The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia 
by Madawi Al-Rasheed.
Hurst, 394 pp., £20, December 2020, 978 1 78738 379 1
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Afew months​ before he was murdered in 2018, Jamal Khashoggi published his last book, Citizen’s Vision 2030. It’s only 127 pages long, and was never approved for publication in Saudi Arabia: it was printed instead in Egypt, and remains untranslated into English. In contrast to the official Vision 2030 – the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s quixotic plan to diversify the country’s economy away from oil – it is exceedingly modest in scope. Khashoggi’s proposals for improving life in Saudi Arabia include more pavements, trees and parks, and better schools. His political vision is not expansive. Although he was an exile in the US, he doesn’t acknowledge Saudi activists or dissidents abroad. He doesn’t call for democracy, suggesting merely that the monarchy could do better at accommodating democratic concepts – ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’ – within the existing bureaucracy. His manifesto is so restrained that it reads as a qualified endorsement of MBS’s plan. But even such mild, constructive criticism made him a target, and in death he became a symbol of dissidence.

Khashoggi looms large in every recent account of MBS. His murder squandered years of goodwill built up abroad by the crown prince, who had presented himself as a 21st-century whizzkid reformer with the help of some fawning press coverage. Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic-activist who has lived in London for decades, is the pre-eminent Anglophone scholar of the kingdom. The Khashoggi affair illuminated the nature of the Saudi regime – modernising yet repressive, profligate with power – and for al-Rasheed, it also had a personal element. She and Khashoggi had clashed for years: in public debates, he was usually invited to speak first, toeing a pro-government line; she would respond by poking holes in narratives of Saudi reform. Khashoggi made ad hominem attacks – he accused her of wanting to return her family dynasty to power – while she wrote him off as a regime apologist, however polite and sophisticated.

His death launches al-Rasheed’s new book, The Son King, which follows two useful journalistic studies that try to account for the prince: MBS, by the New York Times’s Beirut bureau chief, Ben Hubbard; and Blood and Oil, by Justin Scheck and Bradley Hope, both then of the Wall Street Journal, who give his palace manoeuvrings and business dealings the Tina Brown treatment.* MBS is next in line to the throne of Saudi Arabia and already its de facto ruler. He is likely to reign for a very long time. He grew up the much indulged son of King Salman and his controversial third wife, Fahda, whom Salman’s elder children begged him not to marry since polygamy was going out of fashion. The young MBS was obnoxious to palace visitors and is one of the few prominent young royals never to study abroad. He attracted little notice in the thousands-strong royal cohort, where cousins and princelings jostle for position. But he expertly handled his ascent to the post of defence minister and then, at 31, crown prince, fighting off many more plausible candidates. He seems to have got there through a mix of homespun values, a flair for intra-palace scheming – he planted spies in the inner circle of his dying grandfather – and … what else?

We know much more about MBS now than we did a couple of years ago. His favourite food as a teenager (McDonald’s), his role models (Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher), his jargon (Key Performance Indicators), the entertainers he picked for private parties (Pitbull and PSY), his choice of intimidation techniques (an envelope with a bullet in it), the video games he liked (Age of Empires and Call of Duty) and his hidden talents (piano, self-taught). We know that his idea of fun as an adolescent was to dress up as a police officer and harass the crowds at a shopping mall. We know that he once locked up his own mother in a palace and forced his diabetic cousin Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to relinquish his claim to the throne by taking away his insulin during the fasting month of Ramadan. At some point, the bratty teen transformed himself into a serious-minded protégé and dutiful son, following the king around on official business with a notepad. He also became someone who prefers ‘disruptive’ Silicon-Valley-style innovation to incrementalism and tradition.

Such trivia doesn’t much interest al-Rasheed, who is more concerned with the underclass – the dissidents, exiles and minorities – who have been targeted under his leadership. She sees Khashoggi as a member of a distinct microgeneration of Saudis driven into exile in the MBS era, a novel phenomenon in a ‘society unaccustomed to exile and forced migration’. They have been subject to technologically sophisticated attacks, hacks and attempted repatriations, affecting even the most privileged, no matter where they live.

Al-Rasheed is a member of the Rashidi dynasty, which was based in the north-western city of Ha’il and locked in a power struggle with the House of Saud until 1921. The Rashidis lost. Her childhood was spent in Saudi Arabia, but her family went into exile after her uncle was implicated in a murder plot against King Faisal in 1975. ‘The relationship between my family and the Sauds was poisoned forever and the rift was never mended,’ she writes in her introduction. She began to develop what she calls an ‘anti-Saudi consciousness’ during her studies in Beirut and the UK. The kingdom has sought to diminish her from the start: she was told that her PhD dissertation, about her ancestors, ‘violated the sanctity of the founder of the kingdom, Ibn Saud’. Her books have, by necessity, been researched at an ever greater remove from the country she studies. For this one, she admits that she didn’t even try to talk to people living in Saudi Arabia. New levels of surveillance make it too dangerous: activists have been detained merely for downloading her work.

