Mohammed bin Salman

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Mohammed bin Salman
A photograph of Mohammed bin Salman aged 34
Mohammed bin Salman in 2019
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia
First Deputy Prime Minister
Tenure21 June 2017 – present
Monarch
Prime Minister
King Salman
PredecessorMuhammad bin Nayef
Minister of Defense
Tenure23 January 2015 – present
Prime Minister
King Salman
PredecessorSalman bin Abdulaziz
Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia
Second Deputy Prime Minister
Tenure23 January 2015 – 21 June 2017
Monarch
PredecessorMuhammad bin Nayef
SuccessorVacant
Born (1985-08-31) 31 August 1985 (age 35)
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Spouse
(m. 2008)
IssuePrince Salman
Prince Mashhur
Princess Fahda
Princess Noura
Prince Abdulaziz
Names
Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman
HouseSaud
FatherKing Salman bin Abdulaziz
MotherFahda bint Falah Al Hithlain

Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (Arabic: محمد بن سلمان آل سعود‎, romanizedMuḥammad bin Salmān Āl Su‘ūd; born 31 August 1985),[1][2][3] colloquially known as MBS,[4][5][6] is a Saudi Arabian politician who has been the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia since 21 June 2017. He is currently serving as the country's deputy prime minister and is also Chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, and Minister of Defense – the world's youngest at the time of his appointment.[7] He controls the government of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. In June 2017 King Salman removed his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef from the position of crown prince and appointed Mohammed bin Salman in his place.

Bin Salman rules an authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia. Despite an early effort to brand his regime as taking steps towards the social and economic liberalisation of Saudi Arabia, repression has subsequently increased. There are no democratic institutions in Saudi Arabia. Human rights activists, women's rights activists, journalists, former insiders, and dissidents are systematically repressed through tactics including torture, jailing, and killings. Bin Salman was personally linked to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had criticized the Saudi government, but he has denied involvement in the killing. He was behind the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen which has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis and famine there. His government has overseen a crackdown on feminists. Bin Salman was also involved in the escalation of the Qatar diplomatic crisis, the detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the start of a diplomatic spat with Canada, the arrest of members of the Saudi royal family in November 2017, and the alleged phone hack against The Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.

Bin Salman has led several successful reforms in the Kingdom, which include regulations restricting the powers of the religious police, the removal of the ban on female drivers in June 2018, and weakening the male-guardianship system in August 2019. Other cultural developments under his reign include the first Saudi public concerts by a female singer, the first Saudi sports stadium to admit women, an increased presence of women in the workforce, and opening the country to international tourists by introducing an e-visa system, allowing foreign visas to be applied for and issued via the Internet. The Saudi Vision 2030 program aims to diversify the country's economy through investment in non-oil sectors including technology and tourism.

Early life[edit]

Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud was born on 31 August 1985[2][3][8] to Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz and his third spouse,[9] Fahda bint Falah Al Hithlain.[10] Fahda is a granddaughter of Rakan bin Hithlain, who was the head of the Al Ajman tribe.[11] In 1915 the Al Ajman tribe, under Rakan's leadership, fought against the Al Saud during which King Abdulaziz's brother Saad bin Abdul Rahman was killed in battle of Kanzan.[12]

Bin Salman is the eldest among his mother's children and is the eighth child and seventh son of his father;[9] his full siblings include Turki bin Salman, former chairman of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, and Khalid bin Salman. Prince Mohammed holds a bachelor's degree in law from King Saud University.[13]

Early career[edit]

After graduating from college, bin Salman spent several years in the private sector before becoming a personal aide to his father. He worked as a consultant for the Experts Commission, working for the Saudi Cabinet.[14] On 15 December 2009, at the age of 24, he entered politics as a special advisor to his father when the latter was the governor of Riyadh Province.[15] At this time bin Salman began to rise from one position to another, such as secretary-general of the Riyadh Competitive Council, special advisor to the chairman of the board for the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, and a member of the board of trustees for Albir Society in the Riyadh region.[16] In October 2011, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz died. Prince Salman began his ascent to power by becoming Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. He made his son Mohammed his private advisor.[17]

Chief of the Court[edit]

In June 2012, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz died and bin Salman moved up into the number two position in the hierarchy, as his father became the new crown prince and first deputy prime minister. He soon began remaking the court in his own image. On 2 March 2013, the chief of the Crown Prince court, Prince Saud bin Nayef, was appointed governor of the Eastern Province and bin Salman succeeded him in the post. He was also given the rank of minister.[18][19][20] On 25 April 2014, bin Salman was appointed state minister.[16]

Rise to power[edit]

Minister of Defence[edit]

Mohammed bin Salman with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Adel al-Jubeir, 13 June 2016

On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah died and Salman ascended the throne. Bin Salman was appointed minister of defence[21] and secretary general of the Royal Court.[22] In addition, he retained his post as the minister of state.[23][24]

