Christopher De Bellaigue

The prince of PR…

Don't be fooled: the crown prince is an old-fashioned despot

This week, Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, is on his not-quite-state visit to Britain. A parade down the Mall and a state banquet could only be afforded to his father, old King Salman, who made MBS crown prince last June and has given him unprecedented latitude to liberalise Saudi society, lock up his enemies and light fireworks abroad. MBS arrived in London on Wednesday fresh from visiting one friend, Egypt’s General Sisi, and will go on to see another, Donald Trump, on 19 March. Theresa May’s aim will be to show that Britain can thrive outside the EU, but she should think twice before co-opting this new strongman who reputedly encourages his courtiers to call him Iskander — the name by which Middle Easterners know Alexander the Great.

MBS is an exacting prince, as was shown last November when he locked up much of the country’s business elite in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh and amid allegations of corruption recovered billions of dollars. He has wrested control of public morals from the conservative sheikhs, introduced VAT, cut petrol subsidies, dismantled rules concerning gender segregation and invested some of the country’s sovereign wealth in Uber, the Hollywood movie industry and Neom, a planned $500 billion megacity on the Red Sea described in the literature as ‘an aspirational society that heralds the future of human civilisation’. All the while he is fighting a bloody war in Yemen and diplomatically squeezing the governments of Qatar and Lebanon — though he is being embarrassed in these regional endeavours by Iran.

Jared Kushner and David Petraeus are fans of the restless prince. So is Boris Johnson. In a recent interview with Al Arabiya, the Saudi TV channel whose owner, Waleed al-Ibrahim, was among those arrested in November, the Foreign Secretary lauded the ‘very exciting period of change’ inaugurated by MBS.

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