TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Over the past week the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has provoked an oil price war with Russia, sending energy and stock markets into a tailspin, and ordered the detention of four senior members of the country’s royal family. Our guest, New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard, says no one should be surprised by erratic behavior from the crown prince, who is probably best known for his association with the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi carried out by his agents in Turkey.
In a new book, Hubbard describes how MBS, as the crown prince is sometimes known, outmaneuvered rivals to become next in line to the throne now held by his 84-year-old father. Hubbard says bin Salman is a more complex character than many realize. He’s a heavy-handed autocrat known for spying on citizens and arresting his critics, and he’s given to strange and sudden foreign policy moves, such as kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon to force him to resign. But he’s also initiated meaningful reforms in the country, loosening strict Islamic social codes and giving women more freedom.
Ben Hubbard speaks and reads Arabic and has spent a dozen years covering the Middle East. He’s currently the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. He spoke with FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies about his new book, “MBS: The Rise To Power Of Mohammed Bin Salman.”
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Ben Hubbard, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let’s talk about what Mohammed bin Salman has done with his power in Saudi Arabia. There’s just – it’s full of contradictions. He has big ideas for economic reform and modernization. He presented these to the Obama administration at various trips to Washington. Give us a sense of his vision for the country and its future and how he couches it.
BEN HUBBARD: Well, he’s a young man who has big dreams and, you know, who really thinks he can do big things. I mean, I think that there are plenty of 20-year-olds or people in their early 30s who think that they know better than the older generation. And, you know, the difference is that his father is the king of a country and he can give him tremendous power and that he also has access to tremendous resources. And so he’s able to sort of, you know, hire consultants and hire people to try some of these things out.
And so – but we’ve seen this kind of whole raft of hugely ambitious initiatives. So, you know, this goes from his Vision 2030, which was his big plan to sort of reformat both Saudi society and the Saudi economy. And it’s this huge, ambitious plan that goes through, you know, trying to get more Saudis into the private sector, trying to get more women Saudis into the workforce. It goes all the way down into, you know, changing society so that Saudis have more access to entertainment. It goes into trying to encourage more Saudis to exercise on a regular basis. I mean, it’s this huge, kind of sprawling document about all the things that he would like to see change in Saudi society.
And, you know, I think when it came out, a lot of people kind of pooh-poohed it and kind of said, oh, this is, you know – I don’t think there’s much in it that’s objectionable. I think what’s remarkable is that it’s so incredibly ambitious. I mean, we can certainly debate how likely it is that he’s going to be able to pull all of these things off. But, you know, I remember thinking at the time, well, you know, there’s a lot of other leaders in the Arab world who are not thinking this positively about their future of their countries. You know, I don’t think that Bashar al-Assad in Syria, for example, is thinking about where his country is going to be in 2030.
And so, you know, I think it’s – in one way, it’s quite encouraging that he’s thinking about these things and that he’s actually making some effort to put them into practice.
DAVIES: Let’s go through some of these one at a time because I think they’re interesting. I mean, he’s clearly made some major changes in social life in Saudi Arabia. But let’s – the economic projects – he had some huge, grandiose ideas for new cities rising in various places. Give us a sense of some of those ideas. One of them was going to be called N-E-O-M?
HUBBARD: Neom, yes. Neom.
DAVIES: What was he talking about here?
HUBBARD: So on the economic front, he has a whole raft of initiatives, some of which have actually begun, some of which may never quite make it off the ground. You know, one of the big early ones was the privatization of Aramco. And so, you know, this was something that he had announced quite – that was quite a surprise to everybody, including many of the executives inside of Aramco, which is the state oil monopoly, and it’s really the economic engine of the entire country. He basically mentioned in an interview with The Economist magazine that he was going to privatize Aramco, and it sent everybody sort of, you know, scrambling for information.
And people who work in oil markets – what does this mean? This has been, you know, the largest – one of the large – I think it’s the largest company in the world. And all of a sudden he wants to privatize it? What is this going to mean? What’s it going to mean for its relationship with the royal family? And so they kept setting dates. It was delayed numerous times. And then finally, late last year, they did offer a limited IPO of Aramco, but only on the domestic Saudi stock market. So they got some money out of that. And, you know, there’s various debates about sort of how wise that was and what the benefits of that decision were.
You know, he’s got various initiatives to try to get more women into the workplace, and I think that those were actually – those actually predated Mohammad bin Salman. It was King Abdullah, the previous monarch, who was the first to really try to get more Saudi women into the workplace, including in retail as supermarket cashiers and things like that. And MBS has really stepped that up. And I think that there’s a lot of success going on there. Some of those other things are quite – are much, much more ambitious.