In Yemen, the political unrest (which began escalating in 2011) rapidly became a major issue for the newly appointed minister of defence, with Houthis taking control of northern Yemen in late 2014, followed by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his cabinet's resignation. Bin Salman's first move as minister was to mobilise a pan-GCC coalition to intervene following a series of suicide bombings in Sana'a via air strikes against Houthis, and impose a naval blockade.[25] In March 2015, Saudi Arabia began leading a coalition of countries allied against the Houthi rebels.[26] While there was agreement among those Saudi princes heading security services regarding the necessity of a response to the Houthis' seizure of Sana'a, which had forced the Yemeni government into exile, bin Salman launched the intervention without full coordination across security services. Saudi National Guard minister Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who was out of the country, was left out of the loop of operations.[27] While bin Salman sold the war as a quick win on Houthi rebels in Yemen and a way to put President Hadi back in power, however, it became a long war of attrition.[28]

In April 2015, King Salman appointed his nephew Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince and his son Mohammed bin Salman as Deputy Crown Prince.[29] In late 2015, at a meeting between his father and U.S. President Barack Obama, bin Salman broke protocol to deliver a monologue criticising U.S. foreign policy. When he announced an anti-terrorist military alliance of Islamic countries in December 2015, some of the countries involved said they had not been consulted.[27]

President Barack Obama, CIA Director John O. Brennan, King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the GCC-US Summit in Riyadh on 21 April 2016
President Donald Trump speaks with bin Salman, Washington, D.C., 14 March 2017

Regarding his role in the military intervention, bin Salman gave his first on-the-record interview on 4 January 2016 to The Economist, which had called him the "architect of the war in Yemen". Denying the title, he explained the mechanism of the decision-making institutions actually holding stakes in the intervention, including the council of security and political affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the Saudi side. He added that the Houthis usurped power in the Yemeni capital Sana'a before he served as minister of defence.[30][31]

In response to the threat from ISIL, bin Salman established the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), a Saudi-led Islamic alliance against terrorism, in December 2015.[32] The IMCTC's first meeting took place in Riyadh in November 2017 and involved defence ministers and officials from 41 countries.[33]

Crown Prince[edit]

Bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince on 21 June 2017, following his father's decision to depose bin Nayef, making him heir presumptive to the throne.[34] The change of succession had been predicted in December 2015 by an unusually blunt and public memo published by the German Federal Intelligence Service,[35][36] which was subsequently rebuked by the German government.[37]

On the day bin Salman became Crown Prince, U.S. President Donald Trump called him to "congratulate him on his recent elevation". Trump and the new crown prince pledged "close cooperation" on security and economic issues, according to the White House, and the two leaders also discussed the need to cut off support for terrorism, the recent diplomatic dispute with Qatar, and the push to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians.[38] Bin Salman told the Washington Post in April 2017 that without America's cultural influence on Saudi Arabia, "we would have ended up like North Korea."[39]

2017 purge[edit]

In May 2017, bin Salman publicly warned "I confirm to you, no one will survive in a corruption case—whoever he is, even if he's a prince or a minister".[40] In November 2017, he ordered some 200 wealthy businessmen and princes to be placed under house arrest in Riyadh's Ritz Carlton hotel.[41] On 4 November 2017, the Saudi press announced the arrest of the Saudi prince and billionaire Al-Waleed bin Talal, a frequent English-language news commentator and a major shareholder in Citi, News Corp and Twitter, as well as over 40 princes and government ministers at the behest of the Crown Prince on corruption and money laundering charges.[42]

Others arrested or fired in the purge included Mutaib bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Adel Fakeih, the Minister of Economy and Planning, and the Commander of the Saudi Naval Forces, Admiral Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Sultan.[42][43]

One hypothesis for the arrests was that they were part of a power grab on the part of bin Salman. The New York Times wrote:

The sweeping campaign of arrests appears to be the latest move to consolidate the power of bin Salman, the favorite son and top adviser of King Salman. The king had decreed the creation of a powerful new anticorruption committee, headed by the crown prince, only hours before the committee ordered the arrests.[43]

Writing for The Huffington Post, University of Delaware professor of Islam and Global Affairs, Muqtedar Khan, speculated as to whether the removal of Al-Waleed bin Talal, a critic of Donald Trump, amounted to a coup.[44] BBC correspondent Frank Gardner was quoted as saying that "Prince Mohammed is moving to consolidate his growing power while spearheading a reform programme". Yet "[i]t is not clear what those detained are suspected of."[45]

Another hypothesis was that the purge was part of a move towards reform. Steven Mufson of The Washington Post argues that bin Salman "knows that only if he can place the royal family under the law, and not above as it was in the past, can he ask the whole country to change their attitudes relative to taxes [and] subsidies."[46] An analysis from the CBC claimed that "the clampdown against corruption resonates with ordinary Saudis who feel that the state has been asking them to accept belt tightening while, at the same time, they see corruption and the power elite accumulating more wealth".[47] Bin Salman's reform agenda is widely popular with Saudi Arabia's burgeoning youth population, but faces resistance from some of the old guard more comfortable with the kingdom's traditions of incremental change and rule by consensus.[48] According to a former British ambassador to Riyadh, bin Salman "is the first prince in modern Saudi history whose constituency has not been within the royal family, it's outside it. It's been young Saudis, particularly younger Saudi men in the street".[49] The 2018 Arab Youth Survey found that nine out of ten 18–24 year-olds in the MENA region support bin Salman's campaign against corruption.[50]

