Accused by the American intelligence services of having “validated” the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, quickly became the strong man of the kingdom, leading at the same time reforms and repression of all dissent.
“We have come to the conclusion that Mohammed ben Salman has validated an operation in Istanbul to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” writes the National Intelligence Directorate in a declassified four-page document. “The crown prince regarded Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom (…).”
In 2018, American elected officials and UN experts accused the prince of having ordered the assassination that took place in October of the same year. The Saudi prince known as MBS had dismissed the accusations, nevertheless assuming his responsibility as the de facto ruler of the kingdom.
Despite the scandal, his father, the sick 82-year-old King Salman, follows him on almost every case. At 32, the man nicknamed “MBS” is undoubtedly the strong man of the kingdom, the leading Arab economy and the world’s leading exporter of crude.
Born on August 31, 1985, the man with the thick black beard and traditional flashy dresses, works 16 hours a day and says he received a strict maternal education. A law graduate from King Saud University, he has two boys and two girls.
“It is an intellectual machine, it is really in the strategy”, affirms a Western official on condition of anonymity. He is “sometimes impulsive” and “ignites” when he talks about his projects.
– “Extraordinary power” –
The prince’s mission is to restructure the economy, which is too dependent on oil, and to reform the very conservative society in this country which is home to the first holy places of Islam. He promised a “moderate and tolerant” Saudi Arabia, where half of the 31 million inhabitants are under 25 years old.
However, the authorities have carried out waves of arrests in religious, intellectual, economic and even within the royal family, a “modernization of authoritarianism”, according to Stéphane Lacroix, specialist in Saudi Arabia.
Under MBS, women are allowed to drive in June 2018 and can now mingle with men at pop concerts or football matches.
Along with the burgeoning entertainment, a relentless crackdown has descended on civil society, including imprisoned women’s rights activists.
In June 2017, MBS, with the help of his father, dismisses a cousin, Prince Mohammed ben Nayef, a powerful Minister of the Interior, to take his place as heir.
In November 2017, after the creation of an “anti-corruption commission” that he heads, some 200 personalities (princes, ministers, ex-ministers, businessmen) were arrested, an unprecedented purge.
Mohammed ben Salman succeeded in granting himself “extraordinary power and influence in a very short period of time,” notes Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Institute in Washington.
Its “Vision 2030” program, launched in the midst of falling crude prices, aims to diversify the economy, with in particular the IPO of the public oil giant Aramco and a sovereign fund aiming for the first place with 2,000 billion dollars.
– Honeymoon with Trump –
The Crown Prince holds the posts of Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Special Advisor to the Sovereign and President of the Council for Economic Affairs and Development, which seeks to transform Aramco into a “global industrial conglomerate”.
MBS also oversaw Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen in 2015 to fight rebels backed by Iran, the kingdom’s great rival.
In recent years, Riyadh has adopted a more offensive foreign policy, largely facilitated by former US President Donald Trump, the billionaire full of praise for “MBS”, leader of a strategic equipment buyer American military.
In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more conciliatory policy, tried to find a political solution in Yemen, reconciled with Qatar and released activists from prison, including famous activist Loujain al-Hathloul.