Good nicknames have the amazing ability to capture the essence of a person’s life better than any well-written biography. When we hear “the greatest,” “the people’s champion” or the “Louisville lip” we automatically think of Mohammed Ali. When someone says “the king of rock and roll” the image of Elvis Presley immediately pops up in our minds.
Nicknames for the infamous are perhaps more powerful in crystallising the core of a person’s life better than those attributed to figures that are universally loved. “The Butcher” for example has been a useful nickname for some of history’s most ruthless leaders. From Genghis Khan who was known just as “the butcher” to the likes of Saddam Hussain who was given the title “the butcher of Baghdad,” the nickname powerfully captured their violent and gruesome nature.
With the nickname “father of the bullet”, while growing up in Riyadh, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared destined for notoriety. The account of how he acquired this title brings into sharp focus the psyche of a mob prince whose first two years as Crown Prince has been tainted by death, destruction and, perhaps the most grisly murder ever to be carried out in a foreign embassy. The account reported in the New Yorker begins with Mohammed Bin Salman, also known as MBS, demanding that a Saudi land registry official help him appropriate a property. After the official refused, he received an envelope with a single bullet inside. It earned him the name “Abu Rasasa,” the father of the bullet.
In the two years since becoming Crown Prince, MBS has done little to dispel people’s early impression of him as the spoilt, power hungry megalomaniac. Instead the “father of bullets” has cemented his childhood reputation by growing into his new role as the “prince of chaos”. With his brutal war in Yemen where 13 million people are at risk of starvation; the decision to impose a blockade on neighbouring Qatar; rounding up fellow princes and businessmen and holding them on charges of corruption; putting the Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri under house arrest in Riyadh; imprisoning women’s rights campaigners and overreacting when Canada calls for the release of the women, by cancelling diplomatic relations with Ottawa and ordering 10,000 Saudi students to abandon their studies in Canada; and surrendering the plight of the Palestinians, the “prince of chaos” has sent the entire region into a tail spin.
None of these blunders, though serious and catastrophic in their own right, has attracted global attention to the mob like ruthlessness of the “father of bullets” as the killing of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The horrific details of the killing have exposed what the west along with major global corporations have ignored; that Saudi Arabia under MBS is becoming a mafia state.
More than most US President Donald Trump has indulged MBS’s rogue behaviour, and even now with all the evidence pointing to MBS as the mastermind of the horrific killing of Khashoggi, Trump is prepared to play the role of a Saudi funded PR firm by endorsing the absurd claim that the killing was carried out by “rogue killers”. Putting aside the fact that the Saudis denied any knowledge of his disappearance for two weeks, Trump’s readiness to accept an explanation that contains more holes than a 9/11 conspiracy theory shows how desperate he is to protect his Saudi asset.
Beyond arms sales, protecting US jobs and interests there seems to be a deeper romance between the Trump family and MBS. Trump once bragged: “We’ve put our man on top,” taking credit for placing MBS in the position of Crown Prince. His appointment to the Saudi hierarchy was masterminded through a palace coup that saw Mohammed bin Nayef, a powerful figure in Saudi Arabia’s security apparatus, being sidelined by the plotters, which included prominent figures within the United Arab Emirates.
Despite opposition from the US State Department – who preferred an established figure like Bin Nayef to take the reins of the Kingdom – MBS was identified by the Trump administration as the lynchpin for remaking the Middle East. The fear over MBS according to one defence official was that he displayed a rogue personality and that he couldn’t be engaged with.
The new US administration, if Michael Wolff’s account of the White House in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency is to be believed, “was basically grooming Mohammed bin Salman”. Trump’s full backing of the young prince was seen to be a reflection of the US President’s political philosophy. Trump, according to Mohammed Cherkaoui, a professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University “wants to deal with individuals, not institutions and not governments, so it’s a one-to-one”.
In MBS, the Trump family had clearly found their man. Young, ambitious and ruthless, he ticked all the right boxes as far as they were concerned. There was something “curiously aligned,” between the Trumps and the Saudi royal family under King Salman, Wolff wrote in Fire and Fury. Both were seeking to make sweeping changes in their respective countries and their alignment suited the new kids on the block; Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and MBS.
As odd as it may seem, the business of organised crime and the business of running the White House under the Trump Administration has never been so close. It’s been widely pointed out that the US administration now bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the mafia. Many of the tactics employed over the past two years have been described as “thuggish” and cheap imitations of mobsters from classic cinema. The striking regularity with which the President himself makes references to “the mob” and the notorious New York gangster Al Capone makes one suspect that his worldview has been indelibly shaped by his encounters with organised crime and mafia culture.
This feature of the political culture infused by Trump was pointed out by the former FBI Director James Comey who once remarked that Trump’s demeanour gave him flashbacks to his “earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob”. In an effort to make sense of this distinct trait of the US President, commentators speak about the milieu in which Trump was raised. The ruthlessness of the real estate and construction industry in New York City, they say, explains why he had imbibed the culture of New York gangsters and carried that into the White House.
Trump’s gangland references may seem baffling at first because of the esteem with which people hold the office he is meant to serve. But the office of President seems to have had little impact in removing the sharp edges of a man whose view of the world is hard to distinguish from that of Al Capone. Like the mob figures that appear to have been a great source of inspiration, Trump also harbours an ingrained aversion to norms, conventions, governments and institutions. The pillars of the international order are useful only to the extent they enable him to do as he pleases. When they get in his way Trump is ready to launch a full assault like torpedoing international treaties and attacking the UN, including judges, against whom he has threatened to impose sanctions.
In the coming days the Saudis with their American godfather will try to undo the damage caused by one of their “rogue killers”. A face saving statement which distances MBS from the killing of Kashoggi is likely to be issued. It will be designed in such a way that those, for whom “the father of bullets” and the “prince of chaos” is their favourite client, can continue with business as usual. This will be a big mistake nearly as grave as the one to pay no attention to the thousands dying and millions starving in Yemen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.