Robert W. Jordan, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that "certainly Saudi Arabia has had a corruption problem for many years. I think the population, especially, has been very unhappy with princes coming in and grabbing business deals, with public funds going to flood control projects that never seem to get built... I would also say it's a classical power grab move sometimes to arrest your rivals, your potential rivals under the pretext of corruption".[51]

Trump expressed support for the move, tweeting "I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing....Some of those they are harshly treating have been 'milking' their country for years!"[52] French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Riyadh days after the purge, when asked about the purge stated "this is not the role of a president, and similarly I would not expect a leader of a foreign country to come and infringe on domestic matters,"[53]

On 30 January 2019, the Saudi government announced the conclusion of the Anti-Corruption Committee's work.[54][55] According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Saudi Arabia is slowly improving its public sector, while figures of 2016 indicated a score of 46, whereby 0 implies a highly corrupt score and 100 a clear one, the index gives Saudi Arabia a score of 49 in 2017 and 2018, and 53 in 2019 the highest score achieved by Saudi Arabia until now.[56]

Administration[edit]

Bin Salman's ideology has been described as nationalist[57][58] and populist,[59][60] with a conservative attitude towards politics, and a liberal stance on economic and social issues.[61][62] It has been heavily influenced by the views of his former adviser Saud al-Qahtani[63][64] and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.[65][66] His style of ruling has been described as extremely brutal by journalist Rula Jebreal and authoritarian by Jamal Khashoggi[67] and Theodor Winkler.[62]

On 29 January 2015, bin Salman was named the chair of the newly established Council for Economic and Development Affairs,[68] replacing the disbanded Supreme Economic Commission.[68] In April 2015, bin Salman was given control over Saudi Aramco by royal decree following his appointment as deputy crown prince.[69]

In December 2017, bin Salman criticised United States' decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.[70] In March 2018, he referred to Turkey as part of a "triangle of evil" alongside Iran and Muslim Brotherhood.[71][72] In 2018, he voiced his support for a Jewish homeland of Israel.[73] This is the first time that a senior Saudi royal has expressed such sentiments publicly.[74][75] In September 2019, bin Salman condemned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to annex the eastern portion of the occupied West Bank known as the Jordan Valley.[76]

Authoritarianism[edit]

Bin Salman heads a repressive authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia. Human rights activists and women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia routinely face abuse and torture by the regime.[77] Critics, journalists and former insiders are tortured and killed.[77][78] The regime has targeted Saudi dissidents who are located abroad, most famously Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, who was murdered by the regime.[78] Bin Salman has justified the mass arrests of human rights activists as being as necessary for enacting reforms in Saudi Arabia.[79]

Bin Salman has increasingly consolidated power in Saudi Arabia during his tenure as leader.[79] He significantly restricted the powers of the Saudi religious police.[27]

Human rights[edit]

Early in his leadership tenure, Bin Salman sought to cultivate an image of Saudi Arabia as implementing various reforms to make the country more repressive. Human rights groups say that repression has worsened under his tenure.[77][79] According to human rights groups, arrests of human rights activists have risen under bin Salman.[80] He has reportedly created the Tiger Squad, a team of assassins that act as a death squad, to target Saudi critics inside and outside Saudi Arabia.[81][82] Among those detained in a wave of arrests in September 2017 were Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA); Mustafa al-Hassan, an academic and novelist; and Essam al-Zamel, an entrepreneur.[83][84] Ahead of the lifting of the ban on women driving in June 2018, 17 women's rights activists were arrested, including the women to drive and anti-male guardianship campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul.[85][86] Eight of the 17 were subsequently released.[87] Hatoon al-Fassi, an associate professor of women's history at King Saud University,[88] was arrested shortly afterwards.[89][90]

In August that year, the human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham and her husband – both arrested in 2015 – were put under legal threat of beheading.[91] Human Rights Watch warned that the al-Ghomgham case set a "dangerous precedent" for other women activists currently detained.[92] HRW's Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said, "Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behaviour, is monstrous. Every day, the Saudi monarchy's unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations teams to spin the fairy tale of 'reform' to allies and international business."[92][93][94] On 23 April 2019, 37 people, mostly Shia human rights activists involved in the Qatif conflict, were executed in one of the largest mass executions of the minority sect in the kingdom's history.[95]