Despite these constraints, she offers some striking ways to think about MBS. She argues that his ‘much commented on physique’ and libidinal energy embody the intensely masculine and patriarchal Saudi state. His introduction of concerts and car racing to the kingdom – pursuits previously frowned on or forbidden – have made headlines as citizen-friendly initiatives, but she suggests that they are better understood as expressions of MBS’s own personality. She claims that Khashoggi’s murder took place amid a new ‘euphoria’ of Saudi nationalism that admits no criticism or dissent. In recent years, she writes, it has displaced religious fundamentalism as the most dominant force in Saudi public life. Wahhabism, the conservative religious tradition that once helped legitimise Saudi rule over the peninsula, is now hemmed in at every turn by the state. The Vision 2030 ‘roadmap’ sees the kingdom’s Islamic identity as only one of six major objectives. MBS has constrained Wahhabi clerics, the only group with some authority to contest the decisions of the royals, and imprisoned hard-line clerics by the dozen. Nationalist rhetoric is propagated in social media campaigns like ‘Saudi Arabia for Saudis’, ‘Saudi Arabia Is Great’. This hypernationalism is the domestic backdrop to the authoritarian actions that have become known to outsiders. ‘I may have caused some of our people to love our kingdom too much,’ MBS declared, weeks after Khashoggi’s murder.

In the months before his murder, Khashoggi had become friends with Omar al-Zahrani, a young dissident living in Canada, who persuaded him to take a harder line against the kingdom. Al-Rasheed argues that their intergenerational solidarity, only feasible in the age of social media, made it possible for them to start organising Saudi exiles around the world. Zahrani is quoted at length in the book, as are many other dissidents. Abdullah Alaoudh, who works as a researcher in Washington and is the son of a prominent (and now jailed) cleric, is given three pages. Some neatly theorise their own condition. One asylum seeker tells al-Rasheed that although ‘our society is a rich mosaic of cultures’, society itself ‘does not have a place in the new nationalism’.

The artist Ms Saffaa, exiled in Australia, makes images of Saudi women dressed in male headgear, a pointed comment on the kingdom’s guardianship system. When she still lived in Saudi Arabia, Saffaa tells al-Rasheed, she thought of guardianship as merely an administrative hassle: it was only when she left the country that she fully recognised the injustice of the system. Her paintings riled some Saudi feminists, who thought the gender-bending crossed the lines of good taste. Among the challenges facing the Saudi women’s movement is a limited conception of ‘empowerment’. They may now apply for passports, and are allowed to drive, but trying to exercise these rights has seen a number of female activists arrested.

Al-Rasheed admits that it’s hard to know how many Saudi women have been forced into the diaspora, but one figure from the UNHCR, probably an underestimate, showed that there was a 318 per cent rise in the number of asylum seekers between 2012 and 2017. Their activism abroad constitutes an embarrassment for MBS. But despite al-Rasheed’s confidence that the new Saudi diaspora is ‘destined to grow’, its make-up is so diverse – ‘liberal-minded young men and women, Islamists fleeing the current wave of repression, Shia activists, and feminists based in the USA, Australia, Canada and Europe’ – that it’s not clear it will become a cohesive or effective campaigning force.

She gives as an example ALQST, a Saudi human rights group based in London (al-qist means ‘justice’ in Arabic). I attended their second annual conference in December 2018, where al-Rasheed advocated for better organisation of Saudi dissidents abroad. She is convinced, more than two years on, that the event was part of a new wave of ‘joint diaspora conferences’ whose participants are united against the regime. If so, it’s thanks in no small part to her. In September 2020, she and ALQST’s prominent leader, Yahya Assiri, were part of a group of dissidents in the US and UK who founded the National Assembly Party, in opposition to the monarchy. Though she usually describes diaspora activism at a third-person remove, she is not merely an observer, which complicates her narrative voice.

Given the difficulty of monitoring activism within Saudi Arabia, especially from a distance, Saudi-watchers have to rely on what they can glean from tweets and forum chats and other digital ephemera. In Contesting the Saudi State (2006), al-Rasheed spent a chapter analysing the output of a pseudonymous Islamist activist known as Lewis Atiyat Allah. I monitor an anonymous, well-sourced Twitter account called @mujtahidd for news about MBS. Al-Rasheed’s narrative in this book sometimes verges on rumour and hearsay. At one point she describes a theory about King Faisal’s assassination in 1975, but then complains about a civil servant who refused to give her access to a document that would have corroborated it, and later mentions two other rumours about his death. Sweeping conclusions follow from anecdote. On the ‘millennial sons’ of Saudi Arabia: ‘Above all, they cherish their own personal freedom of speech and conscience, engaging with Islam in novel ways.’ What does this mean?

