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Saudi Arabia’s empire of sand As war breaks out, MBS is racing to build his dreams

Lord of the desert. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Lord of the desert. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)


October 28, 2023   8 mins

There’s a slight hush and then a ripple across the room as he enters. “That’s MBS,” a delegate mutters in French, tugging at his neighbour to stand as Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, strides into the plenary with his retinue. For a second, maybe a second too long, everyone stands, until with a half-smile and a tilt of the head, MBS greets them, then sits down to listen to the President of South Korea, Yook Suk Yeol, lecture the Kingdom’s flagship business summit — the Future Investment Initiative — in Riyadh. They call this “Davos in the Desert”.

In the darkness, you can’t quite make out the titans of Wall Street, the Chinese billionaires, the European ministers and asset managers, or the Russian diplomats with their flag friendship pins. But you can feel them and the new world order that MBS is trying to build — centred around Saudi and him. The Kingdom, flush from the energy war between Russia and the West, has never had so much money to spend. Nor has it ever been such a hub of diplomacy as Russia, China and America court it for their superpower ends. As a result, you might catch sight of the New York billionaire Stephen Schwarzman in a suit and trainers, or a tired looking Jared Kushner; perhaps you’ll see the former French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian off to the booth of his Saudi project, or George Osborne could give you a long suspicious look across the room.

Launched in 2017 to promote the Kingdom to the world, the Financial Investment Initiative Summit, or FII, became infamous a year later after the murder of Jamal Khassogi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — the CIA says on the orders of the Crown Prince. In the fallout, scores of billionaires, tech companies, media giants, super corporations and Western officials pulled out. But “Davos in the Desert” is the perfect yardstick to see how little this murder really mattered for the West. Now it seems everyone is back at an event that is bigger than ever. In a tense air of unreality.

The Who’s Who of the speakers is a testament to the emptiness of Joe Biden’s pledge after Khassogi to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”. The power surge of money and influence towards the Kingdom had made Riyadh indispensable. Not only for US diplomats struggling with Gaza, Ukraine and a combative China. But for Western companies for whom the flush Gulf has become a critical source of capital. Even Net Zero is helping MBS — at first that is — as oil gets more expensive to extract the share of it being produced in the countries that can do it cheapest will soar. With this backdrop, the TED-style talk by Jacques Attali, a French socialist politico turned global rolodex consultant — “Is Democracy In Peril?” — felt a bit too on the nose.

FII is a showcase for the Saudi surge. But the first thing that strikes you about Riyadh when you arrive, is how little it looks like the global megapolis that MBS wants it to be. Instead, driving out of the desert, into this seven-million-strong city that feels in so many ways it shouldn’t be here — you see miles and miles of scruffy square houses, the colour of sand, crammed close together with tiny windows. A city dissected by eight-lane freeways lined with squat, unimpressive blocks. It looks nothing like Dubai. The professional expats compare it to Abu Dhabi 20 years ago. And if you arrived clueless and somebody told you this was by some metrics the capital of the most cash rich society that had ever existed, you would struggle to believe them.

Riyadh: nothing like Dubai

You can spend a week here and still fail to find your bearings at night, in this low-rise world glowing orange from the street lamps. Then you notice the construction sites: miles and miles of hoardings, blocking off mega sites announcing giga projects about to transform it. There’s King Salman Park, which when it is finished will be seven times bigger than Hyde Park. Then there’s the Mukaab, the square shaped skyscraper, the height and width of 20 Empire State Buildings. Neither exists yet — apart from in the futurist dreams and commands of MBS. Both projects, along with Neom and the Line, the 110 km long linear city crossing the desert for nine million people, and the skyscrapers of New Muraaba all have their stalls at “Davos in the Desert”.

Everyone’s feeds are full of charred Israeli babies, exploding homes in Gaza or the tieless Iranian foreign minister threatening America with hell. But in the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center — which is like what AI might generate if you asked for Versailles but make it a little Arab — the panels are very much “don’t mention the war”. Things looked so different four days before Hamas attacked. Not only was an Israeli minister seen publicly in Riyadh for the first time ever, he also joined a Jewish prayer service with a new Torah scroll dedicated to the Saudi King. This was widely interpreted as a key step towards an almost inevitable normalisation between the two countries. A stunning development in and of itself for a country that until recently banned Judaism from being practised, and in 1973 led an Arab oil embargo on Israel’s Western allies to punish them for supporting the Jewish state.

