Saudi Arabia would rather you pay attention to their flashier features right now–the Grand Prix, the WWE matches, the massive shopping malls brimming with designer stores. The plans for a solar-powered city. The star-studded conferences dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’. But let’s not talk about that journalist they murdered.
Modern Saudi Arabia has largely been shaped by the subject of Ben Hubbard’s MBS–Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who emerged in a very crowded royal family (this is a culture of polygamy, after all) to become the king’s favourite and the heir apparent, likely in part due to his decision to remain in Saudi Arabia for his education rather than jet off to Paris or London like many of his siblings. He’s engaged in a PR blitz around his kingdom, promoting Saudi Arabia as a destination and an economic centre beyond oil, gaining some tepid congratulations for denouncing terrorism and working to allow more freedoms for women. But Jamal Khashoggi’s murder exposed just a bit of the dark underbelly of the country and its rulers–and the path that the crown prince seems to be taking the country down.
Hubbard is an experienced journalist with a long history in the Middle East, and he uses his experience in the region to inform his exploration of Saudi Arabia and its complicated relationships with the United States, Israel, and its Middle Eastern neighbours. It is a dense story, with mind-numbingly large family trees and palace intrigue that feels better suited to a George R.R. Martin book than reality. European royals are toothless compared to the House of Saud, and Hubbard, who worked closely with Khashoggi before his murder, doesn’t want anyone off scot-free.
This is a great primer to the contemporary Middle East, and I especially loved Hubbard’s conversations with young Saudis, both in the country and living abroad, to see how they interpret the new developments like going to the movies and going drag racing and their crown prince rubbing elbows not just with politicians and U.S. mayors, but celebrities and popstars (et tu, Dwayne Johnson?). Hubbard still has a bit of caution around his subject, though. MBS’ brutality against journalists (beyond just Khashoggi) and the ongoing war crimes in Yemen meant many of his sources go quiet at frustrating times, drop off WhatsApp, or become suspicously defensive of the House of Saud all of a sudden. Much like Barbara Demick’s work around Asia, caution unfortunately has to rule.
Hubbard is unsure of where MBS will go next, now that the world is more aware of the kingdom’s human rights nightmare and the relationship with the United States will now be led by a, well, grown-up. But this book acts as a strong indication of what could come next–and it isn’t pretty, no matter how many football tournaments or EDM concerts they host.
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