Review | MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman – Ben Hubbard

About the Book

MBS is the untold story of how a mysterious young prince emerged from Saudi Arabia’s sprawling royal family to overhaul the economy and society of the richest country in the Middle East—and gather as much power as possible into his own hands. Since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman has leveraged his influence to restructure the kingdom’s economy, loosen its strict Islamic social codes, and confront its enemies around the region, especially Iran. That vision won him fans at home and on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood, and at the White House, where President Trump embraced the prince as a key player in his own vision for the Middle East. But over time, the sheen of the visionary young reformer has become tarnished, leaving many struggling to determine whether MBS is in fact a rising dictator whose inexperience and rash decisions are destabilizing the world’s most volatile region.

Based on years of reporting and hundreds of interviews, MBS reveals the machinations behind the kingdom’s catastrophic military intervention in Yemen, the bizarre detention of princes and businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, and the shifting Saudi relationships with Israel and the United States. And finally, it sheds new light on the greatest scandal of the young autocrat’s rise: the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, a crime that shook Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Washington and left the world wondering whether MBS could get away with murder.

MBS is a riveting, eye-opening account of how the young prince has wielded vast powers to reshape his kingdom and the world around him.

384 pages (hardcover)
Published on March 10, 2020
Buy the book


My first thought, upon seeing this biography, was “what’s the point in writing a biography of a dude in his 30’s? Then, the more I thought about who MBS is, and all the events that have circled around this dude, the more I realized that there might be a huge point, and it might be very worth reading… so I bought it. 

And I couldn’t put it down.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. 

It is that good. 

Now, first you have to understand that Hubbard has had one hell of a task ahead of him. The Saudi government is essentially locked down. They have complete control over the flow of information, and MBS is at the helm of all of that. There are things known about him, but usually what is known is what people have let slip anonymously, or what someone like Hubbard, who has a boatload of experience in the realm, can understand and read into complex situations. 

This book tells the evolution and PR campaign of a nation, with MBS at its core, rather than a book about MBS with all this other stuff floating around him. I think MBS himself is more like the glue that holds it all together, and so much of this gets traced back to him. This is a pretty good way to attack a book in general, because MBS doesn’t have a whole lot of personal life that is known enough to talk about. 

Saudi Arabia is sort of going through a reinvention right now, with MBS the visionary (sort of?) at the helm of this ship, charting its new course. There is a whole lot of cultural flux going on, and there’s blowback by both conservative factions and liberal. A lot of this is covered, exploring these issues from both conservative and more liberal Saudis. With Hubbard’s experience in the realm and his knowledge of language and culture, I felt like he did a very good job at showing me not a Westerner’s view of how these things are happening, but a Saudi’s view of all this change, through interviews done with prominent clarics, and just people he runs across at events. 

MBS is a young man. He’s got young ideals. He was a sort of far-flung member of the Saudi royal family, and it has been through a boggling amount of events, both natural and manipulated (natural deaths of uncles and etc, for example, and his withholding diabetes medication from MBN, who was the crown prince, until he forcefully abdicated his position) that he moved up to the position he is in today, and a whole lot has happened in his rise. A whole lot that has played a big role in international politics, like the war in Yemin, women driving, entertainment being allowed back in the country, a sort of defanging of the religious police, the kidnapping of the PM of Lebanon, and, of course, the death of Jamal Khashoggi. 

This is all covered, and I was honestly surprised by just how much all of these big events have MBS as a control piece. With his father, King Salman in failing health, MBS has been both the first and second power broker in Saudi Arabia for quite some time. He is a man who has a certain vision for his country, but often the means he uses to attain that vision left me feeling like he had an unrealistic vision of the world, or maybe he’s just got a very loose grasp on reality? I don’t exactly know, but sometimes the divide between “I think journalists should report on what is happening in Saudi Arabia” and “So I’m going to murder Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey and have his body chopped into pieces by 15 people who did a really bad job at hiding their identities, who are also directly tied to my personal house” was… something to behold. I guess the lines connecting the end goal to the actions to attain those end goals might only be obvious to him, but to me it was just surreal with how disjointed his stated desires and actual actions often felt. 

For example, he locked up all these powerful business owners, power brokers, and political influencers, as well as family members in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, forcing them to sign over vast swaths of their wealth, sometimes torturing them (One person reportedly died in custody, others claimed they were electrocuted, there were reports of sleep deprivation and etc). The aim of this particular game was to “cut down on corruption” and to be clear, there is a lot of corruption in Saudi Arabia. A good chunk of the populous cheered about this, because corruption is a big deal, and it’s all over, and a problem. Yay, finally someone is taking care of the problem. 

But. 

MBS, since his rise to power, has accumulated a boatload of money, and he hasn’t accounted for how he got any of it. He bought “the most expensive house in the world” which is located in France. According to my Google searches, I don’t think the guy has ever set foot in the place. He bought a yacht for half a billion dollars. He threw down something like $400 million on a Leonardo da Vinci piece, which is the most any private buyer has ever spent on art, ever. He rented a private island and threw a big party there, bringing in all sorts of performers, prostitutes, and cocaine. I mean, the guy is LOADED. And this kind of shows the dysfunction that I think this book highlighted the most. The end justifies the means, maybe, in his eyes. And the means are often brutal, horrible, and ill-planned. He’s had one PR nightmare after another, and he’s killed and arrested, brutally silenced a ton of people. 

On the other hand, women can drive now, and Saudi Arabia is bringing some “government approved” entertainment back, so yay? 

I think, maybe I’m left with this impression. He’s brutally consolidating his wealth and power, and he’s using “let’s modernize our country and make it a fun place to live again” as the curtain he’s operating behind.

The writing in this book was fantastic. There really wasn’t a slow moment throughout the piece. Everything connects to everything else. Once the ball starts rolling, it really just picks up pace until the explosive ending. Hubbard has a great way with building a bridge between Saudi Arabia, a culture not many of us understand, and the wider Western world. He doesn’t state his opinions on what is happening, but it is hard not to hear is disquiet, his disapproval, his worry over how a lot of these things are going to play out. Mostly, I found it fascinating to see how Saudi Arabia has a huge role in not just the Middle East, but the wider world, and why the US is so connected with them– something I didn’t quite grok until I read this book. With someone as unpredictable and often just stupid (and, let’s face it, BRUTAL and CRIMINAL can fit in here, as well) about actions as MBS, there is real concern with how all of this will play out. 

It’s a book that left me torn down the middle. On the one hand, I really do genuinely hope that a lot of these social reforms pan out the way people over there want them to. Progress is important, and I think Saudi Arabia is due for a good dose of it. On the other hand, MBS has complete and absolute control over this nation and the people in it. He is silencing journalists, putting family members on house arrest, torturing people, and starting huge regional wars. He is dangerous, and unpredictable, and seems to not be nearly as smart as he thinks he is, so I’m not exactly sure where this will all end up, but it is worth watching. 

This book is a must read for anyone with any interest at all in this sort of thing. 

5/5 stars

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