The really pie-in-the-sky project is this thing called Neom. And he announced this in late 2017. He held an investment conference in Riyadh, and he invited, you know, businesspeople from all over the world. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of people – probably thousands of people showed up for this thing. And the big reveal at the conference was this thing called Neom.
And he said, you know, we have this unexploited piece of land in the northwestern corner of the country, near the Red Sea, and we’re going to turn it into this sort of mecca for technology, development, business. You know, anything that you can think of, they’re going to – he said they were going to spend $500 billion on it. They were going to bring in businesspeople to write the regulations so that – to sort of create the perfect climate for innovation, for business, for everything. They were going to bring in technology companies.
He said that they were going to have so many robots working there that they might actually outnumber the human inhabitants. They were going to take advantage of the Saudi sun and have it all run on solar power. I mean, this is, like, complete pie-in-the-sky stuff. I mean, Saudi Arabia really has no experience with solar power, with robotics, with a lot of the things that he’s talking about. But he just felt that if I create momentum behind this, the people are going to come to it.
You know, and then there were – sort of once they got working on it, they – you know, there were a bunch of other documents that came out – The Wall Street Journal did an amazing report where they got access to some of the internal documents, which I cite in the book, where he was talking about, wouldn’t it be great if we could have a beach with glow-in-the-dark sand? And they just kind of couldn’t – you know, scientists were sort of working on, well, geez how do we make glow-in-the-dark sand?
HUBBARD: And they hadn’t quite figured out a safe way to do it. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had an artificial moon that sort of launched over Neom at night, carried by some drones? I mean, really, like – you know, really crazy stuff.
And so that – I mean, this is one of the tricks about understanding Mohammed bin Salman, is on one hand, you feel like, you know, you should at least appreciate the ambition. This is a guy who really wants to change things in a country that I think many people felt was in dire need of change in 2015. But sometimes you hear about these project and you just sort of wonder, like, you know, does he really think this is possible? And if it’s even possible, is that really a valuable way to spend all that money? Like, glow-in-the-dark sand – really?
DAVIES: All right, so let’s talk about some of the more practical things that he has achieved. One of them was kind of curtailing the power of the conservative clergy. This was quite real, wasn’t it?
HUBBARD: Oh, this was very real. And to be frank, I wasn’t even sure about it at the time. I remember – I was not in Saudi Arabia when it happened. It was done somewhat unceremoniously. The government just basically made an announcement and said that, you know, the religious police no longer had the power to arrest and that they were supposed to be sort of kind in their interactions with Saudi citizens. And I remember sort of seeing this and saying, I don’t know. Like, is this for real? Is this not for real? Is this just sort of a PR thing? And it was very difficult to tell. I ended up sort of messaging a bunch of my Saudi friends and saying, what do you think? And they just kind of said, we have no idea, either; we’ll just kind of have to wait and see.
And looking back, this was a major, major step. I mean, this was – again, if you had got together sort of a panel of Saudi experts in 2014 and said, do you think that, you know, Mohammed bin Salman or some son of the king can sort of snap his fingers and take the power to arrest away from the religious police? Do you think he’s going to get away with it? I’ll bet that most of them would have said no. There was this belief that these guys were untouchable. There was this belief that they had the backing of very powerful conservative sectors of society who would have risen up and who would have gone to see the king. And in the end, it worked. And, you know, it’s made it a very different place.
And I think that MBS realized that if he did want to make some of these changes – specifically in terms of advancements for women, in terms of women driving, in terms of women working; in terms of entertainment and movie theaters and things like that – he had to get these guys out of the way, and he pulled it off.
DAVIES: Right. Now, tell us about what Saudi Arabia was like when you first went there in terms of the availability of, you know, music to listen to or movies to see – the kinds of entertainment that people take for granted in the West – and how MB – how Mohammed bin Salman changed that.
HUBBARD: It was really, really dull. I mean, I would go and I would check into a hotel, and then I would sort of try to figure out, OK, well, what do I do now? And, you know, I mean, I – it took a while to sort of develop contacts, to get to know people, to figure out who would actually talk to you. And, you know, so I would spend sort of as much time as I could working, but then, you know, you can only work so long. And then, you know, you’re in a new country; you want to go out and sort of see what the place looks like, and there was just kind of nothing to do.
