A new account of Saudi’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stunning rise reveals the private humiliation that hardened into a ruthless edge.
The models arrived first. Boats carrying 150 women — from Brazil, Russia and elsewhere — docked at Velaa Private Island, an opulent Maldives resort. On arrival, each woman was driven in a golf cart to a clinic, tested for sexually transmitted diseases and settled into a private villa.
The women were due to spend the better part of a month with their hosts, several dozen friends of then 29-year-old Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for a party marking the prince’s ascent. It was the moment when a young man with a taste for opulence, a hunger for money and a need for power found himself with an excess of all three.
Prince Mohammed had worked doggedly for a year, outmanoeuvring rivals and easing the path for his septuagenarian father Salman to assume the throne. After Salman took the crown in early 2015, he delegated extraordinary powers to Mohammed, who consolidated control of the military and security services and began up-ending the sleepy kingdom’s oil-dependent economy.
By that July, Mohammed wanted a break. His privacy-obsessed entourage booked the entire Velaa resort for a month at a cost of $US50m. Staff were banned from bringing mobile phones with cameras. Rapper Pitbull and Korean pop star Psy performed.
It became a time of excess for the young prince. He bought the Serene — a 439-foot yacht rented by Bill Gates the year before — for €429m and a chateau near Versailles with fountains and a moat for more than $US300m.
Then all of a sudden it was over. News of Prince Mohammed’s visit leaked in a local publication. Media in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s enemy, picked it up and started blasting the news far and wide. Less than a week after the trip started, Prince Mohammed and his delegation were gone.
The little-known party was a brief stop on the wild ride of the prince’s next few years.
During that time he curbed the famously strict religious police, expanded the rights of women and locked up billionaires and relatives in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel on corruption allegations.
His security forces assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Now, with 84-year-old King Salman suffering health problems that have him in and out of the hospital — recently for a gallbladder operation — understanding the young prince’s rise to power is increasingly important for world leaders trying to assess the direction the kingdom will go if Prince Mohammed ascends the throne.
Prince Mohammed’s ostentatious spending, and his focus on wealth, grew from a family secret. For much of the prince’s life, his branch of the family was nowhere near as rich as others. As a senior prince, his father Salman received a huge monthly stipend but spent it running his palaces, paying staff and doling out largesse.
It hit 15-year-old Mohammed like a brick when a cousin told him that Salman had not amassed what Saudi royals deem a serious fortune. Even worse, Salman was dangerously indebted to princes and businessmen. Family friends were shocked in the first decade of the 2000s when word spread through Paris that Salman’s contractors and employees hadn’t been paid for six months.
Mohammed knew the importance of money in his family. His father was unlikely to become king, since two more senior princes stood between him and the throne. With a new king, Salman’s clan would be pushed further from the centre of power. Its income would shrink and be spread among growing ranks of descendants. If he couldn’t build wealth in his youth, Mohammed foresaw a future of relying on the good graces of whomever was king to support his lifestyle.
Before money became an overarching concern, Mohammed enjoyed more mundane entertainment. He enjoyed McDonald’s and video games such as Age of Empires, where players build armies to conquer enemies in historical settings. Then he decided to become the family businessman.
For years, Prince Mohammed had been stashing gold coins his father and uncle, King Fahd, gave as gifts for Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan. By the time he was 16, Mohammed was able to pull together about $US100,000 after selling gold and luxury watches he’d received as gifts. It became the starting capital for a stock-trading foray. It was soon lost.
But first, briefly, Prince Mohammed’s portfolio gained value, giving him a thrill he would keep chasing. Prince Mohammed decided to go abroad after university and get into banking, telecommunications or real estate. He wasn’t expecting real political power — as a younger son of a prince with low chances of becoming king, there was little chance Prince Mohammed would get anywhere near the throne.
Some evenings, Prince Mohammed took friends into the desert where staff made up tents and a campfire. He talked of plans to become a billionaire like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, men who built legacies by focusing on results and being shrewder than competitors. And Prince Mohammed spoke with charisma, mission and mounting frustration about Saudi youth. “We are the ones who can decide the future of our generation,” he said one night, an attendee recalls. “If we don’t step up, who else will?”
First he focused on building a fortune, creating companies and acquiring stakes in others. In 2008, Prince Mohammed, through intermediaries, persuaded Verizon to bring fibre-optic infrastructure to Saudi Arabia. The deal saw Verizon take a minority stake in a joint venture whose biggest partner was one of Prince Mohammed’s many companies.
Verizon’s legal department was headed by current US Attorney-General William Barr at the time. The deal helped Prince Mohammed’s stature at home — “My son made millions for the family,” Salman boasted to one visitor after the deal closed — but didn’t go anywhere. The prince’s organisation didn’t have the experience to deliver the project; Verizon took a writedown and left.
Prince Mohammed’s stock trading also hit turbulence. Regulators detected suspicious trading patterns linked to accounts belonging to Prince Mohammed and other princes. Saudi Arabia’s chief stock regulator at the time in 2013, Mohammed al Shaikh, investigated and determined a trader acting on Mohammed’s behalf was responsible for the suspicious trading. The incident incensed then King Abdullah and Prince Mohammed was pushed out of government affairs for a time. (A spokesman for Prince Mohammed declined to comment on the incident.)
But it would be temporary. Even during his money-making days, Prince Mohammed was carefully studying how to gain — or, if necessary — regain status in the royal court. He knew how to make himself useful to powerful old men like King Abdullah, performing tasks too distasteful for other princes, like evicting the widow of a former king from a palace she refused to vacate.
Most important, he realised that, as the elderly uncles who stood between his father and the throne died off sooner than expected, Salman had a chance to become king — and it would be up to Prince Mohammed to develop strategies to fend off their rivals. Thanks to his decisiveness and ruthless edge, the ploys helped seal the deal.
And when Salman took the throne, Prince Mohammed’s ideas were suddenly the highest priority. The day after Abdullah’s funeral, Mohammed took charge of the royal court. At 4am he summoned officials and businessmen to meet later that day. Prince Mohammed asked them if there was risk in remaking the government by getting rid of Abdullah’s governance committees. Some said such change should be made slowly to monitor for unforeseen impacts. “Nonsense,” Prince Mohammed replied. “If it’s the right thing to do, we do it today.”
Within a week Prince Mohammed was put in charge of the kingdom’s economy and military, and such haste would become a trademark. He surrounded himself with new advisers, some with little government background, and encouraged them to argue with him into the night on policy ideas. He put Mohammed al Shaikh — the man who investigated him in 2013 for insider trading — in charge of cracking down on financial shenanigans.
Soon after, Prince Mohammed would take control of state oil producer Saudi Aramco — the world’s most profitable company — and, with its money at his disposal, he would set to work turning the kingdom’s moribund sovereign wealth fund into the most influential investor in Silicon Valley. The teenager obsessed with building his own fortune, with emulating men such as Jobs, was now in control of more money than he knew what to do with. Building wealth and power became Prince Mohammed’s obsession.