In 1996, a British-Algerian man teaching at an elite school in Jeddah on Saudi Arabia’s west coast got a unique job offer. A prince named Salman bin Abdulaziz was coming to town for a few months with one of his wives and her children, and the family was looking for an English tutor.
The teacher, Rachid Sekkai, knew a bit about Prince Salman. He was the governor of Riyadh Province, which put him in charge of the Saudi capital, and he was a son of the king who had founded Saudi Arabia, granting him high status among the thousands of princes and princesses who made up the royal family. The job sounded interesting, and would probably pay well, so Sekkai accepted, and for the next few months a chauffeur picked him up from school at the end of the workday and drove him to the royal compound where Salman and his family were staying.
Entering for the first time, Sekkai saw “a series of jaw-dropping villas with immaculate gardens maintained by workers in white uniforms.” He passed a parking lot full of luxury cars, including what appeared to be the first pink Cadillac he had ever seen in real life. At the palace, he met his charges: Salman’s four sons from his second wife, the eldest of whom was a mischievous 11-year-old named Mohammed bin Salman.
The young princes clearly had more interest in playing than in studying, but Sekkai did his best to keep the younger boys focused, an effort that collapsed when MBS showed up.
“As the oldest of his siblings, he seemed to be allowed to do as he pleased,” Sekkai recalled. During the lessons, MBS would take a walkie-talkie from one of the guards to make “cheeky remarks” about his instructor and joke with the guards on the other end of the line to regale his siblings.
After a few lessons, MBS informed Sekkai that his mother considered the tutor “a true gentleman.” Sekkai was surprised, as Saudi Arabia’s gender segregation had prevented him from meeting the mother, much less giving her a chance to assess his character. Then he realized that she had been watching him through the surveillance cameras on the walls.
That left him feeling self-conscious, but he pressed on. The boys did not make much progress in English, and into his late twenties, MBS avoided speaking the language in public. They made even less progress in French, which the princes’ mother requested that Sekkai add to the curriculum. But by the end of his tenure, Sekkai had grown fond of the spirited young MBS, years later recalling his “imposing personality.” Sekkai assumed it came from his status as the eldest of his mother’s sons and the attention his immediate family lavished on him.
“He was the admired figure, which gave him that sense of ‘I am in charge here,’ ” Sekkai said. “In that palace, he was the one that everybody looked after. He got the attention of everybody.”
MBS’s father, Salman bin Abdulaziz, was a handsome, hardworking prince with jet black hair, a goatee, and a reputation for rectitude and toughness. When he traveled abroad, he sported suits with wide lapels and striped ties that invited comparisons to Wall Street bankers or characters from James Bond films. At home, he wore traditional, princely regalia and presided over the Saudi capital and surrounding areas as the governor of Riyadh. Residents joked that they could set their watches to the sight of his convoy heading to work in the morning, hours before other princes got out of bed. To run the capital, he kept tabs on the area’s tribes, clerics, and big clans—including his own. For years, he was the disciplinarian of the royal family. If a fight between royal cousins over a piece of real estate got out of hand, if a princess bailed on an astronomical hotel bill in Paris, if a prince got drunk and caused a scandal, it was Salman who would bring down the hammer, locking up egregious offenders in his own private jail.
“I have several princes in my prison at this moment,” he bragged to the British writer Robert Lacey. An American diplomat wrote that Salman had stopped one of his brother’s from complaining about a new regulation by telling him to “shut up and get back to work.”
No one would play a greater role than Salman in propelling MBS’s rise.
Salman traversed the titanic changes that revolutionized life in Saudi Arabia during the 20th century. He was a scion of a dynasty that had twice failed to create a kingdom in central Arabia before succeeding so phenomenally that the desert-dwellers who had pioneered the idea would have had a hard time believing how it ended up.
In the mid-1700s, in a sunbaked oasis of mud houses and date palms, Salman’s ancestors had made the first attempt, when a chieftain named Mohammed Ibn Saud created the first Saudi proto-state around his home village of Diriyah. Mohammed was not from one of the major tribes that formed the primary social structure of Arabia at the time. Instead, the Al Saud were settled farmers who grew dates and invested in trade caravans.
Battles between tribes and clans were common, but Mohammed got an edge by forming an alliance with a fundamentalist cleric that underpinned how Arabia was ruled for generations to come. Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab preached that Islam had been corrupted by traditional Arabian practices such as the veneration of idols and trees. He called for a purification of the religion by rooting out “innovations” and returning to the practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions centuries before. The sheikh’s views got him chased from his hometown, and he sought refuge in Diriyah, where the Al Saud bound his religious message to their political project.
The alliance benefited both parties. Backed by Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, the Al Saud were no longer just another Arabian clan out for power, but crusaders for the one true faith. In exchange, they gave the sheikh and his descendants control over religious and social affairs. The alliance proved to be potent, and as the first Saudi state grew, those communities that refused the sheikh’s message were branded infidels who deserved the sword.
When the state’s territory expanded to include the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the Ottomans struck back by sending troops that toppled the state, reduced Diriyah to rubble, and scattered the surviving members of the Al Saud. Their descendants tried to reestablish the state in the 19th century in the nearby town of Riyadh, but the effort collapsed in infighting over who should be in charge.
In the early 20th century, a descendent of the Al Saud named Abdulaziz—MBS’s grandfather—revived the campaign to conquer the land of his forefathers. He led troops on camelback and reestablished the alliance with the descendants of Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, who provided religious justification for his rule. Over three decades, Abdulaziz brought much of Arabia under his control, ruling it from the new capital, Riyadh.
But the rise of this new, fundamentalist polity disconcerted the Western powers who were establishing themselves around the Persian Gulf, and King Abdulaziz faced a choice: to continue expansionary jihad, which would have invited conflict with the British, or to create a modern state. He chose the latter, and declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Saudi Arabia would most likely have remained a desert backwater of minor interest to the rest of the world had it not been for the discovery of oil in 1938. That attracted speculators, technicians, oil companies, and representatives of Western governments seeking access to the kingdom’s black gold, including the United States. In a secret meeting in 1945 between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz aboard an American warship in the Suez Canal, the two leaders hit it off, reaching a lasting agreement that guaranteed American access to Saudi oil in exchange for American protection from foreign attacks. That arrangement became a pillar of American policy in the Middle East into the next century.
The influx of oil wealth turbocharged the inheritances from the kingdom’s history. The Saudis financed the international propagation of Ibn Abdul-Wahhab’s teachings, making Wahhabism a global religious force. Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s oil monopoly, became the world’s most valuable company—by far. The Al Saud became one of the world’s wealthiest dynasties. By the time of his death in 1953, King Abdulaziz had married at least eighteen women and fathered thirty-six sons and twenty-seven daughters. His offspring did not skimp on procreation either, expanding into a sprawling clan whose country bore their name and who enjoyed tremendous wealth and privilege.
There were thousands of them, all subsidized by the Saudi state. In 1996, an American diplomat visited the office that distributed their monthly stipends and found a stream of servants picking up their masters’ allowances, which varied based on their status. The sons and daughters of King Abdulaziz received up to $270,000, his grandchildren up to $27,000, and his great-grandchildren $13,000. The most distant relatives got $800. Princes also got million-dollar bonuses to build palaces when they got married, as well as perks for having children. The diplomat estimated that the stipends cost the state more than $2 billion per year, but that was merely a guess.
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