On October 2nd, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, walks into the consulate of Saudi in Istanbul. He will never get out of the building. As a prominent journalist, he covered major stories, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, for various Saudi news organisations.
For decades, the 59-year-old was close to the Saudi royal family and also served as an adviser to the government. But he fell out of favour and went into self-imposed exile in 2017: he fled to the US, claiming the Saudi authorities shut down his social media accounts. From the States, he wrote a monthly column in the Washington Post in which he criticised the policies of the Saudi regime.
Khashoggi had already first visited his own country’s consulate in Istanbul some days before, trying to obtain an official document stating he was divorced. He needed it so he could marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. He was told by the consulate he would have to return to pick up the document, and thus arranged to come back on that fatal day. He did not believe that something bad could happen to him on Turkish soil: how wrong he was. He may have had some suspicions though, because he asked his fiancé to go with him and told her to call a number of a person close to the Turkish prime minister in case of emergency. He was last seen, on CCTV footage, entering the consulate building past 1 pm. Ms. Cengiz waited 10 hours outside the building for his return, before asking for help. In the meantime, Mr. Khashoggi was already dead. Agents of the Saudi government killed him inside the consulate: he was ambushed and strangled by a 15-member squad. His body was dismembered and disposed of. Remains of the body, as of today, have never been found.
The Arabian dissident would have been just another number in the engulfing list of missing people all around the world, had it not been for Turkey’s espionage. The Saudi consulate, at the time, was secretly bugged by the Turkish secret service and Khashoggi's final moments were captured in audio recordings, transcripts of which were subsequently made public. With time, it emerged Saudi government engaged in an extensive effort to cover up the killing, including destroying evidence. Separate investigations by Turkish officials and The New York Times had concluded that the murder was premeditated. Moreover, the mastermind behind the atrocity was the wealthiest and heir to one of the most powerful thrones on Earth: Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
Moḥammad bin Salmān Āl Saʿūd, known worldwide as MBS, is the most prominent member of the Al Saʿūd royal family, son of the current King Salman and first in line to the throne of Saudi Arabia. He was born in Jeddah, the second largest city in the country, overlooking the Red Sea, on 31 August 1985, son of Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan Al Hithalayn, the king's third wife, who already had 6 children. He has a brother named Turkī, president of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group. He studied at the family university, King Saud, where he graduated in law. After graduating from university, the prince spent several years in the private sector before being hired by his father. In December 2009, Prince Mohammed officially entered politics as a special advisor to his father when the latter was governor of Riyadh province. He was married the year before, settling the issue of descent: he celebrated the wedding with his first cousin, Princess Sara, daughter of Prince Mashour bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, his father's half-brother, with whom he subsequently had five children, three boys and two girls. Last year his cursus honorum reached its peak: he was appointed Prime Minister by the King, i.e. his father, thus also assuming, de jure, the executive authority of the country, previously held only de facto.
HEIR & SPARE
The turning point in the history of the heir to the throne occurred in November 2011, while Europe was in the midst of the storm for the Euro, and the spread on government bonds between Italy and Germany reached 700 basis points, bringing the entire EU on the verge of collapse. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, weakened by the sex scandal known worldwide as Bunga Bunga, was forced to resign. It was the political death of him after almost 30 years on the scene. Another death, but a physical one, which occurred at the same time, has reshaped the history of Saudi Arabia: the crown prince Sultan, son of Saud, dies of unknown causes. His brother, Prince Salman, begins his rise to power: Spare, the one who was not in the dynastic line, becomes the Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. Together with his appointment, comes the confirmation of his son Moḥammad as private councilor.