You know, you’d be in a hotel and, OK, you can go sit in the lobby and drink coffee. Well, you can’t order a beer because there’s no beer. OK, maybe I’ll go to a movie. Oh, there’s no movie theaters. They shut down all the movie theaters, you know, decades ago, so you can’t do that. Live music – maybe I can catch a show. Oh, there’s no live music because we don’t really like it. Maybe in the hotel lobby you would hear some very quiet instrumental music, but definitely nothing live. OK. And I remember thinking, OK, let me – you know, I was staying at a hotel that happened to be right next to a mall. I said, well, let me at least take a walk.
You know, Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, is not a particularly friendly city for pedestrians. But I said, OK, let me go to the mall and take a walk around. And I showed up, and there’s guards at the door who said, no, no, it’s family time; you, as a single man, you can’t come in. Well, OK, fine. So I sort of sat outside, and there were a bunch of young Saudi men there who were trying to get in. And they were sort of, you know, trying to glom on with Saudi families, act like they were members of the family to see if they could sneak in. And it was just entertainment. They just wanted to get in so they could walk around, see what was going on, maybe, like, spot some girls and, you know, try to give them their phone numbers so that they could text with each other.
And – but that’s what the place was. It was just incredibly dull. And so, you know, once you got to know people, you know, the main attraction was basically food. You would get together and eat. Either you’d go out to restaurants or, you know, people would host you at their homes, and, you know, you would you would eat, and that was kind of all there was to do.
DAVIES: Right. And this was rooted in a strict social, you know, interpretation of Islam, strict separation of the sexes – you know, the idea that music was going to kind of create improper conduct. So what did Mohammed bin Salman do?
HUBBARD: Well, there’s every reason to believe that he wasn’t happy about it, that this was not the Saudi Arabia that he wanted to live in and that he wanted his generation to live in. So he basically announced, in Vision 2030, that we realized that our people don’t have the entertainment opportunities that go along with our standard of living, and we’re going to change it. At the time, we didn’t really know what that meant, and we thought that the conservatives were going to push back and were going to sort of make trouble about it and whatever. And it started, you know. They basically – you know, once the religious police were out of the way, they started bringing in different kinds of entertainment activities, and it’s really just sort of skyrocketed since then.
The government has dumped tremendous amounts of money into entertainment. And so you have, you know, concerts coming, and you have, you know, music festivals now going on. You’ve had, you know, Yanni coming to perform, the Backstreet Boys. You’ve had sort of monster truck rallies. They’ve got this deal with WWE, where they have these big, you know, sort of really dramatic wrestling events. I think it was late last year they had a heavyweight boxing tournament that they were trying to bill as sort of one of the most significant events in international boxing since the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. I mean, they’re really – the amount of, you know, sort of money that they’ve put into this is really massive.
And it – and I think, you know, people in the West have been a bit dismissive of this, and they’ve sort of tended to pooh-pooh it. From the – I think the Saudis see this as sort kind of serving two purposes. One is very economic. I think that they realized that Saudis who did have money, when they had vacation, they would get out of the country. You know, they would – a lot of Saudis, you know, they sort of would respect that this is the way it was in the country, but it wasn’t necessarily how they wanted to live personally, and it may not have even gone along with their own personal religious beliefs.
And so vacation time, Saudis used to get the heck out. They would go to Dubai, where they could go have a beer and they could see a movie and do that. People who had more money would go to Paris or go to London and enjoy the various delights that you would have there. They’d go to the United States. And I think that, you know, they realized this is a lot of money that we could keep in the country that’s being spent elsewhere. And so one of the goals of the entertainment – sort of creating this entertainment industry is to try to keep some of this money at home.
And I think it’s also a way of sending a message to these conservative parts of society to just say game over; you know, you guys ran the show for so long, but, you know, if we’re going to be able to sort of, you know, bring the Backstreet Boys and have men and women dancing together at this concert, that’s a pretty clear message to you that the system has changed.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Ben Hubbard. He is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. His new book is “MBS: The Rise To Power Of Mohammed Bin Salman.” We’ll take a break here and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Ben Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. He’s spent more than a dozen years reporting on the Middle East, and he has a new book about the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia who is effectively ruling the country now. The name of the book is “MBS: The Rise To Power Of Mohammed Bin Salman.”
So these are really big changes. There are movies now. There are concerts. And women now can drive; he finally made that change and wanted to make sure he got credit for it and none of the people who had been protesting the ban. What about alcohol? Can you get alcohol in the country? Or is that still prohibited?
