With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine straining the already tense US-Saudi relationship, it might be time for a refresher course. And no one is better qualified to provide it than David B. Ottaway, who has been covering Saudi Arabia as a Washington Post journalist, Middle East bureau chief and scholar since the 1970s.
In his new book, “Mohammed bin Salman: The Icarus of Saudi Arabia?,” Ottaway explores the complex history of US-Saudi relations and how the actions and character of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto head of the government, are further jeopardizing an already tenuous bond.
For decades, the US has had an unwritten “oil for security” understanding with the small, vulnerable Gulf kingdom, whose safety relies on military aid from the US. When King Abdullah died in 2015, King Salman assumed the throne and, defying the royal succession, named his son, MBS, deputy crown prince. In a power struggle that Ottaway terms a “game of thrones,” MBS forced the abdication of his royal rival, thereby “putting the fate of the house of Saud in the hands of a neophyte thirty-one-year-old prince.”
From the beginning, MBS’s “boiling ambition” was evident, as was his penchant for suppressing opposition. In 2017, less than three months after being promoted to crown prince, his security agents arrested 20 clerics, liberal writers, academics and journalists opposed to his vision for a new Saudi Arabia.
One credible Saudi voice in exile who decried MBS’s suppression of critics was Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote a series of opinion pieces for the Washington Post. In 2018, Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, almost certainly at the behest of the Crown Prince. “It was truly his Icarian moment,” Ottaway writes, “a fall from the glittering heights of international stardom to the ranks of other bloody Arab dictators.”
Ottaway is cautious regarding the future of Saudi Arabia. Whether MBS will take over when his father dies, a move opposed by some within the royal family, remains to be seen, as do the lengths to which he might go to maintain power. Perhaps, Ottaway muses, the impulsive crown prince will behave differently once he is secure on the throne. “Until then,” he writes, “we are left to divine his prospects on the basis of a troubling start to the reign of an upstart young prince with unbridled ambition to become a global leader and the founding father of a new Saudi Arabia.”
David Ottaway is currently a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. An award-winning journalist and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, his previous books include “The Arab World Upended: Revolution and Its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt” and “The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia.