Award-winning WSJ reporters Justin Scheck and Bradley Hope (co-author of Billion Dollar Whale) have taken a deep dive into the Saudi royal family with a gripping look at the lavish - and controversial - rise of its central character, Mohammed bin Salman. Telum’s Nick Thorpe caught up with both ahead of the book’s global release today.
Firstly, congratulations on a truly fascinating piece of work. The book contains many surprising revelations and twists that offer a departure from the caricature that the mainstream media have fed us of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) - do you have a favourite that has stuck with you? Bradley Hope (BH)
: My personal favourite chapter is one that Justin wrote called “Captain Saud,” which is a beautifully detailed account of one wayward prince’s extraordinary rendition back to Riyadh by Mohammed bin Salman’s team. It’s an exciting read, but it also goes to the heart of a bigger revelation for me during the reporting of this book, which is that MBS isn’t fickle or simply mean-spirited. He is certainly decisive and often ruthless, but there’s always an interesting backstory to these situations. This prince’s capture was part of a process that ultimately would bring MBS near the brink with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. He had clearly come to the opinion that Saudi Arabian critics of this sort - attacking the legitimacy of the monarchy with the kidnapped prince, Sultan bin Turki II, and becoming a locus of global Saudi opposition with Jamal - was completely unacceptable.
MBS is an incredibly powerful day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia under his father the king, but these actions show a fragility or at least a perceived fragility to that power. Neither of these men were a brand name in the wider world, but somehow they felt dangerous to the incipient reign of MBS. How he acts going forward will always be looked at with atomic microscopes around the world and the question will always be how did the blowback and global criticism affect him - did he learn anything from this? Did he feel compunction or regret? It’s too soon to say. Justin Scheck (JS):
I think often of something simple and very important that an old US intelligence official told me: MBS has been so effective in gaining and consolidating power largely because he’s built an organisation of deeply loyal people to carry out his tasks. This took years, and has come with a risk endemic to monarchies: prioritising loyalty over competency. As a result, MBS has trusted a very small group of people that's been extraordinarily good at building power within Saudi Arabia, but prone to mistakes when working abroad.
To return the compliment, I’m really taken with one of Bradley’s chapters, which focuses on the genesis of a $40 billion-plus investment Saudi Arabia made in the world’s largest venture-capital fund. The investment ended up inflating a huge bubble in Silicon Valley, and pumping up the valuations of companies like WeWork that had highly problematic underlying businesses. What Bradley’s reporting shows is how this investment with global repercussions was the result of some intimate relationship-building in which a long-time Saudi banker used personal connections to link up MBS and the head of SoftBank, Masayoshi Son. There weren’t a lot of questions or analysis done of seemingly basic pieces of the equation, like whether there were enough investment-worthy companies in Silicon Valley to make such huge bets. There’s a dichotomy to the picture you’ve built of MBS - on the one hand a reformative and exciting leader, the other a dangerous and potentially deadly dictator. What is the one takeaway you’d like readers to have from this book? JS:
It does indeed appear to be a dichotomy, but the longer we worked on this project, the more I came to believe that there is a consistency in everything MBS has done as a leader. His goal is to preserve the rule of his family, and every reform, crackdown, international threat or giant investment is done with that goal in mind. To preserve the monarchy, MBS decided he would need to switch the al Saud’s source of credibility from the aged and deeply conservative religious establishment to the burgeoning youth population that’s calling for more economic and social opportunity, hence the social reforms. He decided that Iran was a threat to the monarchy that needed to be dealt with by a show of force previously unseen by the kingdom, so he started bombing Yemen. He calculated that once Saudi Arabia’s oil income wanes, the monarchy would be under pressure. So he’s tried to diversify the economy with huge investments in technology. And he decided that dissent, especially on platforms like Twitter that reach millions at home and abroad, could destabilise the family rule, so he’s cracked down on dissidents.
So I’d like readers to come away with the understanding that this isn’t someone who is reforming in the sense of truly bringing more freedom (he’s shown no indication of giving the Saudi population any say in their governance), nor is he intent on widespread violence. Rather he is someone acutely tuned in to threats to his family’s rule.BH:
I always like to distil a book or an article by imagining what I’d say to someone, an old friend perhaps, in a bar or a café when they ask what I’ve been working on. For this book, what I would say is MBS is one of the most fascinating, powerful and sometimes frightening global leaders to emerge in the Middle East in at least a generation. What we tried to do with Blood and Oil
is start from scratch, unlearn anything we thought we knew about Saudi Arabia or MBS and report everything out again with the goal to painting the most accurate portrait of him we could muster.
