Saudi Arabia’s status as a global power rests on an accident of geology that resulted in oceans of oil accumulating beneath its sand. Without that oil, there would be little reason for world leaders to fawn over the sprawling Saudi royal family, or for America to craft its Middle East policy, in large part, to keep the country safe. Few outsiders would care who among its many, many princes are ascendent and who will shape its future.
But Saudi Arabia has oil, and all the power that comes with it. And so, Mohammed bin Salman, sixth son of King Salman, his chosen successor and, at age 35, already ruler in all but name, draws the eyes of the world and the attention of New York Times correspondent Ben Hubbard, author of a comprehensive biography of the prince, more commonly known, like a rock star or distinguished American president, by his initials: MBS.
MBS’s elevated position was never assured. In the early days of his political career, he was an underdog — or, as much of an underdog as a wealthy Saudi prince can be. But, thanks to his dad’s ability to outlive his brothers, and MBS’s own maneuvering, he steadily rose until, eventually, his father chose him ahead of older siblings. “An absolute monarchy is essentially a democracy of one, and MBS got his father’s vote, the only one that mattered,” Hubbard writes.
Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of oil in the Middle East, and the second largest in the world. Canada spends billions on Saudi oil every year. Last year, 13 per cent of the crude oil Canada imported came from Saudi Arabia, second only to the United States. It is perhaps natural, therefore, that oil tends to dominate discussions about Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, but it shouldn’t. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is aggressive and consequential and deserves more scrutiny than it gets.
A good example is Yemen, where civil war has raged since 2014. Saudi Arabia led an armed intervention in the country the following year to oust the Houthis, a mostly Shia movement that had captured the capital, Saana. The Houthis were, and are, supported by Saudi Arabia’s rival, Iran, and so Yemen became the unfortunate host of a proxy war between the two Middle Eastern powers. According to Human Rights Watch, the ongoing conflict has resulted in over 18, 000 civilian deaths, and a food crisis effecting over 20 million people, two thirds of its population.
The conflict was a defining moment for MBS, minister of defence when it began, writes Hubbard. MBS’s choice to go to war “was less about protecting the kingdom than burnishing MBS’s reputation as a tough leader.”
Why should westerners care about a civil war in a small Middle Eastern country most will never visit? For starters, the bombs dropped by Saudi planes are American, and the light armoured vehicles driven by Saudi troops are Canadian, built by General Dynamics Land Systems – Canada at their plant in southern Ontario. That makes Canada complicit. That the website for Canada’s embassy in Saudi Arabia claims the kingdom plays an important role in promoting regional peace and stability makes us hypocrites. It’s amazing what can be overlooked when oil and wealth are involved.
Canada’s multi-billion-dollar weapons deals with Saudi Arabia were frequent topics of discussion on my university campus a year or two back. Activists and students from all over the country spoke out, and political science courses used the topic as a case study for debating ethics, morality and international responsibility during conflict. Hubbard confirms what many of us suspected at the time: Saudi Arabia’s wealth makes it almost untouchable.
MBS’s investments and desire for Saudi Arabia to be part of the modern world has also led him to develop relationships with major companies in Silicon Valley. MBS wants to be seen as an innovator and reformer, and yet the way he deals with dissent is starkly medieval — nowhere more so than in the state-sanctioned murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
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Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, was living in what he described as self-imposed exile from his Saudi homeland, penning frequent criticisms of MBS and the government he has previously served as media advisor to Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain and, later, the United States.
Hubbard conveys Khashoggi’s conflict between his love for his country and his frustration with a regime unwilling to listen to the voices of its people. He also describes Khashoggi’s connection to Canada. Khashoggi became friends with Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi Canadian activist and vocal critic of the Saudi regime on social media. In 2018, MBS flew two envoys to Montreal to meet with Abdulazizi. In what can only be interpreted as a Godfather-style implied threat, they arrived with Abdulazizi’s younger brother in tow.
The envoys asked Abdulazizi to return to Saudi Arabia, where they said he could have his own talk show. When that didn’t work, they tried to get him to come to the Saudi consulate to renew his passport. Abdulazizi wisely declined. The envoys returned empty handed. Both Abdulazizi’s younger brothers were later arrested. Khashoggi had advised Abdulazizi to meet the Saudi officials only in public, but he didn’t follow his own advice when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that October. A Saudi assassination team dismembered Khashoggi after they killed him. His remains have never been found.
Canada’s relations with Saudi Arabia were already chilly at the time of Khashoggi’s murder. The previous August, Canada’s then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted her support for detained Saudi dissidents Samar Badawi and her brother Raif Badawi. Raif’s wife and children are Canadian citizens and residents. Saudi Arabia’s reaction was swift. It froze trade, recalled its ambassador, expelled Canada’s ambassador and ordered Saudi students studying at Canadian schools to return home
Fearful of further antagonizing Saudi Arabia, Canada’s response to the Khashoggi murder was tepid. It imposed sanctions on individuals allegedly linked to the death, though not on MBS, who surely ordered it. Canada’s sale of military hardware to the kingdom continued unabated.
Socially, things in Saudi Arabia have slowly begun to change. Women can now drive and travel without a man’s permission. Theatres and cinemas have begun to open. However, behind all the glitz and glamour of new developments and economic plans, MBS has created a nation where even knowing a journalist could put you in danger, and where no dissenter is safe from his reach.
“MBS rewrote the rules for public discussion in Saudi Arabia, scaling back the types of comments and criticisms that were permitted while greatly upping the price Saudis would pay for crossing the new red lines,” writes Hubbard.
Hubbard shows how MBS has changed the entire political system of Saudi Arabia to fit his ambitions, creating a nation fuelled by oil and fear. He’s been helped along the way by western nations’ tolerance for his abuses and unwillingness to absorb the cost of seeking justice for those, like Khashoggi, who are willing to stand up to him. Hubbard’s book is the story of a dictator unchecked by anyone or anything. We may be living with the consequences for decades to come.