HUBBARD: No, you definitely cannot officially get alcohol in the country. That – you know, rumors surface now and then that that’s on the way or that perhaps when Neom gets off the ground, they’ll find a way to sort of give it a special jurisdiction or maybe in these Red Sea developments. But at this point, there’s – alcohol is still banned. And Mohammed bin Salman has actually been asked about it in interviews and said, listen – there’s a lot of things that I can do, and that’s not one of them. So, you know, whether or not that happens sometime in the future, it’s possible. But it’s still unclear.
DAVIES: And what about standards of dress for women and the extent to which women and men can be seen together?
HUBBARD: Well, this has been a major social change that I think – it’s probably hard for people who’ve never spent time in Saudi Arabia to understand. But I hear it all the time from friends of mine and from people who visit Saudi Arabia and who knew Saudi Arabia before. It used to be that women in public places had to wear abayas. And an abaya is basically a large piece of billowy fabric, usually black, which completely covers the woman’s form. You can’t see hips. You can’t see – I guess you can see shoulders. But completely – it’s sort of like a tent that you wear when you walk around.
And then, you know, you’re usually expected to cover your hair. Most Saudi women would also cover their faces, sometimes just letting their eyes show, sometimes even covering their eyes. Foreign women could be a little bit more lax. But you always risked kind of, you know, generating the ire of the religious police, who would come and give you a talking to or, you know, try to get you to cover back up. And this has changed. I mean, I think a lot of – you know, a lot of people still wear abayas because it’s part of the culture. But you just don’t have that pressure to anymore.
You’ve had kind of an explosion among young Saudis, especially Saudi women, of abaya designers, where they’ve – you know, creating these new very stylish abayas that have different kinds of colors and things like that. And it’s much more common just to see women without – who are not covering their hair just out walking around in various places. I mean, it very much depends on where you are in the country, I think. Jeddah on the Red Sea coast has always been sort of a bit more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. It’s sort of seen as on the forefront of this. Riyadh is culturally more conservative, and so these things may not have kind of taken root as much.
But the thing now is that nobody is forcing it on you the way that they were before. There have also been big changes in the ability of men and women to socialize in public, which, again, is a major, major societal change. You know, you have at these entertainment events men and women, you know, going together and sitting together and sometimes even dancing together, which is something that you never would have seen before.
So, I mean, these are major changes in society that, if they stick, you know, they’re going to mean that Saudi Arabia is a very different place going forward than it has been during the rest of its modern history.
DAVIES: So there have been reforms. But he’s also been kind of an authoritarian. You know, you write that Saudi Arabia was never a democracy, but more of a soft-gloved autocracy. I mean, you know, the government didn’t reach into people’s lives very aggressively. This has changed under Mohammed bin Salman, right? What kind of – how is the government presence different in terms of surveillance and just monitoring of people’s activities?
HUBBARD: Yeah. Saudi Arabia has always been an autocracy in that there was certainly no possibility for people to participate in political decision-making or anything like that. But, you know, people were basically expected to keep up appearances in public, you know. You didn’t complain too much. And you – but in the privacy of your own home, you could pretty much say what you want. As long as you weren’t trying to form a political party or a movement or planning a protest or, you know, a jihadist plotting some kind of attack, you were pretty much OK. You know, they just kind of didn’t care so much.
This has all changed under MBS. You know, this – he made it clear very early on that he would not tolerate any dissent. He didn’t want people saying negative things about him. He didn’t want people saying negative things about the country or about the reforms that he was trying to put into place or any of the broader changes, and that there would be a price to pay if you challenged what it was that he was trying to do.
And we’ve seen this on all kinds of different fronts. I mean, there have been multiple waves of arrests where the police have just gone out and rounded people up. And this has included, you know, dozens of clerics and intellectuals who were rounded up at one point. You’ve had a lot of the activists who did used to campaign in quite, I would say, gentle ways against the women driving ban. They were all rounded up at one point.
You’ve had other sort of very prominent clerics, people who had sort of large social media followings – a lot of them have been rounded up. Some of them are on trial. Some of them have been set loose. But it’s just kind of been this process of people being brought in, and if the government kind of can’t convince them that they need to shut up, then they just keep them. And so it’s a little bit varied…
DAVIES: Are they beaten or tortured?
DAVIES: Yeah. Are they tortured, beaten?
HUBBARD: There have definitely been cases of people who have been abused in detention. There’ve been a few very well-known cases. I mean, I wouldn’t want to sort of compare what’s happening in Saudi Arabia to, say, what’s happening in Syria, where there’s just a state practice of torture and, you know, probably, you know, eliminating people inside the prison. But there’s very much, you know – the Saudi state has a lot of leverage that it can use over people, part of that is economic.