The result is much more complex than the caricatures you often see out there. I don’t believe he’s a blood-thirsty tyrant or a gleaming reformer riding into the 21st
century. He is more confident of his actions than just about any other leader you can think of, including President Trump. At the same time, he seems to have a culture of dissent among his aides so much so that they can outvote him on policy changes and not face any repercussion (in fact, it’s considered a big positive if they argue with him). When it comes to broader dissent, he has been extremely thin-skinned and brutal. My broader point is he is fascinating and important because of his complexity, which is important to delve into for anyone trying to envision the future of the Middle East and beyond.
Having had time to let your research percolate, how has your opinion of MBS - and Saudi Arabia - changed since you started this project? And are the two still inextricably linked? BH:
I think a lot of the stories in the book better explain his actions. The broad perception is that MBS was simply a power-hungry madman taking out his rivals. The truth is that he and his father faced a huge battle to rise to power and stay there. During a succession process, an absolute monarchy is at its weakest. To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia had become a kleptocracy led by royals and non-royals in high government positions. Everyone had so much to lose from letting King Salman, the family’s strict disciplinarian for decades, and his son, who had already developed a reputation for charging into places and shaking them up, take power.
My view of Saudi Arabia has only improved. I think it’s a genuinely beautiful country with a really warm culture based on family. I’d honestly love to spend two weeks as a tourist travelling from top to bottom. Much of the history in the Gulf countries has been erased over time to the point that you struggle to get a sense of the heritage and history on a visit to their capitals. Riyadh by itself has more interesting places and museums about Saudi Arabia’s history than anywhere else I’ve been in that part of the Middle East. JS:
I agree with Bradley on this - I’ve come to realise that MBS is a calculating leader whose actions are almost always geared towards achieving some goal. He has sometimes failed in executing those actions in a way that achieves what he wants. But I don’t believe he’s impulsive or acts out of anger. I think he’s a planner and a deliberator.
In terms of my view of Saudi Arabia, it’s endlessly fascinating. I really enjoyed the time I spent with a lot of Saudi people of MBS’ vintage. There was a great optimism in the future of the country that I think is a pretty new thing. One of the things that struck me about these conversations was the different perspectives people living in a monarchy - meaning people without any opportunity to influence their own governance - have on government. A lot of young people are willing to accept the things they like about a ruler and dismiss the things they don’t like, since there’s no choice.
This was a sprawling piece of research that took in multiple countries, countless individuals and vast amounts of data, much of it sensitive. A lot of the accounts in the book come from sources who only spoke “on background”. Did you ever feel unsafe, or get the sense you were tugging at strings that didn’t want to be unravelled? JS:
I’m not sure if it’s more common for people to speak on background these days. I do think that on a subject like this - when you’re writing not just about a ruler intolerant of dissent, but also about relations with other countries that have their own sensitivities - the reality is that a lot of people feel either unsafe or likely to get fired from their jobs if they speak publicly. This relates directly to the question about security. We take every precaution we can to make sure that our communications are secure, and have been doing so for a long time. But I always worry about new technology that can compromise phones or computers. For that reason, I tend to try to meet people in person whenever possible and limit communication over apps, even encrypted ones. BH:
For most journalists today, the biggest risk is cybersecurity. In this book we delved into topics of major importance to many nations in the Middle East and beyond. The fear is always getting hacked, having your sources uncovered and being pressured or blackmailed somehow. Thankfully, years of working on sensitive stories for the Wall Street Journal
has equipped us with a good working system of keeping things secure and we had no issues. First Billion Dollar Whale about a multi-billion dollar fraud, now Blood and Oil which tracks the world’s most wealthy and controversial leader. What will you focus on next? BH:
When you finish a book, it’s very hard to imagine writing another one, so I’m sure we’ll both be letting our minds recover from the intensity of digging into a complex and multifaceted subject. JS:
I’d love to write a book about something slower and out of the public eye - like actual whales - but I think that’s a hard sell and would require a lot of research since I don’t know much about them.
Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman's Ruthless Quest for Global Power by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, is out today, published by Hachette Books.