But money isn’t security. You have to leave Riyadh to see how vulnerable it really is: the pipelines bringing desalinated water from the coast, which could so easily be knocked out, or the oil infrastructure, which was partially disabled by Iranian proxy drones in 2019. This is why behind the PowerPoints and the panels MBS has been telephoning everyone he can to try to stop the Israel-Hamas war from spreading into what could easily become a full-blown war between Iran and the United States fought right over the Gulf. You can keep the war out of the convention centre, but you can’t keep Saudi Arabia out of the Middle East. And nobody knows this better than MBS.

Saudi Arabia has always been an ideological state. Its very beginnings are in a pact between the Al Sauds and the puritanical Wahhabi movement, whose strict vision of Islam has for generations been what people associate with the Kingdom. But under MBS it has suddenly pivoted. Pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism are the old politics of failure for the Crown Prince. This, he thinks, has left Saudi 20 development years behind the Emirates. And this is why he is forcing his Kingdom into a phase of nationalism and neoliberalism. Those for MBS are the new politics of success. Not only the path to Saudi survival after oil — but into turning Riyadh into a super Dubai and the Kingdom into a Saudi superpower.

MBS wants a modern economy as quickly as possible. This is why he wanted normalisation with Israel and has normalised with Iran: because there is no chance of economic success in a Middle East mired in constant war. The plan is Vision 2030 and the FII summit, just over the road from the Ritz-Carlton where MBS imprisoned half the ruling class at the start of his rule, is what he wants it to look like. Music, previously banned, is softly playing. Women, previously segregated and forced to be fully covered are everywhere — working — with very few face veils and many without a headscarf at all. The light glints off glamorous designer sequinned abayas by the coffee. Princesses used to Knightsbridge are finally doing business at home. This is Saudi Arabia seven years after MBS castrated the morality police. But make no mistake: this is still a country where you can be beheaded for a tweet. The paradox is his Kingdom has never been more liberal or more dictatorial.

To understand MBS, you need to understand his childhood. This is what unlocked a will to power that saw him, improbably, steer himself and then his father into the line of succession. Saudi rulers are not hereditary, they emerge from the clan, which makes his rise less like King Charles assuming power, and more like Cromwell seizing it.

Nothing much was expected of the seventh son of Salman, the 25th son of Ibn Saud. Obsessed by fast food and computer games, he was a typical lethargic princeling until he was handed a horrifying revelation at the age of 15: his father, despite being the governor of Riyadh, had not build a serious fortune and was perilously indebted to businessmen. Instead of making billions like their cousins, the family was living off a gigantic welfare check from the Saudi treasury — which often came too late — leaving the servants unpaid for months at a time.

Panicking at the implications of this — of drifting further and further from the centre of power and into princely poverty — he amassed cash, by selling gold coins he was given by King Fahd.  He then started trading, became obsessed with stocks and swiftly went broke. Only then did he work out that, with his name, he could simply phone up people and demand money before trying to build his own businesses. Staying in Saudi, unlike his Westernised cousins, he rose like this in Riyadh.

This, writ large, is also the state of the Kingdom. MBS’s family has failed to invest the greatest fortune in human history. So, using Saudi Arabia’s giant sovereign wealth fund, which is behind FII, he is trying to do at enormous scale what he did with King Fahd’s coins: buying up, through stakes in foreign companies, the profits of the world and investing them in what he thinks is a new economy.

There is a saying in the Middle East: seize opportunities for they pass like clouds. And MBS knows as electric cars and batteries take off he is running out of time.

He is desperate for a new Kingdom. Social reforms, such as finally letting women drive or travel alone without a male guardian are real and, for millennials who make up the majority of his subjects, he is not only genuinely popular but has made their lives freer. One of the world’s great liberalisations is being led by one of its greatest autocrats.An impetuous 38-year-old determined to govern alone — with all the risks that entails.

