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Blood and Oil - The story of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

By Ramy Rachmiel |  01.01.2022 | Translated by Yishai Gelb
Image by Zbynek Burival

Muhammad Bin Salman is just 35 and has already been anointed Crown Prince to the Saudi Kingdom. His policies and political aspirations are causing the country to take a more aggressive approach economically to turn Saudi Arabia into a regional power. 

My name is Yishai from the Geo Report, and in this report, I will analyze the book “blood and oil” on Muhammad Bin Salman.

Today, Saudi Arabia is the third kingdom in the Arabian peninsula in the past 200 years, with its latest founder being Abdul Aziz Iben Saud. Ibn Saud founded the domain in the 1930s, and as tribe leader, he wed many wives and fathered many children, which had many children themselves producing no less than 7000 potential crown princes to Inherit the crown. The extended family got access to many governmental positions, high-ranking positions in the army, economic benefits, and of course, the maintenance and profits of its vast oil and gas reserves.

Many of the brothers gained power and wealth as they made an effort to be the next heir to the throne. With the king’s death in 2005, king Abdulla gained control until 2015. His heir was to be one of his sons, although Salman came into power. Unlike others in his family, Salman spent his time making essential connections with people of influence and creating power centers, instead of gaining more wealth. His choices paid off since he ended up becoming king after the death of his brother. Salman is supposed to be the last king from the second generation, meaning from the sons of the first king Iben Saud, and one of his sons or one of the sons of his brothers are to be the next heirs to the throne, the third generation. 

King Salman’s son Muhammad is not preferable since he is the son of his second wife, and spent most of his time playing video games, living a western lifestyle, and did not make an effort to study or deepen his roots in his culture. However, he did learn the power struggles within his family and studied the power dynamics needed to be a ruler. 

In 2015, king Salman appointed two heirs to the crown. The first was his brother Muqrin, and the second was Muhammad Nayef, who was appointed his deputy. Bin Salma, just 29, was appointed the secretary of defense, who was expected to be a passive minister since it seemed to fit his character. However, as soon as he was appointed, he commanded the army to prepare for war in Yemen. In 2015, Saudi Arabia entered operation Asifat al Hazm (Firm Storm), to defeat the Chuti tribes all while the Saudi and Emirates air force bombed North Yemen and paid Sudanese mercenaries fought on the ground in order not to sacrifice Saudi soldiers, thus eliminating any possibility of domestic objections. 

Several Arab countries joined the fight; however, Bin Salman couldn’t convince Pakistan to join the war. His objective was to eliminate any Iranian foothold south of the kingdom, but the war was also political. To present himself as a leader who actively stops Iran from gaining control in their region, and not as one who just talks. His actions gained him popularity in Saudi Arabia. The USA also took notice and started perceiving Saudi Arabia as a country that could protect itself by itself. This was important for the US since it meant operating in the Gulf without needing to spare American soldiers. The newly American expectations were to help him down the road. Bin Salman’s passive character evaporated as he eyed his ultimate goal – King of Saudi Arabia. 

In his youth, he was an avid reader of economic magazines. He admired business figures like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs as he sought business role models for his wealth and for changing the face of the Saudi economy. But he was also an avid reader of history and admired Alexander the Great and Machiavelli, and mentioned these two figures positively in many social gatherings. In his youth, he went into business by opening unsuccessful shops and investments in real estate, capital market investments, oil investments, and even startups like a medical company he founded that were supposed to mediate between wealthy Saudis and clinics in the US. He had many failures, but in the end, he was financially successful in his own right, earned mostly in the stock market. He tried his luck in business in the US and Europe, where he was less successful than in the Persian Gulf, but this experience gave him his first connections in the West.

He developed a historical view of the inevitable struggle between nations and that Saudi Arabia must stand on its own two feet regardless of oil exports if it wants to survive. At the age of 26, after having given up academic studies and having already made his fortune, he befriended his father, Salman. He subsequently stood by his side until his father was crowned king. For several years he assisted him medically and accompanied him to every meeting and political event while closely learning the balance of power and planning his next moves. He also designed during this period the vision of an ambitious 2030 economic plan to transform the Saudi economy into a free market economy that is not at all dependent on oil exports. An act he plans to execute immediately after getting his hands on the reigns of power. 

In April 2015, a month after the operation in Yemen, he began promoting the plan to privatize Aramco, Saudi Arabia's government energy company, with the excuse that the company was wildly inefficient. Examples of inefficiency include providing jobs and promoting engineers and workers not according to professionalism but by connections to the royal house. After his initial success in Yemen, the company came under Bin Salman’s control. He promised that privatizing Amarco would bring efficiencies to the Saudi energy sector and over $ 2 trillion in revenue. Just a month later, in May 2015, Muqrin was removed from office, and Bin Salman became the second heir to the throne after Naif.

