I sat in hundreds of bilateral meetings during eight years in the White House, and I never saw anything quite like what happened next. Usually, no one speaks except the heads of state, unless they call on an expert to offer a particular view—this is especially true in protocol-conscious places like Saudi Arabia. But even though he was seated about halfway down the row of Saudi officials from the king, MbS stood up and began lecturing Obama. You don’t understand the Saudi justice system, he said. He argued that the Saudi public demanded vengeance against criminals, and those who had been beheaded had to be killed for the sake of stability in the kingdom. He dismissed any concerns about jailed bloggers and journalists. With condescension, he offered to arrange for Obama to get a briefing on Saudi justice.
By this point, MbS was already on a rapid ascent. When King Abdullah died in 2015, MbS’s father—King Salman—was a natural successor. Mohammad bin Nayef, a similarly older and experienced member of the royal family, was also an unsurprising choice for crown prince, next in line for the throne. But it was unusual for there to be a “deputy crown prince”—second in line to the throne—particularly one so young. MbS was rumored to be in his 20s, about a half-century younger than his father and Mohammad bin Nayef. It was obvious that Salman was maneuvering to make his young son king as soon as possible, which was going to roil the royal family.
At first, this was a source of obvious concern for American policy makers. MbS was relatively unknown and clearly making a power play that was out of character for the kingdom, where the ruling family likes to govern from some sort of consensus. But then Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), stepped forward. Bin Zayed—similarly known by his initials, MbZ—was a favorite of the American national-security establishment among Arab leaders, and particularly effective at convincing Americans that he was offering them useful advice rather than simply advocating for his own interests (which is what he was usually doing). He started praising MbS to visitors as a visionary, a reformer, a man of energy and action, someone to be trusted and supported. Implicit in this campaign was the assurance that MbS was like-minded, an extension of MbZ in strategy and outlook.
The Emiratis are particularly good at steering American opinion. In addition to direct lobbying of the U.S. government, they wage savvy influence campaigns by cultivating former high-ranking American officials and military officers, members of Congress, scholars at prominent think tanks, leading opinion journalists, and CEOs. Many of these Americans benefit financially from their ties to the Gulf, through business deals, corporate boards, think-tank contributions, or lucrative speaking engagements. Before too long, the word was everywhere, including the internal meetings of the Obama administration: MbS was the man to watch. MbS deftly capitalized on this momentum, talking up his vision of much-needed reforms to the Saudi economy, and hinting at broader societal reforms. Modernization was the buzzword. And with MbZ’s backing, the message seemed to be that the desert kingdom was soon going to look like Abu Dhabi, where the economy was about more than oil, women could drive, and the authoritarianism was kept conveniently out of the sight of Western visitors.