MBS: Self-Made, Self-Paid, but is He Truly Benevolent?

While Westerners tend to associate citizens in oil-rich nations with immense wealth, it’s easy to forget that wealth is always relative. One nation’s baron may be another’s have-not. In the case of Saudi Arabia, and especially Saudi royalty, the spectrum of wealth resides at far higher dimensions than most, and some may be surprised that the pocketbook of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the foregoing ruling face of Saudi Arabia, was considered modest by Saudi standards.

However, most generations aim to take the accomplishments of their parents to elevated heights, and Prince Salman’s son and successor, the current ruler of the Saudi kingdom crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, would ensure that it was not power alone, but immense wealth, that allowed him greater autonomy when it came time for him to take the throne. The story of how he came about attaining that wealth is one that helps elucidate the extremely pro-Western transformation which was set in rapid motion once he was bestowed with power.

At the direction of the crown prince, known simply as MBS, women will be legally permitted to drive effective in June, ridding the kingdom of one of its most prominent black marks which many have rightfully cited as evidence of the kingdom’s oppressive policies. Though some have criticized the manner in which it’s been implemented, the crown prince’s crackdown on corruption in a nation known for it is a step in the right direction toward attracting more foreign – namely Western – investment. The lifting of a ban on cinemas in the kingdom may seem insignificant to some, but it’s a manifestation of the crown prince’s modern attitude, an attitude which was surely shaped by his interactions with the western world as he sought to increase his personal and familial wealth.

That pursuit was sparked by his realization, reportedly as a teenager, that his father, then a prince, was not nearly as well-to-do as his siblings, who were shrewd – and perhaps a bit ethically loose – in amassing fortunes arising from their direct access to Saudi government affairs. Salman, instead, accepted handouts from those siblings instead of working to create his own fortune, preferring to consolidate power instead. MBS saw this dichotomy, and decided that he wanted more. More than his father, resigned to borderline beggar status even as a member of the royal family, and more than his uncles, most of whom limited the scope of their ambition to what they could provide from government influence and riches afforded by oil.

MBS would, like his current transformation of the Saudi kingdom’s image, turn to the West to establish his own fortune and reputation as a global force, not one content to be relegated to the massive kingdoms in the desert.

Flash-forward to today, and one need not look further than his personal receipts to see how far he’s come. There’s his purchase of a $300 million French palace, Chateau Louis XIV, the most expensive property in the world at the time of sale in 2015. Or the yacht he purchased at the ripe age of 31, the Serene, valued at a cool – and absurd – $550 million. Don’t accuse the crown prince of hoarding his high-priced assets, either. A $450.3 million Leonardo da Vinci was bestowed as a gift! by MBS upon his friends in the United Arab Emirates to be displayed in Abu Dhabi’s Louvre museum.

When you have that kind of budget to spend on gifts, you know money is no item. It’s almost uncharacteristic behavior for somebody who has worked to build much of their own fortune to be so benevolent with their money. Again, most of his money is not the result of familial inheritance. And, for an autocratic ruler without much apparent use for airs, it says much about Mohammed bin Salman’s differentiation of personality from the Saudi rulers who came before him.

The MBS-ification of Saudi Arabia has meant an opening of state-owned Saudi entities traditionally held closely to the stakeholders’ vests. The kingdom’s Saudia airlines teamed up with behemoth German aircraft producer Airbus SE for a multibillion-dollar collaboration. That deal will net MBS’s family tens of millions of dollars, according to the Wall Street Journal, while also serving as a tangible indicator to others that the kingdom is genuinely open to foreign investment and partnerships. It’s a deal indicative of the crown prince’s shrewd, forward-looking vision toward enriching both his own family and the kingdom.

It’s acumen that, while enabled by his position of power, is augmented by his background trading Saudi stocks throughout college and law school (he graduated with a degree from King Saud University), an activity he undertook after his revelation that his father, while rich in power, was not truly rich at all by Saudi standards. He has told people that he parlayed an initial $100,000 into hundreds of millions of dollars by mastering the Saudi markets. Eventually, he would establish himself as a businessman, owning significant stakes in five real-estate development companies, a recycling firm, and the Saudi government’s oil company, Aramco.

It’s this self-motivated drive to throw himself into the markets and facilitating business dealings that many believe will allow him a greater sense of how important foreign investment is to the kingdom, if he can embrace the notion of allowing those other than his immediate family to taste the fruits of such investments. With his decrees regarding female driving, greater freedom in terms of movie theaters and Saudi society more broadly, and the Airbus deal, there is hope.

Not everybody sees these kinds of deals as kosher, however. The mixing of Saudi government dealings and business has always meant a greater chance of corrupt practices, and many do not see the crown prince’s profiting from government-backed business dealings with foreign companies as the ‘crackdown on corruption’ which he has promised.

The mingling of private and public entities is a tradition that dates back to the creation of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and the discovery of oil years later. The sons and grandsons of the first Saudi King, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, were notorious for creating companies, only to grant those companies lucrative government contracts with zero competition. MBS’s promise of opening the entire kingdom to outside innovation will necessarily mean severely limiting these nepotistic practices, establishing a sense of true opportunity for regular Saudis as well as the royalty which has always benefited, to differing degrees, from the business of the outside world.

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