For once, the publisher’s hype is true. Blood and Oil really is a riveting page-turner, a descent into a nest of vipers, a chilling profile of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS.
MBS is the seventh child of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, but the first son from Salman’s second marriage. Salman felt estranged from his first six children after they were educated in Europe and the US, and resolved to keep his favourite son, Mohammed, by his side.
Salman taught MBS to spy on relatives. As an adolescent he was dubbed Stray Bear, because of his imposing size, scruffy appearance and bad temper. When Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, died in 2015, Mohammed, then 30, plotted his father’s accession to the throne.
Salman made Mohammed deputy crown prince, minister of defence and head of the Saudi Aramco oil company. MBS embarked on a brutal and disastrous war against Shia Muslims in Yemen. He said the war would last only two months. It continues today.
In the summer of 2015, MBS rented an island resort in the Indian Ocean for a holiday with his buddies. The 150 models flown in for the prolonged beach party were checked for sexually transmitted diseases on arrival.
That same summer, MBS purchased a chateau near Versailles for more than $300 million, and the Serene, a 439ft yacht previously rented by Bill Gates, for €429 million. He later used a middleman to buy Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $450 million, the world record for an oil painting.
MBS began speculating on the stock market at age 15, after selling $100,000 in gold nuggets he had received as gifts in childhood. He used his father’s earlier position as governor of Riyadh to extort funds from prominent businessmen. The practice continued in what came to be known as the Sheikhdown.
MBS replaced an uncle as crown prince in 2017, then arrested more than 350 princes and wealthy Saudis that November. The men were incarcerated in the Ritz Carlton hotel and various prisons, and were accused of stealing $100 billion over decades. At least one died in prison. Prince Turki bin Abdullah, once a contender for the throne, disappeared for good. Another 17 required hospitalisation as a result of ill-treatment.
MBS has budgeted $500 billion for NEOM, the fantasyland he wants to build on the Red Sea coast. NEOM will have flying taxis, a bridge to Egypt, a Jurassic Park-like island with robotic dinosaurs and a man-made full moon that will rise every evening. MBS believes experts on longevity can make the residents of NEOM live for hundreds of years.
Mister Bone Saw
In October 2018, the initials MBS came to stand for Mister Bone Saw, after a murder instrument transported by the crown prince’s henchmen on a private jet to Istanbul.
The exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had denounced MBS’s widespread use of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Saudis suspected of disloyalty. Khashoggi had the temerity to demand democracy in the Arab world, and he was close to Qatar, the Gulf sheikdom which MBS blockaded and considered invading.
The Turkish government had planted listening devices in the Saudi consulate, which Khashoggi visited to collect divorce papers. In recordings leaked after Khashoggi’s death, Lt Col Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, a doctor from the Saudi interior ministry, told colleagues he listened to music and drank coffee while sawing up cadavers. “Has the sacrificial animal arrived yet?” another accomplice asked. One could hear the fear building in Khashoggi’s voice when he realised what was going to happen.
US president Donald Trump initially promised “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia was shown to have killed Khashoggi. When evidence was provided, Trump referred to “rogue killers” and alleged that MBS “had no knowledge” of the murder. This contradicted the CIA’s conclusion that MBS “probably ordered” Khashoggi’s killing. Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, concluded that Khashoggi’s death was “a deliberate premeditated execution”.
MBS had agreed to support the so-called deal of the century hatched by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the expense of the Palestinians. He shared a visceral hatred for the Islamic Republic of Iran with Trump’s now former adviser Steve Bannon, and rejoiced in Trump’s renunciation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Before Khashoggi’s murder, MBS discussed his $2 trillion Vision 2030 investment fund with the JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs investment banks, Jeff Bezos, Tony Blair, Hollywood’s most influential agent Ari Emanuel, Bill Gates, Uber founder Travis Kalanick, Christine Lagarde, US general David Petraeus and many others. They turned a blind eye to MBS’s reputation for wanton bloodshed.
Some but not all of MBS’s high-power enablers dropped him when the truth emerged about Khashoggi. Richard Branson, who had received a commitment of $1 billion from MBS for his Virgin Galactic space tourism company, counselled the crown prince, post-murder, on how to improve his image.
MBS could not understand why so much was made of the death of one pesky journalist. Trump’s White House and some western investors shared that opinion. “This whole Khashoggi thing doesn’t mean anything,” John Burbank, a US hedge fund manager, told the Wall Street Journal, which employs the books’ authors as reporters. When it comes to investing in Saudi Arabia, “one person’s life doesn’t matter unless it’s MBS’s”, Burbank said. “Khashoggi doesn’t matter.”
Human Rights Watch reported the arbitrary arrests or disappearance of six more Saudi royals this spring.
MBS is not king yet, but his acolytes boast he could rule Saudi Arabia for the next 50 years.
The 14th-century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun, quoted by Hope and Scheck, said no dynasty lasts beyond three generations. MBS is the first ruler of the third generation of al-Sauds. One cannot help wondering if a man so steeped in blood, who has made so many enemies in a very short time, can long escape the fate he has imposed on others.