In August 2019, Loujain al-Hathloul's brother Walid informed that his sister was offered release on denying the human rights abuses committed against her in Saudi prison. Walid wrote on Twitter that the Saudi state security laid a proposal for Loujain to sign a document and appear on camera to deny that she had been tortured and sexually harassed in jail. He stated that Loujain mentioned to the family that she had been whipped, beaten, electrocuted in a chair, and harassed by masked men, who would wake her up in the middle of the night to shout threats at her in cell. Walid also tweeted that Loujain refused the offer proposed by Saudi authorities and "immediately ripped the document".[96]

In response to foreign criticism and women's rights activism, Bin Salman has implemented modest reforms to improve women's rights in Saudi Arabia. In September 2017, bin Salman implemented the women to drive movement's multi-decade demand to lift the ban on female drivers.[97] He legislated against some elements of Saudi Arabia's Wali system, also a topic of a many decade long campaign by women's rights activists.[98] In response to the Saudi anti male-guardianship campaign,[99] the Saudi Government enacted a law that allows women above 21 years old to obtain passports and travel abroad without needing the permission of their male guardians.[100][101] In February 2018, it became legally possible for Saudi women to open their own business without a male's permission.[102] According to the Saudi Information Ministry, as of March 2018, mothers in Saudi Arabia became authorised to retain immediate custody of their children after divorce without having to file any lawsuits.[103]

In February 2017, Saudi Arabia appointed its first woman to head the Saudi Stock Exchange.[104][105]

Vision 2030[edit]

Bin Salman with President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Riyadh, May 2017

Bin Salman took the leadership in the restructuring of Saudi Arabia's economy, which he officially announced in April 2016 when he introduced Vision 2030, the country's strategic orientation for the next 15 years. Vision 2030 plans to reform Saudi's economy towards a more diversified and privatised structure. It details goals and measures in various fields, from developing non-oil revenues and privatisation of the economy to e-government and sustainable development.[106]

One of the major motives behind this economic restructure through Vision 2030 can be traced back to Saudi Arabia's reliance on a rentier economy, as a limit on oil resources makes its sustainability a problem in the future. While the country claims to own a proven reserve of 266.58 billion barrels of crude oil, the Energy analyst Matthew R. Simmons estimates the true number to be far less, as the last non-Saudi Arabian report by the General Accounting Office in 1978 only spoke of 110 billion barrels.[107]

At the inaugural Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October 2017, bin Salman announced plans for the creation of Neom, a $500 billion economic zone to cover an area of 26,000 square kilometres on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast, extending into Jordan and Egypt.[108] Neom aims to attract investment in sectors including renewable energy, biotechnology, robotics and advanced manufacturing.[109][110] The announcement followed plans to develop a 34,000 square kilometre area across a lagoon of 50 islands on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline into a luxury tourism destination with laws on a par with international standards.[111][112] In a further effort to boost the tourism industry, in November 2017 it was announced that Saudi Arabia would start issuing tourist visas for foreigners, beginning in 2018.[113]

Bin Salman's biggest bet was his plan to restore Saudi dominance in global oil markets by driving the new competition into bankruptcy, by keeping the oil price low enough for a long enough period. Saudi Arabia persuaded OPEC to do the same. A few small players went bankrupt, but American frackers only shut down their less-profitable operations temporarily, and waited for oil prices to go up again. Saudi Arabia, which had been spending $100 billion a year to keep services and subsidies going, had to admit defeat in November 2016. It then cut production significantly and asked its OPEC partners to do the same.

In the last week of September 2018, bin Salman inaugurated the much-awaited $6.7bn high-speed railway line connecting Mecca and Medina, two holiest cities of Islam. The Haramain Express is 450 km line travelling up to 300 km/h that can transport around 60 million passengers annually. The commercial operations of the railway began on 11 October 2018.[114]

Bin Salman at the 2019 G20 Osaka summit

In October 2018, bin Salman announced that the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia’s assets were approaching $400 billion and would pass $600 billion by 2020.[115]

A project to build Saudi Arabia's first nuclear reactor was announced by bin Salman in November 2018. The kingdom aims to build 16 nuclear facilities over the next 20 years.[116] Efforts to diversify the Saudi energy sector also include wind and solar, including a 1.8 gigawatt solar plant announced in the same month as part of a long term project in partnership with SoftBank.[117]

Domestic reforms[edit]

He established an entertainment authority that began hosting comedy shows, professional wrestling events, and monster truck rallies.[27] In 2016, he shared his idea for "Green cards" for non-Saudi foreigners with Al Arabiya journalist Turki al-Dakhil.[118] In 2019 the Saudi cabinet approved a new residency scheme (Premium Residency) for foreigners.[119] The scheme will enable expatriates to permanently reside, own property and invest in the Kingdom.[120][121]

In April 2017, bin Salman announced a project to build one of the world's largest cultural, sports and entertainment cities in Al Qiddiya, southwest of Riyadh. The plans for a 334-square kilometre city include a safari and a Six Flags theme park.[122][123]