The focus on Twitter, social media and hashtag activism seems more appropriate in relation to MBS’s own internet habits. He is said to have been the first of his friends to join Facebook, and has paid several reverential visits to Silicon Valley. Saud al-Qahtani, his ruthless but bumbling media tsar until 2018, was – according to Ben Hubbard – hacked at least four times by the hackers he tried to employ in the service of the kingdom. MBS’s regime has maintained lists of dissidents and an army of ‘electronic flies’ to target critics online. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest per capita numbers of Twitter users in the world, but al-Rasheed admits that the question of whether online activism has actually produced any political change is ‘complicated and may not be easily and conclusively answered’. Twitter certainly ceased long ago to be a free public sphere for Saudi citizens and dissidents.

Some of her sharpest invective is reserved for the mainstream media, and the ‘proliferation of global liberal discourses’ that she believes played an outsized role in MBS’s rise, and admitted him to the ranks of globally approved leaders. Despite his hostility to actual Saudi journalists, he was fascinated by the Western media, and announced his intention to take Aramco public in the Economist before he told the company management. She picks off easy targets such as Thomas Friedman, whose early infatuation with MBS’s promise of change didn’t require hindsight to seem misplaced, and singles out others for perhaps excessive praise: the Channel 4 correspondent Jonathan Rugman, for example, ‘had not fallen under the prince’s spell or become enchanted by his cult’. She criticises Western media for appropriating Saudi women activists’ campaign to be allowed to drive, while at the same time asserting that ‘global media is yet to exert enough pressure to result in the freeing of women activists.’ It seems odd to rehash these early failures in media coverage given the different challenges of the post-Khashoggi era.

In talking or writing about Saudi Arabia a mysterious force tends to exert itself. I spent some time reporting on the projection of Saudi soft power in the Muslim world – frequently hyperbolised as the source of all jihadism – and came to the conclusion that although Saudi financing had a role in much that was going on in the region, the kingdom couldn’t be held responsible for every Islamic State émigré from Kosovo, or for the fact that the flow of aid it sent overseas has dried up considerably since 9/11. Wherever I went – Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria, or the US – people wanted to hear something more damning about ‘the Saudis’. The unsexy alternative to blanket condemnation or uncritical boosterism is to examine recent state actions, foreign and domestic, on their own terms.

The indiscriminate starvation and killing of civilians in Yemen, for example, began during MBS’s stint as defence minister. Even though Saudi Arabia is now retreating from the conflict, it would be easy for MBS to dodge accountability for the humanitarian disaster there without constant pressure. His ‘anti-corruption’ drive, which saw hundreds of Saudi businessmen and officials detained in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, was absurd. But he correctly identified the need to address the kingdom’s economic stagnation and the restlessness of its young population. Loosening the grip of the clerics and the religious police both consolidated his power and was broadly popular. These are not things you would expect to be acknowledged by al-Rasheed, who tends to write in polemical mode. But as she argued in the LRB (21 March 2019), ‘Saudi Arabia is a country like any other,’ so it’s worth recognising these domestic dynamics.

MBS already wields immense power and he is only just beginning. As well as rewriting the royal family’s code of seniority and bringing most ministries under his direct control, he also runs one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds, with a nearly $4 billion stake in Uber and billions in other US companies. NEOM, the ‘smart’ city he is building near the Red Sea, is still teeming with construction workers and consultants. The Aramco IPO at the end of 2019 fell short of its $2 trillion expectations, but it did take place, and his heavy-handed seizure of state assets lined the coffers of an increasingly flush neoliberal state. It is clear that he intends to brook no dissent, at home or abroad, but after the fallout from his pursuit of Khashoggi we are unlikely to see him blunder in the same way again.

Still, he exhibits a particular pattern of behaviour. It came to light last year that a few months before Khashoggi was murdered, the regime tried to send a ten-person ‘security’ team to Norway, probably to target the prominent critic Iyad al-Baghdadi. The @mujtahidd Twitter account has documented the growing list of activists, academics and Islamists who have been detained or marked for detention for sympathising with the Arab Spring or questioning MBS’s policies. The crown prince is accountable to almost no one inside Saudi Arabia, but he craves the acceptance of the global finance industry and big tech. If al-Rasheed’s predictions are correct, the number of dissident exiles will grow, and reliable testimony about life under his rule will become rare. Effective criticism of his regime requires persistence and detail. It would be easy to forget about Yemen, but we cannot. In November, Nassima al-Sada, a women’s rights campaigner who had already spent a year in solitary confinement, was sentenced to five years for speaking out against the male guardianship system – a verdict upheld by the Court of Appeal. Committing her name, and the names of others like her, to print again and again is one place to start.

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