Asked about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Mohammed bin Salman said, “If that’s the way we did things, Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.”
MBS had already developed a reputation for ruthlessness. In 2017, he rounded up hundreds of members of his own family and other wealthy Saudis and imprisoned them in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel on informal charges of corruption. The Khashoggi murder fixed a view of the crown prince as brutish, thin-skinned, and psychopathic. Among those who share a dark appraisal of MBS is President Joe Biden, who has so far refused to speak with him. Many in Washington and other Western capitals hope his rise to the throne might still be averted.
But within the kingdom, MBS’s succession is understood as inevitable. “Ask any Saudi, anyone at all, whether MBS will be king,” a senior Saudi diplomat told me. “If there are people in Washington who think he will not be, then I cannot help them. I am not a psychiatrist.”
His father’s eventual death will leave him as the absolute monarch of the birthplace of Islam and the owner of the world’s largest accessible oil reserves. He will also be the leader of one of America’s closest allies and the source of many of its headaches.
I’ve been traveling to Saudi Arabia over the past three years, trying to understand if the crown prince is a killer, a reformer, or both—and if both, whether he can be one without the other.
Even MBS’s critics concede that he has roused the country from an economic and social slumber. In 2016, he unveiled a plan, known as Vision 2030, to convert Saudi Arabia from—allow me to be blunt—one of the world’s weirdest countries into a place that could plausibly be called normal. It is now open to visitors and investment, and lets its citizens partake in ordinary acts of recreation and even certain vices. The crown prince has legalized cinemas and concerts, and invited notably raw hip-hop artists to perform. He has allowed women to drive and to dress as freely as they can in dens of sin like Dubai and Bahrain. He has curtailed the role of reactionary clergy and all but abolished the religious police. He has explored relations with Israel.
He has also created a climate of fear unprecedented in Saudi history. Saudi Arabia has never been a free country. But even the most oppressive of MBS’s predecessors, his uncle King Faisal, never presided over an atmosphere like that of the present day, when it is widely believed that you place yourself in danger if you criticize the ruler or pay even a mild compliment to his enemies. MBS’s critics—not regicidal zealots or al‑Qaeda sympathizers, just ordinary people with independent thoughts about his reforms—have gone into exile. Some fear that if he keeps getting his way, the modernized Saudi Arabia will oppress in ways the old Saudi Arabia never imagined. Khalid al-Jabri, the exiled son of one of MBS’s most prominent critics, warned me that worse was yet to come: “When he’s King Mohammed, Crown Prince MBS is going to be remembered as an angel.”
For about two years, MBS hid from public view, as if hoping the Khashoggi murder would be forgotten. It hasn’t been. But the crown prince still wants to convince the world that he is saving his country, not holding it hostage—which is why he met twice in recent months with me and the editor in chief of this magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg.
In our meetings, the crown prince was charming, warm, informal, and intelligent. But even at its most affable, absolute monarchy cannot escape weirdness. For our first meeting, MBS summoned us to a remote palace by the Red Sea, his family’s COVID bunker. The protocols were multilayered: a succession of PCR tests by nurses from the Royal Clinics; a Gulfstream jet in the middle of the night from Riyadh; a convoy from a deserted airstrip; a surrender of electronic devices; a stopover at a mysterious guesthouse visible in satellite photos but unmarked on Google Maps. He invited us to his palace at about 1:30 a.m., and we spoke for nearly two hours.
For the second meeting, in his palace in Riyadh, we were told to be ready by 10 a.m. It also began after midnight. The halls were astir. The crown prince had just returned after nearly two years of remote work, and aides and ministers padded red carpets seeking meetings, their first in months, with the boss. Neglected packages and documents had piled up on the desks and tables in his office, which was large but hardly opulent. The most obvious concession to high taste was an old-fashioned telescope on a tripod, its altitude set shallow enough that it appeared to be pointed not at the heavens but at Riyadh, the sprawling and unsightly desert metropolis from which the Saud family has ruled for most of the past three centuries.
At the outset of both conversations, MBS said he was saddened that the pandemic precluded giving us hugs. He apologized that we all had to wear masks. (Each meeting was attended by multiple, mainly silent princes wearing identical white robes and masks, leaving us unsure, to this day, who exactly was present.) The crown prince left his tunic unbuttoned at the collar, in a casual style now favored by young Saudi men, and he gave relaxed, nonpsychopathic answers to questions about his personal habits. He tries to limit his Twitter use. He eats breakfast every day with his kids. For fun, he watches TV, avoiding shows, like House of Cards, that remind him of work. Instead, he said without apparent irony, he prefers to watch series that help him escape the reality of his job, such as Game of Thrones.
Before the meetings, I asked one of MBS’s advisers if there were any questions I could ask his boss that he himself could not. “None,” he answered, without pausing—“and that is what makes him different from every crown prince who has come before him.” I was told he derives energy from being challenged.