Because so much of the money and so many of the jobs come from the Saudi state, it’s easy for the police to call someone in and say, oh, you know, you have, you know, these five uncles of yours who work for the National Guard. And you have, you know, these other members of your family who are teachers. And, yeah, it’d really be a shame if they lost their salaries, you know. Maybe you should rethink about that thing you posted on Facebook. Or you should go delete that Twitter post that you put up.
I mean, they really have a lot of sort of screws that they can turn on people that fall short of putting people on trial or locking them up. They have a huge habit these days of just putting travel bans on people. If they’re worried that they’re going to go abroad and talk to human rights organizations or, perhaps, talk to journalists like me, they just ban them from leaving the country. And it’s a, you know, process that doesn’t really have any judicial backing or any judicial appeal. And people are just stuck.
GROSS: We’re listening to the interview Dave Davies recorded with New York Times Lebanon bureau chief Ben Hubbard, author of the new book “MBS: The Rise To Power Of Mohammed Bin Salman.” After a break, he’ll talk about some of the more troubling events associated with the crown prince, including the kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about a woman who’s been working on a novel for six years. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with New York Times Lebanon bureau chief Ben Hubbard, author of the new book “MBS” about the 34-year-old ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Hubbard says MBS is known for some groundbreaking social reforms in the country, including permitting women to drive. But, as Hubbard said before the break, MBS has also shown strong autocratic tendencies and has cracked down on public dissent.
DAVIES: The other thing that you note in the book was that the regime became very sophisticated at monitoring citizens through hacking cellphones, you know, electronic monitoring, through pressure through social media. You want to just give us a little bit of a taste of that?
HUBBARD: Sometime very early in his tenure, Mohammed bin Salman realized that technology could be a big asset for him, that he could use it both to kind of shape how Saudis understood what was happening in the kingdom and also just for pure surveillance. And so you have one of his deputies, this gentleman named Saud al-Qahtani, who would surface later in connection with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was basically deputized to go out and buy the best hacking technologies that were available on the open market and to also look into technologies for manipulating social media. So if we talk first about social media, you know, social media in the U.S. is one thing. A lot of people are on Facebook. In Saudi Arabia, it’s a completely different magnitude because in the United States, you have – you know, there’s a lot of places where people can go to talk about stuff, you know? And you have talk shows. And you have – you know, it’s just a bit easier, whereas in Saudi Arabia, partly, you know – anyway, for various reasons, social media is massive in Saudi Arabia. You know, Saudis carry multiple cellphones. Many of them have multiple Twitter accounts. They spend huge amounts of time on social media. And it’s tremendously important just for how they understand the world, for how they understand what’s happening in the world and what’s happening inside of Saudi Arabia.
In the early days, there was a big belief that this was going to be kind of a democratizer of information, that, you know, Saudis could then go and they could hear about dissenting views and things like that. And it didn’t really work out that way because the Saudi government became so effective at manipulating the conversations that were taking place in Saudi Arabia. They used automated accounts. They used accounts that we have every reason to believe are actually run by people paid by the Saudi government to intervene in conversations that were taking place and to basically steer them in the direction that the government wanted them to go in. At the same time, you have huge amounts of money invested in hacking technologies. And the information on this has come out more slowly. But the picture, looking back over the last few years, is quite clear that they bought some of the best kind of off-the-shelf hacking technology that you can buy. And they deployed it against a number of Saudi dissidents. They employed it against, you know, many other people just because they wanted to get inside their devices, find out who they were talking to, what they were talking about. And, you know, this was all kind of part of the package of how MBS was going to make sure that there was no challenge to his rule as he was consolidating his power.
DAVIES: Another episode was the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon. Tell us about that.
HUBBARD: I mean, this, again, was, you know, something that’s pretty much, as far as I know, without precedent in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world. I mean, you know, basically what happened – Saad Hariri, who was the prime minister of Lebanon, receives a call and says, you know, you need to come to Saudi Arabia because you’re going to go camping with the crown prince. And he, inside of Lebanon, is a politician who’s always – his family has always been very close to the Saudis. And so he gets on a plane, and he goes. And then next thing you know, he shows up on international TV reading a statement saying that he’s resigning as prime minister and saying all these nasty things about Iran. And so right away, you know, people in Lebanon who know Hariri very well, you know – everybody smelled the rat, I mean, including all the diplomats here, people in politics here. Everybody just kind of said, what’s going on? I mean, partly, he was speaking Arabic in a way that he never does. I mean, this guy was a public figure. People are pretty familiar with how he speaks when he addresses the public. And he was using all this kind of crazy, highfalutin language that’s just not the way that he usually speaks. He had also not talked to any of his aides beforehand and said, hey, I’m thinking about resigning. What do you guys think? – which is, again, completely out of character. And so it just sort of left everybody scratching their heads like, what just happened? Lebanon just lost its prime minister. He’s in Saudi Arabia. What’s going on?
