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From errand boy to autocrat

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

When he was a boy, “no one wanted to play football with Mohammed bin Salman”, says Nicolas Pelham in The Economist. The seventh son of the 25th son of Saudi Arabia’s founding ruler, he was dismissed by classmates as a nobody. When he and his tribeswoman mother visited the palace where his father lived, his suave older half-brothers mocked him as the “son of a Bedouin”. During superyacht holidays on the French Riviera he was “treated like an errand boy”, sent ashore to buy cigarettes.

But in 2011 and 2012, a series of untimely deaths in the family saw MBS “catapulted up the line of succession”. He earned the nickname Abu Rasasa – “father of the bullet” – after sending one in the post to an official who crossed him. During an argument with his mother, he is said to have “sprayed her ceiling” with gunfire. In 2017, two years after his father became king, MBS tricked the heir-designate Mohammed bin Nayef into coming for a meeting in Mecca. His agents stripped the 57-year-old of his weapons and phone, and seven hours later MBS was filmed “accepting his abdication”. The staged resignation – an old trick of Saddam Hussein’s – became MBS’s “signature move”.

Later that year, the new Crown Prince hosted the world’s business glitterati at “Davos in the Desert”. Once the foreigners had left, he pounced: hundreds of Saudi princes and businessmen staying in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh were taken prisoner, and told they couldn’t leave until they’d handed over a chunk of their riches. (One attendee realised something was amiss after noticing that anything which could be used as a weapon – pens, razors, glasses – had been removed from the hotel rooms.) This flagrant shakedown, dressed up as an anti-corruption operation, netted MBS about $100bn – and cemented his power.

🍸🎉 MBS once had a reputation, “rare among royals”, for being straight-laced. That quickly changed. Many insiders say the millennial autocrat “frequently uses drugs” (which he denies). And under his rule, Riyadh has taken a decadent turn. At a hotel rave a few months ago, “Saudis and foreigners danced barefoot on the sand until dawn, a couple kissed, women stripped down to tank tops”. “There’s cocaine, alcohol and hookers like I haven’t seen in southern California,” says one party-goer. “It’s really heavy duty stuff.”