This is the discussion you end up having, discreetly that is, over and over again in the Kingdom. Who is MBS? For the optimists, he is a Saudi Atatürk or Peter the Great, the latest Arabian incarnation of the Westernising dictator. For the pessimists, they see the smile of Saddam Hussein — pointing to the dismemberment of Jamal Khassogi and his strange facial tics. Few at FII seemed to believe that the linear city in Neom would ever actually exist. What the critics see is not a new economy — but building-crazed megalomania that will leave only ruins.

Billions and billions can silence these questions. Because being in Saudi Arabia feels like being on another planet, where the normal rules of politics are suspended by oil. A futuristic but also medieval world with no need for democracy. Even in Russia, or China, there is a system, a bureaucracy, and institutions, however frightful, that matters in politics. Here there really is a royal court, an absolute monarchy and one family — the richest ever to exist — that owns the country.

And what is happening now is the result of long running fights within that family over whether the Kingdom should choose Islamism or nationalism. Whether or not it should change or stay the same. And, fundamentally, should it be open or closed? The construction pits and the PowerPoints are the decisive victory of one side. The panic in the pace is that, as the world decarbonises, it has started too late: Saudi only has a few decades of oil wealth left until this planet is pulled back to earth. But will it crash or land safely? Will there be splendour or ruins in Riyadh? The answer now hangs on who MBS really is. Because he has ensured nobody else will have a say.


Ben Judah is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and the author of ‘This is London’.

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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
5 months ago

The world hasn’t started “decarbonising”. Oil and gas consumption is forecast to rise for the rest of this decade. Forecasts after that are pure guesses.

Some of the biggest investors in “net zero” propaganda are Saudi and Qatar. The reason is obvious: net zero hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to CO2 emissions but it has all but stopped Western investment in its own hydrocarbons.

So even if global oil and gas consumption begins to fall in 2030, thanks to its easy to extract reserves Saudi Arabia will have an even larger share of supply and far greater pricing leverage. And if global oil and gas consumption doesn’t fall, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East will rule Western economies.

Last edited 5 months ago by Nell Clover
Roddy Campbell
RC
Roddy Campbell
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Spot on. And Russia, for the same reason. Russian money was behind much of the anti-fracking movement in the UK.

Climate Change propaganda has made the West into Putin, Xi and MBS’s Useful Idiots.

Mark Royster
MR
Mark Royster
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Yes. Obvious, or should be. We in the enlightened West don’t seem to be able to think more than one move ahead. Our competition has lapped us but the fans tell us we are winning. How could we not be? It’s embarrassing. See Max below: “We’re not in the early stages of WW III because everyone’s fighting over lithium ”

Peter Kwasi-Modo
PP
Peter Kwasi-Modo
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Nell Clover is spot-on, as always. Unherd: please persuade Ms Clover to become a contributor.

Last edited 5 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Fossil fuels accounted for 80% of energy production 20 years ago and still accounts for 80% of energy production today.

We in the west have been captured by unserious, even dangerous beliefs, that have not reduced our dependency on fossil fuels at all. It has only made us more dependent to the whims of authoritarian leaders who supply those fuels.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

An excellent synopsis if I may say so.

Also a perfect ‘casus belli’ for why the West’ should reimpose total military and political control over the Middle East and the oil reserves it sits on.

We can no longer allow this bunch of insolent “camel jockeys” to interfere with our economies. There would also be undoubted benefits for the so called Middle East peace process.
Perhaps a rallying cry could be “ Islam MUST be destroyed, GOD wills it!

Last edited 5 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago

We should exploit our own resources. Canada has vast untapped resources, yet investment in exploration and new development has basically stopped because of the Trudeau regime. And it’s not like energy companies have stopped doing this – they have simply shifted their investment to South America and Africa.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

A traditional’Crusade’ was be an easier option than than either exploiting Canadian resources or even starting ‘fracking’ in the U.K.

Jim M
Jim M
5 months ago

Islam is being destroyed in China. They are very clever and not sentimental. They want to hang onto power by any means necessary and that includes getting rid of a violent, world-conquering religion.

Mohammed Alodadi
MA
Mohammed Alodadi
5 months ago

What a f*****g racist idiot..!!!

Robert Garrod
Robert Garrod
4 months ago

Islam is not a race or are you suggesting only certain races can be muslim ?