DAVIES: Yeah, resigning from a foreign capital is pretty bizarre. What do we now know about what happened to Hariri when he went to Riyadh?
HUBBARD: So this is, again, one of the most bizarre events that we’ve seen. So he basically arrived. He was taken to – you know, taken to a place where he was more or less confined. He was confronted somewhat violently and basically told, you have no choice in this matter. You’re going to resign. Then he was wearing sort of informal clothes because he thought they were going camping, so they sent somebody to get a suit from his residence. He put on the suit. They handed him a statement to read, and they put him in front of a camera. And he read the statement, and that was about it. And then, you know, he was supposed to be no longer the prime minister of Lebanon. What we know now looking back through the reporting that I’ve been able to do and that others have been able to do on this just bizarre episode is that this was all sort of a strange gambit by the Saudis to try to change the internal politics of Lebanon.
Basically, Saudi Arabia had been a huge player in Lebanon for a very long time, all sort of working through Hariri’s family. MBS kind of looked at that setup and said, I don’t like it. You know, we’ve been giving these guys money. We’ve been supporting their political party. We’ve been, you know, backing Saad Hariri and what he wants to do. And what did we get out of it? We don’t have a whole lot of influence there. Hezbollah, which is, you know, an Iranian-backed party here – much, much more influence; much, much more power. Like, something’s not right, so they came up with this somewhat crazy plan. OK, we’re going to get rid of Hariri. They looked at trying to install one of his older brothers in his place, which didn’t work because the rest of the Hariri family wouldn’t accept it. There was kind of this idea that this would start some sort of civil violence inside of Lebanon that would sort of bog the place down and that would cause Hezbollah to bring its fighters back from Yemen, where – they were there fighting with the Houthis, that they would come back to Lebanon and so that would somehow help the Saudis – I mean, it’s just really, really crazy stuff; I mean, nothing that anybody who really knows much about Lebanon would think is even possible.
DAVIES: And in the end, Harari (ph) it was actually restored to his office, and the whole thing was a big failure. Ben Hubbard is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. His new book is “MBS: The Rise To Power Of Mohammed Bin Salman.” We’ll take a break here and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Ben Hubbard. He’s the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. He’s spent more than a dozen years reporting in the Middle East. He has a new book about the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who is effectively ruling the country. The book is “MBS: The Rise To Power Of Mohammed Bin Salman.”
Mohammed bin Salman didn’t have great relations with the Obama administration. Things were much warmer with the Trump administration. And he had a particularly close relationship with Jared Kushner. You want to just tell us a little about that?
HUBBARD: Yeah. It was very interesting. And I think – to put it in a bigger context, nobody – again, if you had got together experts and asked them, you know – before Trump became president – how do you think his relationship is going to be with the Saudis? You know, Trump had a very long history of saying very nasty things about Muslims and very nasty things about the Saudis. And so I think very people would have predicted that you would have had this very close relationship between the Trump administration and Mohammed bin Salman. But in the end, that’s what happened.
You know, I think it’s – I think it’s actually one of the smarter things that MBS has managed to do is that he – as soon as Trump won the election, they basically went and courted him. They sent a whole delegation to the East Coast. They talked to some of Trump’s business associates, some of his political associates. They met with Jared Kushner.
They came back and they wrote a whole report saying, this is who these guys are. These people are dealmakers. They’re interested in the bottom line. They’re interested in business. They don’t know a lot about the Middle East. And what they really care about is Israel.
And so they basically used that to craft their approach to the administration. And it turned out to be a wild success. I mean, Trump, you know, frequently talks to King Salman. He frequently talks to Mohammed bin Salman. Jared Kushner has become a close personal friend to Mohammed bin Salman, so much so that, you know, people in other parts of the U.S. government complain that they don’t know what they talk about. I mean, Jared Kushner will fly to Saudi Arabia. He’ll meet with Mohammed bin Salman at some desert ranch. And then he’ll fly home.
And, you know, if someone from the State Department does that, they write up a cable. And they send it back. And that’s circulated within the government. Kushner doesn’t need to do that. And so you have entire branches of the U.S. government who don’t know what’s happening inside of this incredibly important bilateral relationship.
