There’s a slight hush and then a ripple across the room as he enters. “That’s MBS,” a delegate mutters in French, tugging at his neighbour to stand as Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, strides into the plenary with his retinue. For a second, maybe a second too long, everyone stands, until with a half-smile and a tilt of the head, MBS greets them, then sits down to listen to the President of South Korea, Yook Suk Yeol, lecture the Kingdom’s flagship business summit — the Future Investment Initiative — in Riyadh. They call this “Davos in the Desert”.
In the darkness, you can’t quite make out the titans of Wall Street, the Chinese billionaires, the European ministers and asset managers, or the Russian diplomats with their flag friendship pins. But you can feel them and the new world order that MBS is trying to build — centred around Saudi and him. The Kingdom, flush from the energy war between Russia and the West, has never had so much money to spend. Nor has it ever been such a hub of diplomacy as Russia, China and America court it for their superpower ends. As a result, you might catch sight of the New York billionaire Stephen Schwarzman in a suit and trainers, or a tired looking Jared Kushner; perhaps you’ll see the former French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian off to the booth of his Saudi project, or George Osborne could give you a long suspicious look across the room.
Launched in 2017 to promote the Kingdom to the world, the Financial Investment Initiative Summit, or FII, became infamous a year later after the murder of Jamal Khassogi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — the CIA says on the orders of the Crown Prince. In the fallout, scores of billionaires, tech companies, media giants, super corporations and Western officials pulled out. But “Davos in the Desert” is the perfect yardstick to see how little this murder really mattered for the West. Now it seems everyone is back at an event that is bigger than ever. In a tense air of unreality.
The Who’s Who of the speakers is a testament to the emptiness of Joe Biden’s pledge after Khassogi to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”. The power surge of money and influence towards the Kingdom had made Riyadh indispensable. Not only for US diplomats struggling with Gaza, Ukraine and a combative China. But for Western companies for whom the flush Gulf has become a critical source of capital. Even Net Zero is helping MBS — at first that is — as oil gets more expensive to extract the share of it being produced in the countries that can do it cheapest will soar. With this backdrop, the TED-style talk by Jacques Attali, a French socialist politico turned global rolodex consultant — “Is Democracy In Peril?” — felt a bit too on the nose.
FII is a showcase for the Saudi surge. But the first thing that strikes you about Riyadh when you arrive, is how little it looks like the global megapolis that MBS wants it to be. Instead, driving out of the desert, into this seven-million-strong city that feels in so many ways it shouldn’t be here — you see miles and miles of scruffy square houses, the colour of sand, crammed close together with tiny windows. A city dissected by eight-lane freeways lined with squat, unimpressive blocks. It looks nothing like Dubai. The professional expats compare it to Abu Dhabi 20 years ago. And if you arrived clueless and somebody told you this was by some metrics the capital of the most cash rich society that had ever existed, you would struggle to believe them.
You can spend a week here and still fail to find your bearings at night, in this low-rise world glowing orange from the street lamps. Then you notice the construction sites: miles and miles of hoardings, blocking off mega sites announcing giga projects about to transform it. There’s King Salman Park, which when it is finished will be seven times bigger than Hyde Park. Then there’s the Mukaab, the square shaped skyscraper, the height and width of 20 Empire State Buildings. Neither exists yet — apart from in the futurist dreams and commands of MBS. Both projects, along with Neom and the Line, the 110 km long linear city crossing the desert for nine million people, and the skyscrapers of New Muraaba all have their stalls at “Davos in the Desert”.
Everyone’s feeds are full of charred Israeli babies, exploding homes in Gaza or the tieless Iranian foreign minister threatening America with hell. But in the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center — which is like what AI might generate if you asked for Versailles but make it a little Arab — the panels are very much “don’t mention the war”. Things looked so different four days before Hamas attacked. Not only was an Israeli minister seen publicly in Riyadh for the first time ever, he also joined a Jewish prayer service with a new Torah scroll dedicated to the Saudi King. This was widely interpreted as a key step towards an almost inevitable normalisation between the two countries. A stunning development in and of itself for a country that until recently banned Judaism from being practised, and in 1973 led an Arab oil embargo on Israel’s Western allies to punish them for supporting the Jewish state.
But money isn’t security. You have to leave Riyadh to see how vulnerable it really is: the pipelines bringing desalinated water from the coast, which could so easily be knocked out, or the oil infrastructure, which was partially disabled by Iranian proxy drones in 2019. This is why behind the PowerPoints and the panels MBS has been telephoning everyone he can to try to stop the Israel-Hamas war from spreading into what could easily become a full-blown war between Iran and the United States fought right over the Gulf. You can keep the war out of the convention centre, but you can’t keep Saudi Arabia out of the Middle East. And nobody knows this better than MBS.