Wim de Vriend
WD
Wim de Vriend
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Yes; for quite some time now, I’ve had the feeling that the dizzy forecasts of an impending ideal world without oil and gas are the equivalent of Paul Ehrlich’s incessant but never materializing predictions of doom: that in the 1970s hundreds of millions would starve, that all sea life would be dead by 1980, that England would no longer exist by 2000, and so on. And all this nonsense from him and similar frantic prophets can be easily found, thanks to the Internet.

Deb Grant
DG
Deb Grant
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I really do enjoy the comments on Unherd as much as the articles. What is your background, you make some excellent points? I’m assuming that your contributions are from a point of knowledge – that vastly underrated attribute.

Mrs R
MR
Mrs R
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Net Zero is a scam and will ruin the west. During all these years of focus on Net Zero rain forests are still being destroyed at the rate of areas the size of a football pitch every two seconds, plastic still being dumped in the sea, micro plastics in fish and in our soils, untreated sewage destroying rivers, over fishing of oceans continues to devastate fish numbers to the point of eradication etc etc.
Who is benefitting from net zero?

Last edited 5 months ago by Mrs R
L Brady
L Brady
5 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Russia, Saudi and Iran are the ones benefiting from net zero.

Kevin Godwin
Kevin Godwin
5 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Exactly, it is pointless for the ‘gullible’ west to accept ‘net zero’ with all it’s negative financial consequences if the ‘lungs of the earth’ are still being destroyed. i would have more respect and acceptance of this net zero ideology if there was a concomitant ban on global deforestation.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Alberta will have something to say about that.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
5 months ago

Why is it that the most intelligent people can’t or won’t grasp that beyond electric cars and their batteries, the problem of source remains. They are plugged into… what? It’s a fool’s errand until the serious pursue nuclear generated electricity. Sadly there are a lot of fools out there.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago

Another one of the many policy blunders by the Biden administration. Let’s choke off domestic production of fossil fuels and alienate the largest supplier in the world. Better yet, let’s normalize relations with Iran because they would never murder a journalist. Thanks Joe for four years of political and economic instability.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Were you not taught NEVER to mock the afflicted?

John Huddart
John Huddart
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Really, are these the same Iranians whose ‘modesty cops’ have just killed a teenage girl for the crime (gasp) of not wearing a hijab?

Last edited 5 months ago by John Huddart
Max Rottersman
Max Rottersman
5 months ago

Hey Ben, great stuff. We’re not in the early stages of WW III because everyone’s fighting over lithium 😉 Look at the hard data. Oil and gas are more valuable as ever. You say so yourself but didn’t have the courage to follow your own logic all the way through.

Mark Royster
Mark Royster
5 months ago

The collapsing EV market in the US at least may challenge the hypothesis that we are decarbonizing. Or perhaps it is just a momentary dip. It may not be so risky to bet on the future of oil.

Alex Carnegie
RC
Alex Carnegie
5 months ago

Treating Saudi Arabia as a pariah would be foolish. Even on the more optimistic net zero scenarios, the UK and Europe will remain dependant on Middle East oil way into the 2040s. It is important that SA is aligned with the West and not China. Otherwise the latter may acquire the ability to squeeze our energy supplies at will until then.

In normal circumstances, chopping up journalists should result in a life long exclusion from polite society but in the world of international alliances it is sometimes better to let bygones be bygones. If we could ally with Stalin, who killed millions, we can certainly recognise strategic reality and reconcile with MBS. There is a difference between personal morality and the logic of diplomacy and realpolitik.

Last edited 5 months ago by Alex Carnegie
Gayle Rosenthal
GR
Gayle Rosenthal
5 months ago

For all the money in Arab countries, they have no culture. Islam made sure of that. They have lots of big buildings but the cities are artificial. They import labor from poor countries so even their population is inorganic. God help us if the Arabs continue to colonize the west.

P Branagan
P Branagan
5 months ago

Since blatant unapologetic racism is going mainstream in this comments section of UnHerd would it be OK for me to write?: ‘God help us all if the Jews continue to run the West’.
Now before the useful idiots that usually comment on these matters go nuclear with all their downvotes – OK,OK,OK. Thought not. How silly of me – some races are definitely superior to other races (well at least one anyway!).