Another unexpected death definitively opens the doors of the crown to MBS. A few months after Sultan's death, in 2012, Crown Prince Nāyef, his other brother, also died. And so, Salman finds himself, due to the disappearance of all the heirs to the thrones, becoming the Crown Prince. The new sovereign in Pectore immediately began to reform the court in his image, opening the doors to his son, appointed supervisor of the Office of the Crown Prince. After 3 years, in 2015, the Arabian Peninsula mourns the death of King Abdullah: Salman ascends to the throne of the Saudi Kingdom. On the same day, Prince Mohammed, now officially heir to the throne, was appointed Minister of Defense and Secretary General of the Royal Court. Immediately, Salman shows himself to be generous: he appoints his nephew Muḥammad bin Nāyef, son of his deceased brother, as Crown Prince. It seems like an epochal change: was the Saudi crown destined to pass to a new generation for the first time since 1953? Not precisely. On the same day, however, the King appoints Mohammad as deputy crown prince. And a couple of years later the nephew leaves the scene, to make room for MBS who was already there ready as deputy. The “coup” was done.
PRISONERS AT RITZ CARLTON
A new dynastic line has taken power, but the takeover was not yet complete: MBS seeks to erase all the other strong powers in the country, in order to centralize it within himself. In 2017, on a Saturday night, the government arrested the prominent billionaire investor Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, plus at least 10 other princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers. The announcement of the arrests was made over Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned satellite network whose broadcasts are officially approved. Prince Al Waleed's arrest, even though in the golden prison of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, sent shock waves both through the kingdom and the world's major financial centers. Until then Al Waleed was the most prominent Arabic investor: through the Kingdom Holding he owned major stakes in 21st Century Fox, Citigroup, Apple and Twitter. At some point, he was in talks to buy a stake in Mediaset, from Mr. Berlusconi himself.
THE WARY PRINCE
Since the beginning, the new crown prince took a wary stance. The first major event in which he was a protagonist as defense minister was Operation Decisive Storm, a bombing campaign against the Huthi rebels in Yemen. In retaliation, the rebels attacked two factories of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, with drones, shortly before the group's expected listing on the stock exchange, An operation worth hundreds of billions of dollars. A few years later the Kashoggi affair exploded: despite the indignation of the whole world and the harsh criticism of global public opinion, the affair did not affect the power and prestige of MBS in the slightest. The murder prompted intense global scrutiny and criticism of the Saudi government. The report concluded that Khashoggi's murder was premeditated and called for a criminal investigation by the UN and because Khashoggi was a resident of the United States, the FBI. Saudi prosecutors rejected the findings of the UN investigation and again asserted that the killing was not premeditated.
IT’S THE ECONOMY, MOHAMMED
One of MBS's first moves as Deputy Crown Prince was to get his hands on the economy, which in Arabia goes by the name of oil. In 2016 he launched a strategic plan with two key points: the transformation of Saudi Aramco into a holding company and the establishment of a 2 trillion dollars sovereign fund, PIF (Public Investment Fund), which proved to be the biggest diplomatic weapon of the country: it bought assets around Europe, including the Dutch Shell and the English British Telecom.
Furthermore, for the first time ever, MBS introduced taxes and tariffs in the country: VAT was created, excise duties were placed on luxury goods, on road tolls, and on the price of petrol. Until then, Saudi citizens paid no taxes of any kind, neither on personal income nor excise duties on petrol, which was more common than drinking water. The rebalancing will allow the kingdom's economy to become independent, by 2030, from the production and price of oil, the decline of which in recent months has put the public budget in difficulty.
THE POWER OF OIL
The ultimate power and wealth of MBS come from oil: he sits on some 270 million barrels of the precious “black gold”. Saudi Aramco, officially the Saudi Arabian Oil Group or simply Aramco, is a state-owned petroleum and natural gas company and a global behemoth: ranks as the second largest company in the world by revenue, standing at some 550 billion dollars, and is headquartered in Dhahran. It has repeatedly achieved the largest annual profits in global corporate history. Saudi Aramco has both the world's second-largest proven crude oil reserves, at more than 270 billion barrels (43 billion cubic meters),and the largest daily oil production of all oil-producing companies. In 2019, after failing an IPO on the London Stock Exchange, the company's shares commenced trading on the Tadawul, the Saudi stock exchange. The shares rose to 35.2 Saudi Riyals, giving it a market capitalisation of about 1.88 trillion Dollars and surpassed the 2 trillion mark on the second day of trading. In the 2023 Forbes Global 2000, Aramco was ranked as the 2nd-largest public company in the world.