DAVIES: Yeah. One of the things Trump has talked about is how valuable Saudi arms purchases have been for the United States. And you cite one pretty remarkable example of Kushner kind of personally brokering, it seems, a deal for arms. You want to tell us about that?
HUBBARD: Trump has always talked about the importance of Saudi Arabia spending lots and lots of money on U.S. arms. And there’s this sort of somewhat bizarre case of when Jared Kushner was meeting with some Saudi officials and representatives, you know, talking about a new arms package that was supposed to go through for the Saudis. And someone in the room recommended a piece of kit that was not included in the original package. And Jared Kushner said, I’m going to see if I can get you a discount on this, basically.
And he calls up, you know, a high-ranking official from Lockheed Martin and says, I think we should give them a discount. The person says, well, let me look into it and get back to you. And some of the other people in the room were just baffled because, usually, American officials are trying to look out for the interests of American companies and American arms manufacturers, and not look out for the interests of, you know, representatives of foreign governments.
DAVIES: You know, the one thing that probably most people know about Mohammed bin Salman is his association with the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is pretty well known. But you want to just describe this incident for us? I mean, he went to get, I guess – was it a marriage license at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, right?
HUBBARD: Yeah. Jamal Khashoggi was an incredibly well-known Saudi journalist. For many decades, he had been seen as part of the establishment. He was close to the royals. He was close to the government. When I started covering Saudi Arabia, he was incredibly valuable because he was a Saudi that, unlike many others, would always answer his phone when you would call. And he would do his best to tell you what was going on. And he would say, this is what I think the government is thinking. This is what they’re doing. This is what, you know, I think the king wants to do.
And, you know, for a journalist trying to make sense of Saudi Arabia, he was someone who was incredibly valuable. By 2018, he had broken with Saudi Arabia. He had become a critic of Mohammed bin Salman. There were lots of things sort of on the more authoritarian side of what MBS was doing that he didn’t like.
He had fled the kingdom. He was living in, you know, outside of Washington, D.C. And he wanted to get married. He had met a younger Turkish woman that he wanted to marry. And in order to do so, he needed a document proving that he had been divorced from this previous marriage.
So he went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up the document, and he never came out, which started, you know, yet again, an incredibly bizarre and somewhat terrifying episode in the rise of MBS. When we, you know – sort of the Turks revealed over time that he had been held inside. He had been murdered. And he had been chopped into pieces by a team of Saudi agents who had flown in specifically for that task.
DAVIES: In the days and weeks after the murder, when people were trying to figure out what happened, what kinds of communications did President Trump or Jared Kushner have with his friend, you know, Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudis?
HUBBARD: Well, they had a surprising number of phone calls. I mean, Trump was on the phone with him all the time. There were a number of calls that took place. I mean, I had, you know, someone who had knowledge of these calls describe them to me. And what was remarkable is that, in public, Trump was very bullish on the Saudis. He stood up for them. And he said, you know, these guys are important for us. I don’t know if he did it. But these people are very important for us.
And, you know, from the calls that I was able to get some information on, Trump was quite hard on them. He called them up and said, listen, what happened? Did you guys know about this? You know, he asked the king, did you know about this? He asked MBS, did you know about this? And they just denied everything, you know.
At one point, he told them, you know, there’s this whole story about the bone saw, that this team had showed up with a bone saw that they had used to dismember Khashoggi. And Trump asked them, you know, what’s the deal with this bone saw? You know, I’ve been in some tough negotiations in my life, but I’ve never needed a bone saw. And from what I was told, they never acknowledged anything. They never told him, yeah, we know about it. They just kept denying it and denying it.
DAVIES: Yeah. And in the end, Trump – when it was clear that this had come from the top in Saudi Arabia, he – his bottom line was we need them, right?
HUBBARD: Yeah. You know, basically the Central Intelligence Agency did an assessment that they, you know, I would say released to parts of the U.S. government in a way that made it sure that it would be leaked to the news media, which it was, which said that, you know, there was no smoking gun that MBS had ordered the killing. But all the circumstantial evidence pointed to that. Basically, the way that the kingdom works, this kind of an operation that was this big of a deal and that was this complex, there was no way that it was going to go forward without signoff from the top guy.
You know, this was released. We reported on it. Other newspapers reported on it. It was, you know, sort of, you know, became part of the public record of our understanding of what happened. And Trump just kind of ignored it and said, yeah, it doesn’t really matter either way. You know, maybe he did it, and maybe he didn’t. But at the end of the day, he’s important for us, and that’s what matters.
DAVIES: You know, what’s kind of remarkable when you look at all of this together is that you have Mohammed bin Salman, who is now, I think, 34, right? And, you know, most politicians with some experience learn that there are limits to their power and influence. They can’t simply order things to be done.
And, you know, even after, you know, Mohammed bin Salman, you know, orders the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon and various other things which go very badly and end up being embarrassing, he still thinks he can murder a leading dissident journalist and get away with it. I mean, do you feel like you understand what goes on in this guy’s head, what gives him the sort of, I don’t know, this ability to think he can do just anything?
HUBBARD: Well, I don’t sort of want to do too much mind-reading. I mean, I would assume that some of it is just – has to do with, you know, being a top leader in an absolute monarchy. I mean, this is not a country where if you want to make a decision, you need to run it through some big process to get it approved or you need to, you know, get sign-off or you need to send it to Congress to debate and then vote on. You know, you just – if you’re the king or the crown prince, you just kind of do what you want. And so, I mean, I think that would be my best guess for why he’s kind of felt that he could do some of these things.
And I think the big question going forward is – the thing to remember about Mohammed bin Salman is he’s still very young. I mean, he’s 34. If his father passes away soon, he could very quickly become king, and he could be king for 50 years. You know, he could be king – if he lives to be as old as his father, he’ll be king sometime into the 2060s. So I think the big question about – you know, as watching Mohammed bin Salman going forward, is – is he learning from his mistakes? Like – and I just don’t know. Does he look at sort of the Yemen War? Does he look at what he did to Saad Hariri? Does he look at, you know, some of these other things? Or does he look at the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and say, wow, we really messed that up – that was not the right way to do this?
And, you know, I can’t answer that question. And – but I think that’s really what we should keep an eye on going forward, is how much is he learning from these mistakes? And is there a chance that, you know, he’s going to grow into sort of a wiser, more circumspect ruler who’s going to think a little bit more before he does these kinds of rash activities?
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that’s striking when you look at the picture you paint of him as a leader is the contrast between these really, very significant reforms in terms of, you know, social mores and rules for, you know, religious restrictions and some economic change on the one hand and then this tendency towards autocracy on the other. Do you see any – is there a framework that puts these together, a model?
HUBBARD: Well, I think it can be hard for people in the West to kind of see these two things happening at the same time, but they are. I mean, I think that the social changes are real. I think they’re significant. I think he’s pushing them through. I also think that he’s an autocrat, and he doesn’t really want checks and balances on his power. He doesn’t really want anybody to tell him what he can or can’t do. And, you know, these things are proceeding at the same time.
And sadly, I mean, I think there’s almost something tragic about Mohammed bin Salman. I mean, this is a guy who craved international legitimacy, who craved international recognition. I mean, he went to great extents to show the world I’m the guy who is going to change Saudi Arabia. I’m going to diversify the economy. I’m going to give rights to women. I’m going to try to, you know, get rid of some of the nastier aspects of Wahhabism that we’ve been spreading around the world. And he really wanted to get credit for all that stuff.
And – but he basically sort of, you know, did away with a lot of the benefits with all the crazy stuff that he did. I think people watched the Yemen War and sort of the uncounted civilian casualties there. People watched Hariri. They watched the endless waves of detentions inside the kingdom. And then – you know, then to cap it all off, we get this gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And, you know, it just sort of meant that he couldn’t actually get credit for a lot of the really positive things that he had done or for these big, grand ambitions that he had. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sort of expected that someday he would be sort of on the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year, and in the end, they put Jamal Khashoggi on the cover of Time as Person of the Year.
DAVIES: How is he regarded by his citizens these days on the street? Can you tell?
HUBBARD: You know, you’ll generally hear that he’s very popular with young people, and I think that’s generally the case. I just would caveat it and say it’s very hard to tell that – you know, this is an absolute monarchy. This is a place without civil society to speak of. This is a place without any kind of public polling. And, you know, because of the arrests and the social media crackdowns and everything else, it’s been very – it’s been made very clear to Saudi citizens that if you are on board with the changes, you can speak, and you can praise, and you can go on Twitter and talk about how great everything is. And if you’re a bit more reluctant or if you think that this is not the right direction, then you should just shut up. You should just be quiet and keep it to yourself.
DAVIES: Well, Ben Hubbard, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HUBBARD: Thank you.
GROSS: Ben Hubbard is The New York Times Beirut bureau chief. He spoke with Dave Davies about his book “MBS: The Rise To Power Of Mohammed Bin Salman.” After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about a woman who’s been working on a novel for six years. This is FRESH AIR.
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