Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for Saudi Arabia was impressive even before he became crown prince in June 2017.
In the West, he quickly became known for his support of women driving, the opening of movie theaters and comedy clubs, and his plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy. Criticism about his alleged role in the brutal war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, and the effective kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister were brushed aside.
But the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, has cast MbS, as he is known, in a different light: no longer the long-awaited reformer, but yet another authoritarian.
MbS’s ascent coincided with a new administration in Washington. The image he projected was in some ways what many in the West had long yearned for in Saudi Arabia.
“He was young. He was energetic. He was charging toward the future,” James Smith, the United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia until 2013, told me.
MbS’s “Vision 2030” plan sought to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy. He wanted to partially privatize Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, and has turned the kingdom into a major investor in Silicon Valley through its $2 trillion sovereign-wealth fund.
Jon Alterman, a former senior State Department official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me that there has long been a feeling in the United States that Saudi Arabia was ailing and “headed for disaster.” Its economy was completely reliant on oil, its leadership was aging, and religious extremism was on the rise.
“Mohammed bin Salman came in and argued that the kingdom needed a different direction,” Alterman said. “He wanted to change the economy. He wanted to change the role of women. He wanted to accelerate change in a country that often seemed interested in slowing change.”
“We needed Mohammed bin Salman to be successful,” he said.
The crown prince found a champion in the White House: Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The two men, both in their 30s, appeared to have a close relationship. In Washington, MbS was viewed as a leader unencumbered by history, who could revolutionize the kingdom and propel it into the future.
Although MbS’s luster rubbed off on the kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s decades-long practice of hiring American firms to promote its interests in the United States ensured that the relationship between the two countries could endure turbulent periods. That includes the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s and the attacks of September 11, 2001 (15 of the 19 attackers hailed from the kingdom).
Saudi spending on lobbying during these years remained high. But it rose dramatically in 2017—the kingdom spent $27 million on hiring lobbying firms and related activities last year compared with $10 million in 2016, according to the Center for International Policy (CIP), which tracks foreign influence spending in the U.S.
Saudi Arabia was the eighth-highest-spending country in the U.S. last year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which also tracks such data. It was surpassed in the Middle East only by the United Arab Emirates and Israel, according to CRP. (CIP and CRP use different methodologies to calculate spending.)
Ben Freeman, the director of CIP’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, told me that Saudi spending accelerated after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. Riyadh had been wary of President Barack Obama’s pursuit of the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, and his support for the Arab Spring that swept the region in 2011 and ousted long-entrenched leaders. (Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations say the Arab Spring emboldened the Muslim Brotherhood, a group they regard as terrorists.)
“Coming off of Obama, they see Trump, and right away after the election of Trump they went on a lobbying blitz,” Freeman told me. Between the November 2016 election and the end of the year, Saudi Arabia added three firms to its payroll, he said.
Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia, an occasion marked by pageantry and the announcement of billions of dollars of business agreements. MbS’s subsequent visit to the U.S. not only included meetings in the White House, but also network-television interviews, glowing media profiles, and dinner with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If there were reservations in the Trump administration over the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the detention of Saudi royals, or the arrests of women’s-rights activists, they weren’t aired in public.
“All indications were that spending very much paid off,” Freeman said.
But the Khashoggi affair has taken some of the sheen off of MbS and, by extension, Saudi Arabia. Three lobbying firms—the Harbour Group, BGR, and the Glover Park Group—all ended their contracts with the kingdom since Khashoggi’s disappearance. Such moves, however, are rare and likely to be temporary, Freeman said. Saudi Arabia has actually signed at least one lobbying contract amid the crisis.
“There’s sort of a weird dynamic here in that in the immediate aftermath you have this flight away from the country, which becomes something of a pariah. Lobbying and PR firms will distance themselves in the immediate aftermath,” Freeman said. “But then very quickly, and quietly in most cases, a lot of firms will sign new contracts with the country in question. We’re seeing a little bit of that.”
As the Saudi explanation for what happened to Khashoggi shifts, MbS’s own position, while certainly secure, is still the subject of scrutiny. Through the affair, the kingdom has maintained that the crown prince wasn’t involved.
MbS’s father, King Salman, is said to be ailing, making it unclear who, if anyone, could force a change in the succession order. MbS does have many supporters in the kingdom, where he, and the reforms he has introduced, are widely popular.
But he has also made enemies within the powerful royal family thanks to an anti-corruption campaign that resulted in the detaining, and alleged torture, of prominent princes; some were released only after parting with large portions of their wealth. At the same time, MbS’s acquisition of expensive European real estate, a $500 million yacht, and a Leonardo da Vinci painting stand in contrast to his reformist agenda.
Kushner has reportedly told Trump to continue supporting MbS, because he believes the crisis will pass. Although that might be true, the Khashoggi affair could taint MbS’s plans to remake the Saudi economy. Smith, who has numerous sources in the region, told me that the initial excitement in the West over MbS’s openness had given way to discomfort.
“You walk the streets of Riyadh today and people don’t want to talk, because they’re afraid somebody is listening. That is not the Saudi Arabia that I knew when I was there,” Smith said. “So it’s put a much different slant on Mohammed bin Salman as a reformer. And, in fact, it makes the positives look a little bit like a facade.”