Biden under pressure to lower inflation – and to restore ties with Saudi Arabia , a swing producer that can increase or decrease oil exports. Saudi commentators have welcomed this turn of events, portraying Saudi Arabia as a rising global power and deriding the United States as a declining empire. Any decision for Biden to speak to the prince is complicated by deep anti-Saudi sentiment in the US – and by a US intelligence assessment which concluded that MBS likely approved an operation to capture or kill the Saudi columnist. Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi. A Saudi citizen who was critical of MBS’s government, Khashoggi was assassinated by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. MBS has denied any involvement while accepting symbolic responsibility as the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Born in 1985, MBS considers himself to be part of the first generation to grow up in the digital age. One of thousands of princes in the Saudi royal family, he earned a law degree from King Saud University and began a tumultuous career in government, clashing with some officials while maintaining close ties to his father, the longtime governor of Riyadh. When King Salman ascended the throne in 2015, he appointed MBS Minister of Defense and the prince’s star rose rapidly. In 2017, he sidelined his older cousin to become heir to the throne and de facto ruler, overseeing all of the kingdom’s key portfolios, from oil to foreign policy. MBS eased many social restrictions, ending the ban on female drivers, limiting the power of religious police and allowing gender mixing and public concerts. These changes are in line with the prince’s plan for the future, Vision 2030, which calls for a more open society and a diversified economy. However, under the prince’s leadership, Saudi authorities have also cracked down on domestic dissent, imprisoning businessmen, clerics, activists, writers and academics of all political persuasions. In 2020, authorities arrested the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, as well as the king’s own brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and accused them of undermining the state. MBS adopted a more assertive foreign policy than other Saudi leaders, entering and then resolving a rift with neighboring Qatar. He also launched a bombing campaign in 2015 in Yemen, where a civil war has since escalated into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Skeptics fear that the prince is too inexperienced and willful – and that his autocratic style means that there is no one left to check his authority or question his plans. His monopolization of power and repressive tendencies have already antagonized some potential allies, including some members of the royal family as well as Saudi intellectuals and activists who have called for many of the same changes he instituted. His rapid overhaul of life in the kingdom has unsettled some ordinary Saudis who are troubled by social changes or struggling to cope with the rising cost of living. Yet many other Saudis are staunch supporters of the prince and his plans, saying he has revitalized their country, unlocked its potential for growth and change and given them basic social freedoms that had long been denied them. His supporters see his youthful energy as an advantage in a country where more than half of the citizens are under 30. Either way, the prince is likely to stay here; barring unforeseen events, he will ascend the throne after the death of his father. His young age could give him several decades to continue his program and cement his final legacy.
• QuickTakes on Saudi Aramco, murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.
• A Congressional Research Service report on US-Saudi relations.
• A transcript of an extensive Bloomberg interview with the prince
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