Saudi Arabia has always been an ideological state. Its very beginnings are in a pact between the Al Sauds and the puritanical Wahhabi movement, whose strict vision of Islam has for generations been what people associate with the Kingdom. But under MBS it has suddenly pivoted. Pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism are the old politics of failure for the Crown Prince. This, he thinks, has left Saudi 20 development years behind the Emirates. And this is why he is forcing his Kingdom into a phase of nationalism and neoliberalism. Those for MBS are the new politics of success. Not only the path to Saudi survival after oil — but into turning Riyadh into a super Dubai and the Kingdom into a Saudi superpower.
MBS wants a modern economy as quickly as possible. This is why he wanted normalisation with Israel and has normalised with Iran: because there is no chance of economic success in a Middle East mired in constant war. The plan is Vision 2030 and the FII summit, just over the road from the Ritz-Carlton where MBS imprisoned half the ruling class at the start of his rule, is what he wants it to look like. Music, previously banned, is softly playing. Women, previously segregated and forced to be fully covered are everywhere — working — with very few face veils and many without a headscarf at all. The light glints off glamorous designer sequinned abayas by the coffee. Princesses used to Knightsbridge are finally doing business at home. This is Saudi Arabia seven years after MBS castrated the morality police. But make no mistake: this is still a country where you can be beheaded for a tweet. The paradox is his Kingdom has never been more liberal or more dictatorial.
To understand MBS, you need to understand his childhood. This is what unlocked a will to power that saw him, improbably, steer himself and then his father into the line of succession. Saudi rulers are not hereditary, they emerge from the clan, which makes his rise less like King Charles assuming power, and more like Cromwell seizing it.
Nothing much was expected of the seventh son of Salman, the 25th son of Ibn Saud. Obsessed by fast food and computer games, he was a typical lethargic princeling until he was handed a horrifying revelation at the age of 15: his father, despite being the governor of Riyadh, had not build a serious fortune and was perilously indebted to businessmen. Instead of making billions like their cousins, the family was living off a gigantic welfare check from the Saudi treasury — which often came too late — leaving the servants unpaid for months at a time.
Panicking at the implications of this — of drifting further and further from the centre of power and into princely poverty — he amassed cash, by selling gold coins he was given by King Fahd. He then started trading, became obsessed with stocks and swiftly went broke. Only then did he work out that, with his name, he could simply phone up people and demand money before trying to build his own businesses. Staying in Saudi, unlike his Westernised cousins, he rose like this in Riyadh.
This, writ large, is also the state of the Kingdom. MBS’s family has failed to invest the greatest fortune in human history. So, using Saudi Arabia’s giant sovereign wealth fund, which is behind FII, he is trying to do at enormous scale what he did with King Fahd’s coins: buying up, through stakes in foreign companies, the profits of the world and investing them in what he thinks is a new economy.
There is a saying in the Middle East: seize opportunities for they pass like clouds. And MBS knows as electric cars and batteries take off he is running out of time.
He is desperate for a new Kingdom. Social reforms, such as finally letting women drive or travel alone without a male guardian are real and, for millennials who make up the majority of his subjects, he is not only genuinely popular but has made their lives freer. One of the world’s great liberalisations is being led by one of its greatest autocrats.An impetuous 38-year-old determined to govern alone — with all the risks that entails.
This is the discussion you end up having, discreetly that is, over and over again in the Kingdom. Who is MBS? For the optimists, he is a Saudi Atatürk or Peter the Great, the latest Arabian incarnation of the Westernising dictator. For the pessimists, they see the smile of Saddam Hussein — pointing to the dismemberment of Jamal Khassogi and his strange facial tics. Few at FII seemed to believe that the linear city in Neom would ever actually exist. What the critics see is not a new economy — but building-crazed megalomania that will leave only ruins.
Billions and billions can silence these questions. Because being in Saudi Arabia feels like being on another planet, where the normal rules of politics are suspended by oil. A futuristic but also medieval world with no need for democracy. Even in Russia, or China, there is a system, a bureaucracy, and institutions, however frightful, that matters in politics. Here there really is a royal court, an absolute monarchy and one family — the richest ever to exist — that owns the country.
And what is happening now is the result of long running fights within that family over whether the Kingdom should choose Islamism or nationalism. Whether or not it should change or stay the same. And, fundamentally, should it be open or closed? The construction pits and the PowerPoints are the decisive victory of one side. The panic in the pace is that, as the world decarbonises, it has started too late: Saudi only has a few decades of oil wealth left until this planet is pulled back to earth. But will it crash or land safely? Will there be splendour or ruins in Riyadh? The answer now hangs on who MBS really is. Because he has ensured nobody else will have a say.