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MEMO in conversation with Justin Scheck

Scheck has been writing about Saudi Arabia since 2016. A graduate of Bates College, he worked at small newspapers in California before starting his career at the Journal in 2007. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an Emmy nominee.

April 14, 2021 at 11:15 am

MEMO interviewed Wall Street Journal journalist Justin Scheck about his new book ‘Blood and Oil‘ which he co-authored with Bradley Hope. The book traces the meteoric rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and exposes his ruthless quest for power.

Scheck has been writing about Saudi Arabia since 2016. A graduate of Bates College, he worked at small newspapers in California before starting his career at the Journal in 2007. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an Emmy nominee.

The conversation began with questions about the challenges of writing a book about an opaque country which is deeply hostile to freedom of speech before moving on to discuss the rise of the Saudi crown prince known widely as MBS. While describing their research for the book, Scheck mentioned that though he and his co-author did not face any intimidation they were careful to protect their sources in Saudi Arabia.

Scheck described how the young prince, who was virtually unknown prior to 2015, consolidated power and spoke about details of his upbringing that went on to shape his political outlook. With MBS’ reputation for being an enforcer during his youth, the family of former Saudi King Abdullah and his courtiers tried to block the transfer of power to his younger brother King Salman, thereby empowering MBS further.

Unlike most Saudi princes, MBS did not study abroad, giving him what many analysts say is a unique insight into the Saudi Kingdom and an ability to connect with younger generations in a way older princes that lived abroad are incapable of. Describing this group of princes, including MBS’ half-brothers who studied abroad, Scheck explained how the crown prince developed a kind of “toughness” that’s rare amongst Saudi princes. MBS’ decision to remain in the kingdom also earned him greater “credibility” in the eyes of King Salman, Scheck argued.

Prior to becoming the crown prince in 2017 by deposing his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef, MBS had begun to consolidate power. Scheck mentioned how even as a young 30-year-old he was tasked with reforming various pillars of Saudi government, an occasion MBS used to implement reforms. According to Scheck, MBS expanded his power as he felt he could not trust anybody in his family to do the job, thereby upsetting the traditional balance of power within the kingdom. “MBS has done a lot to disrupt and destabilise but the system he was destabilising, and disrupting was not functional,” said Scheck.

Broader aspects of MBS’ rise to power were also discussed. Would the Saudi crown prince have been able to consolidate power without former US President Donald Trump and without someone in the White House that always had his back? Reflecting on the prince’s relationship with Trump, Scheck said: “MBS got much more out of Trump than Trump got out of MBS.”

With 60 per cent of Saudi’s population under the age of 30, the kingdom is facing serious challenges in creating jobs and opportunities. The potential for a revolution triggered by disgruntled youth is vivid in the minds of Arab rulers. Are the reforms undertaken by MBS attempts at a monarchy-led revolution designed to forestall popular uprising? Scheck explained that for decades Saudi Arabia was an opaque traditional society with a very powerful religious establishment; a phenomenon he argued had arisen out of the siege of Makkah in 1979 by extremists and fear of religious conservatives.

The Arab Spring forced Saudi leaders to think about what could happen in a worst-case scenario. While many older princes were shell shocked, MBS saw an alternative. He realised that a fundamental demographic shift had taken place with the youth population making up more than half of citizens. The kingdom also ranked highest in the world for social media use, which to MBS indicated that the country’s youth population were craving freedom and opportunity to consume western culture. According to Scheck, MBS realised that the legitimacy for the royal family was not going to come from the religious establishment but instead from the growing youth population.

Turning to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Scheck spoke about how the grisly murder affected MBS’ modernisation plan. Are investors spooked? Was it one of the reasons why Aramco was not listed in New York or London but instead MBS opted for the humbler Saudi Tadawul stock exchange? Scheck argued that in the eyes of US companies, MBS had become a “toxic” figure and while Aramco may not have been floated in major capitals anyway, MBS’ biggest challenge was convincing foreign companies to invest in Saudi Arabia.