In their book Blood and Oil, Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck reveal a side to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman that loves all things American. From the popular video game Call of Duty, to Apple products, to an old-fashioned Big Mac burger from McDonald’s, he is known to have an affinity for American culture.
But his take on the American model of governance is a different story. For governance, Bin Salman “looks to China and finds a model he can get behind, one that ensures his place on the throne and the preservation of the ruling House of Al-Saud.”
Bin Salman understands the importance of appeasing his Western audience. That’s why on the global stage he has touted himself as a progressive and secular figure from within a traditionally conservative and predictable royal family. To support that image, he has introduced otherwise foreign entertainment to the Saudi domestic arena including concerts, theatres and even women’s sporting events. Economically, he introduced Vision 2030, a decade-long effort to diversify and reform the country’s oil-dependent economy. However, his attempts at reform stop there.
Minor reforms have been overshadowed by major abuses of human rights both domestically and abroad. His reign has seen a sharp rise in the number of death sentences, mostly as a political weapon against dissidents from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a Muslim minority. Human rights activists, political dissidents, religious scholars and even the most high-profile of the royal elite find themselves imprisoned arbitrarily on charges such as “controversial” posts on Twitter or support for democratic reforms.
Such charges against these prisoners of conscience are unfounded and ludicrous. One of them laid against the Muslim reformist scholar Salman Alodah is that he simply “visited Qatar”. Similarly, the absurd charges against women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul include her applications for positions at the UN.
Journalists and academics find themselves suffocated and unable to express themselves, weary of the fate of thousands before them, most notably the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi. As the former Director of Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, put it, Bin Salman’s killing of the dissident journalist sent a message to all Saudi citizens: if I can do this to a well-known figure like Khashoggi, then I can do it to anyone.