Looming over the disappearance and presumed murder of a dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a 33-year-old prince, whose ruthless pursuit of power could have been lifted almost directly from the pages of a Shakespeare play to the headlines of today.
Mohammed bin Salman is nominal heir and de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies. These are countries – all are currently run by men – where the king is head of state and government, controlling all levers of power. He lives surrounded by the trappings of luxurious modernity, from yachts to art masterpieces, but wields power in a system that would have been familiar to a medieval ruler.
This pre-modern political world, where one man has total authority over all others, is the only one Bin Salman has ever lived in and known intimately. “[The crown prince] cannot relate to the world outside Saudi. He was raised in a palace, being told you can do everything you want,” said one Saudi, who asked not to be named. “His biggest issue is that he never accepts mistakes.”
Bin Salman chose instead to stay in Saudi Arabia, close to his father who is now King Salman, studying law at King Saud University, then taking a string of jobs at his father’s side. This allowed him to cement their ties and become the power behind the throne. King Salman is well into his 80s and thought to be in the early stages of dementia, according to Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The exact details are not clear, with the state of his health “a closely guarded secret”, but Bin Salman has reportedly acted as gatekeeper to his father. He even kept his parents apart for several years as he engineered his ascent from the ranks of thousands of virtually anonymous royal princes, NBC reported.
Academically successful, impatient, and a workaholic known to spend 18 hours a day in his office, he has a strong belief in his intellect and the judgment that carried him to power.
But critics say he also struggles to recognise errors, or accept even mild criticism. “People who tried to say no even gently and diplomatically faced consequences,” said one source from Saudi Arabia, who asked not to be named. This thin skin was put on international display when a single tweet from Canada, calling on the kingdom to release jailed activists, prompted the kingdom to sever diplomatic and trade ties. It was particularly surprising given the effort Bin Salman had poured into presenting himself as the young face of change, at home and abroad. Nearly two-thirds of Saudis are under 30, and he claimed to be their champion.
“Especially when he was unofficially campaigning to be the next king, the message he wanted to get across was ‘I represent the younger generation’,” said one consultant who worked on Saudi issues and asked not to be named.
Bin Salman allowed women to drive, reopened cinemas after decades, and curbed the powers of the much-feared morality police. He also vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam”, restraining the reach of hardline clerics who promote extremism, and to rejuvenate its economy.
It all provided plenty of material for upbeat media coverage of a “reformer prince” on brief official trips to the US and other western countries. A cascade of Saudi wealth, channelled through PR firms and lobbyists, helped unfurl the red carpet. Earlier this year he made a triumphant two-week progress around the United States, where he was feted by everyone from film stars, including Morgan Freeman, to Silicon Valley tech billionaires, to Donald Trump at the White House. Previous trips have included personal tours of the Facebook headquarters with Mark Zuckerberg.
Yet under Bin Salman’s rule, Saudi Arabia has launched a bloody war in Yemen, presided over the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon and forced him to resign, and imprisoned dozens of his own elite in a luxury hotel as part of a touted crackdown on corruption.
Bin Salman signalled clearly that his push for change did not extend to politics, rounding up dozens of intellectuals in sweeping crackdowns at home, and lifting opponents from the streets of other countries to bring them back to Saudi jails.
Khashoggi, who used his position to highlight these contradictions, was among those Bin Salman wanted to target, hoping to lure him home then detain him, according to US intelligence intercepts reported by his employer the Washington Post.
It is not clear if the crown prince considered Khashoggi a genuine threat, because of his prominent international platform and extraordinary network of journalist and power-broker friends around the world, or just bridled at his criticism.
But it is clear that the crown prince wanted his voice silenced. The question the world is now asking is, what price might he have paid for that?