L Brady
LB
L Brady
5 months ago
Reply to  P Branagan

Perhaps stick to Facebook with your conspiracy theories. UnHerd is for IQs above 50.
Let me make things clearer There are 16 million Jews in the world or 0.2% of the world population. This compares to 1.8 billion Muslims, 24% of the world’s population.

Last edited 5 months ago by L Brady
Mohammed Alodadi
Mohammed Alodadi
5 months ago

Another f*****g racist moron..!!!

John Hilton-O’Brien
JH
John Hilton-O’Brien
5 months ago

He’s an enlightened despot, in the same spirit as Frederick the Great. We’ll see if it pans out for al-Saud, economically and morally.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
5 months ago

Thank you. Very interesting.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
5 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

For those who wonder, FII is
“the Kingdom’s flagship business summit — the Future Investment Initiative — in Riyadh. “

Vijay Kant
VK
Vijay Kant
5 months ago

The horse of Islamisation may have bolted before the barn was closed shut.

Last edited 5 months ago by Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
5 months ago

While IsIamisation may be descending in Saudi Arabia, it is definitely ascending in the rest of the world. The likes of Iran, Hamas and their sympathisers are making sure that the fueI that keeps IsIamisation running is not dried out once the Saudi funding to it stops.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago

I don’t know. Giving orders to have a journalist slowly dismembered? How do you come back from that?

Mark Royster
MR
Mark Royster
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

In another time, perhaps, it might have been difficult. But even this will fade as the news cycle turns to the next distraction. “Who knows if it even happened? And besides….”

D Walsh
DW
D Walsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

its easy if you have enough cash or oil

Netanyahoo is killing thousands and will get away with it, why is that

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

So it’s ok then?

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

It’s despicable and inhumane, but the US and the west can’t possibly micromanage the behaviour of despots across the globe. If you want to go after Saudia Arabia, make sure you have secure supply of energy inputs.

Simon S
SS
Simon S
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

You come back from that because our spineless mainstream media fails to remind us of it at every mention of MBS with a short embedded clause. And I think unfortunately that speaks to a wider, more generalized, more normalized, moral degradation.

Last edited 5 months ago by Simon S
Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
5 months ago

While Islamisation may be descending in Saudi Arabia, it is definitely ascending in rest of the world. The likes of Iran, Hamas and their sympathisers are making sure that the fuel that keeps Islamisation running is not dried out once the Saudi funding to it stops.

martin logan
martin logan
5 months ago

You can say all you want about MBS, but SA was supposed to be part of a coalition with Israel and the US that was designed to stop Iran.
That coalition now seems to have been blown apart by Hamas.
This is very bad news for SA, Israel and the West.
And the “mulit-polar” world that is trying to replace it will more likely be a dog-eat dog world.

Vijay Kant
VK
Vijay Kant
5 months ago

Test for approval!

Last edited 5 months ago by Vijay Kant
mike otter
mike otter
5 months ago

I read this with an open mind despite a few twitches of the credulity wand until i got to the electric car bit. What does the writer expect to happen? The West to invade Congo and sieze all the coltan, or some how force China and Russia to give up their lithium mines? The notion of “solar kites” and (magic?) solar carpets in the Sahel is like something out of a Harry Potter story, and even if it were feasable has anyone cleared the plan with the Tuareg and other local owners? The belief in electric cars is similar to any other magical thinking, and magic is the basis of all religions from Christianity, through Marxism to Greenism. Ironically Islam is one of the few theisms that can co-exist with scientific theories of knowledge and the Mertonian norms these theories need to thrive. A good starting point to understand KSA in general and MBS in particular is to look at where Aramco is investing in a post petrochem direction: hydrogen.

Klive Roland
Klive Roland
5 months ago
Reply to  mike otter

Surely hydrogen is a total non-starter? At least in terms of being ‘post petrochem’, as it requires enormous amounts of energy to produce the stuff.

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Klive Roland

Ignore anyone telling you Hydrogen is a good idea for passenger cars, these people are fools
That said it might have some uses in other areas

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
5 months ago

Taking long for approval!

Last edited 5 months ago by Vijay Kant
Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
5 months ago

Anyone else think this makes no sense?

“as oil gets more expensive to extract the share of it being produced in the countries that can do it cheapest will soar.”