Portraits of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Jenadriyah

Further cultural developments followed in December 2017 with Saudi Arabia's first public concert by a female singer, and in January 2018 a sports stadium in Jeddah became the first in the Kingdom to admit women.[124][125] In April 2018, the first public cinema opened in Saudi Arabia after a ban of 35 years, with plans to have more than 2,000 screens running by 2030.[126][127]

The first measures undertaken in April 2016 included new taxes and cuts in subsidies, a diversification plan, the creation of a $2 trillion Saudi sovereign wealth fund, and a series of strategic economic reforms called the National Transformation Programme.[128] Bin Salman's plans to raise capital for the sovereign wealth fund included selling off shares of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned petroleum and natural gas company,[69] with the capital to be re-invested in other sectors such as to implement the diversification plans.[129] In October 2017, the plan for Aramco's IPO listing was criticised by The Economist, which called it "a mess".[130] Bin Salman slashed the state budget, freezing government contracts and reducing the pay of civil employees as part of drastic austerity measures.[131]

In October 2017, bin Salman said that the ultra-conservative Saudi state had been "not normal" for the past 30 years, blaming rigid doctrines that had governed society in a reaction to the Iranian Revolution, which successive leaders "didn't know how to deal with".[132] According to him, he aimed to have Saudi Arabia start "returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world".[133] He was telling the country's clerics that the deal the royal family struck with them after the Grand Mosque seizure was to be renegotiated.[134] Building an industrial culture was not compatible with Wahhabism. The Wahhabis were committed to fixed social and gender relationships. These were consistent with an economy built on oil sales, but industrialization requires a dynamic culture with social relations constantly shifting.[135] The regime's commitment to "moderate Islam" has been questioned.[136]

In an interview with a CBS 60 Minutes that aired on 29 September 2019, bin Salman invited people to visit the Kingdom to see the transformation, asking for people to meet Saudi citizens for themselves.[137]

On 26 April 2020, the Supreme Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia abolished flogging as a punishment in the country, stating that the decision was "an extension of the human rights reforms introduced under the direction of King Salman and the direct supervision of bin Salman".[138] The following day, the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia reported the enactment of a royal decree abolishing death penalty for crimes committed by minors.[139]

Controversies[edit]

Interventions in Syria and Yemen[edit]

Palestinians protest in the Gaza Strip, 9 December 2017

Some have called bin Salman the architect of the war in Yemen.[140][141] On 10 January 2016, The Independent reported that "the BND, the German intelligence agency, portrayed...Saudi defence minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman...as a political gambler who is destabilising the Arab world through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria."[142][31][143] German officials reacted to the BND's memo, saying the published statement "is not the position of the federal government".[37]

Protest in London against bin Salman's state visit to the UK, 7 March 2018

Bin Salman leads the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who in 2015 seized Sana’a and ousted the Saudi-backed Hadi government, ending multilateral efforts towards a political settlement following the 2011 Yemeni uprising.[144][145][146] Coalition airstrikes during the intervention have resulted in thousands of civilians killed or injured,[147] prompting accusations of war crimes in the intervention.[148][149][150] Following a Houthi missile attack against Riyadh in December 2017, which was intercepted by Saudi air defence, airstrikes killed 136 Yemeni civilians and injured 87 others in eleven days.[151][152] In August 2018, the United Nations reported that all parties in the conflict were responsible for human rights violations and for actions which could be considered war crimes.[153]

The war and blockade of Yemen has cost Saudi Arabia tens of billions of dollars, further aggravated the humanitarian crisis in the country and destroyed much of Yemen's infrastructure, but failed to dislodge the Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies from the Yemeni capital.[154][131] More than 50,000 children in Yemen died from starvation in 2017. From 2015 till May 2019 the number of total deaths of children is said to be approximately 85,000.[155][156][157][158] The famine in Yemen is the direct result of the Saudi-led intervention and blockade of the rebel-held area.[154][159] In October 2018, Lise Grande, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, warned that 12 to 13 million Yemenis were at risk of starvation if the war continued for another three months.[160] On 28 March 2018, Saudi Arabia, along with its coalition partner the UAE, donated US$930 million to the United Nations which, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, "...(will) help to alleviate the suffering of millions of vulnerable people across Yemen". The funds cover almost one-third of the $2.96 billion required to implement the UN's 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan.[161] Following the Houthi missile attack against Riyadh in December 2017, which was intercepted by Saudi air defence,[162] bin Salman retaliated with a ten-day barrage of indiscriminate airstrikes against civilian areas in Yemen held by Houthi forces, killing dozens of children.[163]

In August 2018, a report by The Intercept cited unnamed sources claiming that former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had in June 2017 intervened to stop a Saudi-Emirati plan to invade Qatar, resulting in increased pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for his removal from office.[164]

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis with bin Salman, 22 March 2018

Following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved a resolution to impose sanctions on people blocking humanitarian access in Yemen and suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Senator Lindsey Graham said America's relationship with Saudi Arabia "is more of a burden than an asset." He also said, "The crown prince [of Saudi Arabia] is so toxic, so tainted, so flawed."[165]

Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), said that Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson "have played an utterly central and complicit role in arming and supporting the Saudi-led destruction of Yemen."[166] Hunt's Conservative leadership campaign was partly funded by a close associate to bin Salman.[167][166]

On 16 August 2020, a lawsuit filed by a former top intelligence official, Saad Aljabri, revealed that in 2015 bin Salman secretly called for Russia to intervene in Syria at a time when Bashar al-Assad’s regime was close to falling apart. The Saudi monarchy had been supporting anti-Assad rebels, while Russians were bombing rebel-held cities in support of Assad, killing tens of thousands of Syrian civilians in the process. Western diplomats say that bin Salman was strongly influenced by his Emirati counterpart, crown prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. The UAE was pushing for the idea of helping Russia stabilise Syria and enabling the Assad regime in the country.[168] In 2017 it was reported that Saudi Arabia provided weapons to Syrian opposition groups, fighting against Bashar al-Assad's regime. Conflict Armament Research (CAR) reported that these weapons frequently ended up in the hands of the Islamic State members.[169] In 2018, bin Salman reportedly wanted the US military presence to maintain in Syria, despite President Donald Trump’s declaring the withdrawal of American forces from the war-torn country.[170]

Relations with Donald Trump[edit]

In August 2016, Donald Trump Jr. had a meeting with an envoy representing Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi. The envoy offered help to the Trump presidential campaign.[171] The meeting included Joel Zamel, an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation, Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, and Blackwater founder Erik Prince.[172][171]

President Donald Trump with bin Salman in June 2019

Upon Trump's election, support for bin Salman was described as one of the few issues where rival White House advisers Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon agreed.[66] Bin Salman was subsequently invited to the White House and given the treatment typically afforded to foreign heads of state by diplomatic protocol, while only holding the position of Deputy Crown Prince at the time.[173] He subsequently defended the Trump administration's travel ban for nationals of 7 Muslim-majority countries, stating that "Saudi Arabia does not believe that this measure is targeting Muslim countries or the religion of Islam".[174] Kushner also inquired as to how the U.S. could support Prince Mohammed in the succession process.[173] After bin Salman acceded to Crown Prince, Trump reportedly said, "We've put our man on top".[175] Trump initially supported the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar,[176] despite opposition from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis,[177] though he later changed his position.[178] Bin Salman later reportedly claimed Kushner had provided intelligence assistance on domestic rivals to bin Salman during the 2017–19 Saudi Arabian purge,[179] which Trump had personally expressed support for.[180] Trump and his administration also firmly supported bin Salman during global backlash following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.[181]

Severed ties with Qatar[edit]

Reuters reported that bin Salman "said the dispute with Qatar could be long-lasting, comparing it to the U.S. embargo against Cuba imposed 60 years before, but played down its impact, dismissing the Gulf emirate as "smaller than a Cairo street". Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar [in June 2017], suspending air and shipping routes with the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, which is home to the region's biggest U.S. military base."[72]

Resignation of Saad Hariri[edit]

In November 2017, bin Salman forced the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign when he visited Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman believed that Hariri was in the pocket of Iran-backed Hezbollah, which is a major political force in Lebanon. Hariri eventually was released, went back to Lebanon and annulled his resignation.[41]

Saudi–Canadian dispute[edit]

Chrystia Freeland, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a statement via Twitter on 2 August 2018 expressing Canada's concern over the recent arrest of Samar Badawi, a human rights activist and sister of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, and called for the release of human rights activists.[182] In response to Canada's criticism, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada's ambassador, and froze trade with Canada.[183][184] The Toronto Star reported that the consensus among analysts indicated that the actions taken by bin Salman were a "warning to the world — and to Saudi human rights activists — that his Saudi Arabia is not to be trifled with".[185]

Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi[edit]

Bin Salman with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on 16 October 2018
Ahmad Asiri (right) and bin Salman (left) in 2016

In October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of bin Salman, went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials reportedly believe that Khashoggi was murdered at the consulate, claiming to have specific video and audio recordings proving that he was first tortured and then murdered, and that a medical forensics expert was part of the 15-man Saudi team seen entering and leaving the consulate at the time of the journalist's disappearance.[186] Saudi Arabia denied the accusations and bin Salman invited Turkish authorities to search the building as they "have nothing to hide". Saudi officials said they are "working to search for him".[187] The Washington Post reported that bin Salman had earlier sought to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him.[188]

According to Middle East Eye, seven of the fifteen men suspected of killing Khashoggi are members of bin Salman's personal bodyguard.[189] John Sawers, a former head of the British MI6, stated that in his judgment of the evidence it is "very likely" that bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi.[190]

In the aftermath of Khashoggi's death, multiple commentators referred to bin Salman as "Mister Bone Saw," a play on the initials MBS. The name refers to the alleged use of a bone saw to dispose of Khashoggi's remains.[191][192]