In June 2015, he participated without the approval of the royal house in talks with the Obama administration to try to halt the Iranian nuclear program and the nuclear deal, even though the administration preferred Ben Naif as heir to the throne and the next Saudi king. These contacts were unsuccessful, but the Trump administration was an excellent opportunity. Even in 2016, before his election victory, Bin Zaid, with whom he developed a good relationship, linked him to the new administration. In early 2017 he came to the US to promote arms deals with the Trump administration and arranged for Trump to go to Saudi Arabia and sign on agreements worth $ 350 billion, including a $ 110 billion arms deal.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia placed a blockade on Qatar with several goals. to end Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, to end ties with Iran, and to close the Al Jazeera channel. After the blockade, Turkish intervention prevented a Saudi invasion, as Qatar fell under broader Turkish Iranian protection. But despite the failure of the blockade, Bin Salman became the Saudi leader and an ally of the Emirates and Bahrain, the enemies of Qatar. Towards the end of that month, he was strong enough to bring about the ouster of bin Naif and was officially the Saudi heir at the age of only 32.

In October 2020, he organized a major economic summit in the country called "Davos in the Desert," which presented for the first time his ambitious plan: Vision 2030 and the construction of the future city of Neom in an area of ​​12,500 square kilometers northwest of the Tiran Sea. A city full of innovation and electricity that will be generated by solar energy. This conference was a big show with hundreds of guests, including billionaires and world-class bankers. In addition, he promised women’s rights in the country, and more social rights to attract Western investment. But such a vision is a big problem for the kingdom because it demands to change the nature of the Saudi economy, such as stopping subsidies, raising fuel prices, charging for water use, stopping the distribution of jobs by tribal affiliation and not by professionalism, etc. In the past, the Saudi monarchy bribed all tribes to support its kingdom, and Bin Salmans vision threaten the status quo.

In November 2017, he performed Saudi Arabia's Long Knives Night at the Ritz Hotel in the country while arresting dozens of princes on various corruption charges. Even the sons of the former King Abdullah were arrested and deprived of their property while taking care to keep them politically poor and weak. Many of them are still in custody. 

His political purges were also outward with the abduction of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. His father Rafik al-Hariri came to the kingdom in the 1960s and founded a construction company called Saudi Oger. He amassed his fortune and made political connections that later helped him come to Lebanon. Rafik was a Sunni and a loyal ally, leading to investments from many Gulf states in Lebanon when Syria eventually eliminated him in 2005. In 2009 his son Saad came to power, but Saad was a political and geopolitical problem. His father and his ties were with princes who opposed Salman, and Saad also announced his intentions to cooperate with Hezbollah and, in fact, with Iran and Saudi Arabia's enemies. So in November 2017, he came to visit Riyadh with his family after being invited, and on that visit, he was abducted and tortured. After the torture, he stated resignation in front of the cameras. He was held captive in the country for nearly two weeks, and only direct intervention by Emanuel Macron, who wanted him as an ally in Lebanon, led to his release.

In the first months of 2018, Bin Salman met with people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to promote investment in Saudi Arabia. However, many were afraid to invest in Saudi Arabia due to lack of economic freedom, lack of improvement in the status of women or fundamental rights in general, and suppression of freedom of expression. Bin Salman made sure to stop journalists who criticized him, even if it was only a tweet criticizing his policies and not him. He bribed programmers in companies like Twitter to provide details about anonymous criticizers and later arrested them. The highlight was in October 2018 when Jamal Khashukji, a journalist. Two years earlier, power centers had criticized the US’s policy towards Bin Salman. They were even willing to help file a lawsuit for those with family members injured in the Twin Towers attack against Saudi Arabia for its responsibility for that attack. His abduction was at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, to which he was invited for a conversation where he was murdered. The kidnapping and murder were soon publicized by Turkey itself, which saw it as a blatant violation of its sovereignty. There were already sour relations between Erdogan and Bin Salman that deteriorated even further in December 2019. Erdogan even promoted an international Islamic conference in Malaysia, Iran, and many Muslim countries without inviting Saudi Arabia. The assassination also led to the decreed of investments by Western investors who didn’t want to participate in Saudi Arabi’s problematic behavior. 

In 2019 Bin Salman tried to keep a low profile after establishing his power and promoting Aramco's privatization. However, that same year, Iran carried out numerous attacks in the Gulf, with the highlight being its advanced attack on Saudi oil facilities in September of that year. The episode revealed how weak its defense system was and how much the US would not be there as a protecting allay when the Trump administration refused any counter-reaction against Iran. In addition to that, Bin Salman realized that Saudi oil is running out, especially in light of the American oil fracking technology, which poses a threat to the kingdom.

In March 2020, Bin Salman launched an oil price war against Russia by flooding the market with oil causing the price to drop. Such actions were designed to hurt Russia, which relies on high oil prices as an oil exporter. The arrival of Covid-19 and world closures resulted in a sharp drop in the price that hit the Saudi economy as well. Another thing is Israel. As the US withdraws from the Middle East, he must advance the alliance with Israel against Iran but as long as he is not the king but only the heir, he will not be able to reach an official agreement because of the significant opposition of the religious establishment in the kingdom he despises. 

At any rate, Bin Salman is only 35 years old, and yet he has gained a lot of power in Saudi Arabia as his young age and high status allow him to be a decisive factor in Saudi history in the coming decades.

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