Bin Salman has denied any involvement in the murder and blamed the assassination on rogue operators. However, Western countries are not convinced and believe this couldn't have happened without the knowledge or approval of the prince. Donald Trump described the Saudi response to the killing as "one of the worst in the history of cover-ups." Trump also believes that the crown prince at least knew about the plan, saying "Well, the prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He's running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him."[193]

After the murder, bin Salman's close confidant Ahmad Asiri was sacked,[194] as was former advisor Saud al-Qahtani.[195][196]

The recording of Khashoggi's killing collected by Turkish intelligence reportedly reveals that one of the members of the kill team instructed someone over the phone to "tell your boss, the deed was done." American intelligence officials believe that "boss" was a reference to the crown prince. The person who made the call was identified as Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a security officer who is frequently seen travelling with the prince.[197]

Seven weeks after Khashoggi's death, Saudi Arabia, in order to "distance ... Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, from the grisly murder" stated it would pursue the death penalty for five suspects charged with "ordering and executing the crime."[198][199]

On 16 November 2018, it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had concluded with "high confidence" that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's murder. The CIA based its conclusion on several pieces of evidence, including an intercepted conversation in which bin Salman's brother Khalid offered Khashoggi assurances that it would be safe for the journalist to enter Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. Although the CIA reportedly had not determined whether Khalid had any foreknowledge of Khashoggi's ultimate fate upon entering the consulate, it believed that Khalid conveyed this message to Khashoggi at Mohammed's behest. In the CIA's analysis, the killing was most likely motivated by Prince Mohammed's privately stated belief that Khashoggi was an Islamist with problematic connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, a perception that differs markedly from the Saudi government's public remarks on Khashoggi's death.[200]

On 4 December 2018, a group of United States senators were briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel on the murder of Khashoggi. After the briefing, the senators were more than certain that bin Salman played a major role in the killing.[201] GOP Senator Lindsey Graham said, "You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organised by people under the command of MBS and that he was intrinsically involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi." Another GOP Senator Bob Corker said that the prince "ordered, monitored, the killing" and "If he were in front of a jury, he would be convicted of murder in about 30 minutes."[202] On 5 December 2018, UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet asked for an international investigation to determine who was behind the journalist's murder.[203]

A former Saudi intelligence chief and senior member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Turki bin Faisal, dismissed the CIA's reported finding that bin Salman ordered the journalist's killing, saying that "The CIA has been proved wrong before. Just to mention the invasion of Iraq for example."[204]

In March 2019, US senators accused Saudi Arabia for a number of repetitive misdeeds and criticised bin Salman, saying he has gone "full gangster".[205] The senators said the list of human rights violations by Saudi is too long that it has become difficult to comprehend what's happening in the kingdom or even work with bin Salman.[206]

In June 2019, a UN report entitled “Annex to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions: Investigation into the unlawful death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi” linked bin Salman to the assassination.[207][208]

In a June 2019 article, The Guardian claimed that after Khashoggi's assassination, the media group became a target of hacking attempts made by a Saudi cybersecurity subdivision, as per an internal order document obtained by the group, with Saud al-Qahtani undersigned.[209] According to an interview in a PBS documentary film recorded in December 2018 and parts released in September 2019, bin Salman bears responsibility for the killing of Khashoggi since it happened under his watch but he denies any knowledge of the murder in advance.[210][211][212] He denied in an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes aired on 29 September 2019 any personal involvement in the killing, adding that "once charges are proven against someone, regardless of their rank, it will be taken to court, no exception made", but said that he had to take "full responsibility for what happened".[137][213]

On 25 February 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a declassified report approved by the Director Avril Haines. The report, "Assessing the Saudi Government’s Role in the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi" stated that, "We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."[214]

On 26 February 2021, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnès Callamard released a statement urging, "The United States Government should impose sanctions against the Crown Prince, as it has done for the other perpetrators targeting his personal assets but also his international engagements."[215]

Intimidation of Saad Al Jabri[edit]

On 9 July 2020, four United States Senators urged President Trump to secure the freedom of Saad Al Jabri’s children, Omar Al Jabri and Sarah Al Jabri, calling it a "moral obligation" to support a man who aided the US intelligence for years and had close ties with key members of Saudi royal family. Al Jabri's children were detained by bin Salman's government in March 2020 and, to date, their whereabouts remain unknown.[216][217] Saudi Arabia had issued an extradition request and Interpol notices to bring back Saad Al Jabri, who was the US anti-terrorism contact in the Middle East and was staying in Canada since 2018. The Interpol notice against Al Jabri was removed, citing that he was a political opponent of bin Salman.[218]

In August 2020, Al Jabri filed a federal lawsuit in Washington D.C. that bin Salman is alleged to have dispatched a 'Tiger Squad' to Canada during October 2018 to assassinate Al Jabri, who was the closest adviser to bin Salman's chief rival, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The squad was identified and returned by Canadian authorities.[219][220] Following the lawsuit, the US District Court for the District of Columbia issued the summons against bin Salman, along with 11 other people. The summons stated that a judgement would be taken by default against the concerned parties, if they fail to respond.[221] Documents filed to the US federal court revealed that bin Salman was served the lawsuit on 22 September 2020 at 4:05 p.m. ET via WhatsApp, and twenty minutes later the message was marked as "read".[222][223]

China's concentration camps for Muslims[edit]

In February 2019, bin Salman defended China's Xinjiang re-education camps for Uyghurs and Muslims, saying "China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremisation work for its national security." Bin Salman's comments received severe criticism worldwide.[224][225][226] The Chinese Communist Party has imprisoned up to 2 million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China's north-western province of Xinjiang in concentration camps, where they are allegedly subjected to abuse and torture.[224][226] Miqdaad Versi, spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, called bin Salman's remarks "disgusting" and a defence of "the use of concentration camps against Uighur Muslims".[227]

Hack of Jeff Bezos's phone[edit]

In March 2019, Gavin de Becker, a security specialist working for Jeff Bezos, accused Saudi Arabia of hacking Bezos's phone.[228] Bezos was the owner of The Washington Post, the leader of the company Amazon, and the world's richest man at the time.[228]

In January 2020, the results of FTI Consulting's forensic investigation of Bezos' phone were made public. The company concluded with "medium to high confidence" that Bezos' phone was hacked by a multimedia message sent in May 2018 from the WhatsApp account of bin Salman, after which the phone begun transmitting dramatically higher amounts of data.[229] The report points to circumstantial evidence: first, a November 2018 message from bin Salman to Bezos includes an image resembling the woman Bezos was having an affair with, despite the affair not being public knowledge at the time; second, a February 2019 text from bin Salman to Bezos urges Bezos not to believe everything, after Bezos was briefed on the phone regarding an Internet campaign against him conducted by Saudis.[229]

United Nations' special rapporteurs Agnès Callamard and David Kaye reacted that the alleged hack suggests that bin Salman participated "in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post's reporting on Saudi Arabia".[230] They declared that the alleged hacking was relevant to the issue of whether bin Salman was involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, who worked for The Washington Post.[231]

Personal life[edit]

Bin Salman with Nicolas Sarkozy, former President of France, and Juan Carlos Varela, former President of Panama, at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, 14 June 2018

On 6 April 2008 bin Salman married his first cousin Sara bint Mashour, a daughter of his paternal uncle Mashour bin Abdulaziz. Prince Mohammed and Princess Sara have five children; the first four were named after their grandparents, and the fifth one is named after his great-grandfather King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia.[10][232][233][234] In 2018 his personal net worth was estimated at US$3.0 billion.[235] In 2015, bin Salman purchased the Italian-built and Bermuda-registered yacht Serene from Russian vodka tycoon Yuri Shefler for €500 million.[236][237] In 2015, he purchased the Chateau Louis XIV in France for over $300 million.[238][239]

In December 2017, a number of sources reported that bin Salman, using his close associate Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Farhan as an intermediary, had bought the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci; the sale in November at $450.3 million set a new record price for a work of art.[240][241][242][243] This report has been denied by the auctioneer Christie's, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia,[244] and the Government of the United Arab Emirates, which has announced that it is the actual owner of the painting.[245] The current location of the painting is unknown.[246][247]

Bin Salman has travelled extensively around the world, meeting with politicians, business leaders and celebrities.[237] In June 2016, he travelled to Silicon Valley and met key people in the US high tech industry, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.[248] In early 2018, he visited the United States, where he met with many politicians, business people and Hollywood stars, including then-President Trump, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Michael Bloomberg, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Branson, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Dwayne Johnson.[249][250] Trump praised his relationship with bin Salman.[251] The prince also visited the United Kingdom, where he met with Prime Minister Theresa May, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.[252]

On 25 December 2020, as part of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health’s national COVID-19 vaccination plan, the Crown Prince was shown receiving the vaccine in a video released by the Saudi Press Agency.[253]

In December 2020, bin Salman invested money into Take-Two Interactive, Electronic Arts, and Activision Blizzard through Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. The investments amounted to 14.9 million shares in Activision Blizzard, 7.4 million shares in Electronic Arts, and 3.9 million shares in Take-Two Interactive. Bin Salman has stated that he grew up playing video games.[254]

Titles, styles and other honours[edit]

  • 31 August 1985–21 June 2017: His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman
  • 21 June 2017–present: His Royal Highness The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia
  • Order of Sheikh Isa ibn Salman Al Khalifa.gif  Bahrain: Member Exceptional Class of the Order of Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa (25 November 2018).[255]
  • Order of the Republic (Tunisia) - ribbon bar.gif  Tunisia: Grand Cordon of the Order of the Republic (28 November 2018).[256]
  • Order of Pakistan.png  Pakistan: Nishan-e-Pakistan (18 February 2019).[257]

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External links[edit]

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Muhammad bin Nayef Al Saud
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