How Saudi Prince MBS Played Trump and Got the Keys to the Kingdom

Anadolu Agency/Getty
Anadolu Agency/Getty

Trump’s first international trip was supposed to cast him as an independent leader who rewrote the diplomacy rulebook. Instead he wound up looking like a Saudi lapdog.

Just four months into his term in May 2017, President Donald Trump found himself sitting awkwardly in a Riyadh majlis, the traditional gold-and-velvet adorned meeting room where Persian Gulf royalty hold court, surrounded by some four dozen leaders of Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Yemen.

Servers came around, filling most attendees’ porcelain cups with traditional cardamom-perfumed coffee, though Mr. Trump got his preferred beverage, Diet Coke, poured from an Arabian teapot.

Mr. Trump, gazing around the room, recognized a few in the crowd, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But the rest—the Gambia’s Adama Barrow, Kyrgyzstan’s First Deputy Prime Minister Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev—were a blur of unfamiliar faces from unfamiliar countries. White House aides cringed when Trump asked the name of a man who turned out to be Ashraf Ghani, the U.S.-backed president of Afghanistan.

A U.S. president’s first foreign visit is typically intended to reaffirm close ties with an old ally. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton went to Canada. George W. Bush traveled to Mexico. Mr. Trump, his adviser Steve Bannon, and son-in-law Jared Kushner wanted the new president’s first trip to show how different this White House would be from its predecessors.

Ties with Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy and decades-long ally of the United States, had deteriorated under President Obama. He criticized the kingdom’s human rights record and struck a nuclear deal with Iran without the buy-in of the Kingdom or its assertive but smaller neighbor, the United Arab Emirates.

Under the Trump administration, things would shift abruptly: The U.S. would reverse track on Iran and promise to stamp out Islamic extremism without apology with help from hawkish friends in the Middle East. And by bringing Saudi Arabia back into the fold, Mr. Trump’s advisers bet that they could get regional support for a peace deal in Israel.

But over the course of the three-day pageant of celebration, events like the Muslim leaders’ summit made it increasingly clear that the real winner of the trip wasn’t Mr. Trump. Rather it was Mohammed bin Salman, the then-31-year-old son of the king who had hit the sleepy kingdom with a pace and verve not seen in a generation.

Only months on the job, the upstart prince had figured out exactly what to do to get Mr. Trump’s attention: big deals, audacious praise, and treating the elected president of a republic like a visiting king.

White House planners hadn’t understood the point of the meeting with leaders from predominantly Muslim countries in advance; some advised against it. “The Saudis want to do it,” Mr. Kushner told the team.

For everyone else in the room, the leaders from Asia and Africa and the Middle East, the point of the meeting was clear: Saudi Arabia was showing that it was back to being the U.S.’s chief ally in the Islamic world, and the man responsible for reviving the relationship was Prince Mohammed, also known by his initials, MBS. It was an overarching theme of the presidential visit and the foreign policy agenda of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Ignoring the recommendations of career diplomats, he’d forged ahead with the plan looking for some early international wins.

What he got instead was headlines about arms sales and the rise of an authoritarian Saudi prince with ambitions to not let his country be bossed around—including by the United States.

The origins of the Saudi trip dated back to just after Mr. Trump won the U.S. election. Slipping into a jubilant board room at Trump Tower one afternoon with little fanfare was Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince and day-to-day ruler of the United Arab Emirates. MBZ, a former helicopter pilot and son of the founder of the country, looked like an Arabian James Bond with a dress shirt and silver aviator sunglasses.

The group receiving him was unlike anything he’d seen in his years of diplomacy with the United States, his country’s closest Western ally and protector. On one side was Steve Bannon, the former banker and right-wing media executive whose fraying fleeces over two or three layers of collared shirts, reddened cheeks, shaggy gray hair, and tendency to pontificate on the ancient past gave him the air of a rumpled and deeply reactionary professor. Then there was Mr. Kushner, the trim real estate heir married to Ivanka Trump, and Michael Flynn, a decorated former lieutenant general who was just coming out of a private-sector career as a consultant and lobbyist for foreign governments.

MBZ felt deeply at ease as Mr. Bannon got to talking, referring to Iranians as “Persians” and describing Obama Middle East foreign policy as disastrous. The men spoke for more than an hour about history, security, and regional politics. Then the Emirati made a suggestion to Bannon: He should meet Mohammed bin Salman. “He’s the key to your plans in the region,” he said.

MBZ’s own relationship with Prince Mohammed was relatively new, but deepening as MBZ and his court recognized that a like-minded leader in the larger, better funded, and more influential Saudi Arabia was key to shaping the region’s future.

As far as he was concerned, the Kingdom had been part of the problem for decades, spreading its ultra-conservative view of Islam around the world while its aging princes refused to reform or lead from the front on any of the region’s issues. MBS was the opposite: headstrong and willing to shake up just about anything and make decisive actions. He also shared the UAE’s distaste for overly powerful imams imposing their will on society.

Seeing a once in a generation opportunity to help Saudi Arabia switch tracks, MBZ set his country’s well-established lobbying mechanisms into gear to help the young prince meet the right people.

Soon after, Bannon and Kushner made plans to host the young Saudi at the White House. Right away, Prince Mohammed’s energetic team started a charm offensive focused on another millennial who rose to power on the back of his family relations, Jared Kushner.

Others in the new Trump administration worried about the visit. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and some staffers for the National Security Council objected. They had bigger foreign-policy priorities and more reliable allies that they needed to meet.

They warned about the risk of appearing to favor Prince Mohammed at a touchy time for Saudi Arabia. The United States’ most trusted Saudi contact for years had been Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a cousin of Prince Mohammed who at the time was heir to the throne. But the prince known as MBN was sandwiched between King Salman and his favorite son, Prince Mohammed, who had clear ambitions for the throne.

Mr. Tillerson told other officials that he was especially worried about undermining MBN and playing into Prince Mohammed’s plans to usurp his cousin and position himself as the king-in-waiting. He argued that the promises the Saudis were making, to improve the situation of women and fight extremism, were unreliable. “Saudis, they’ll always let you down,” Mr. Tillerson told Mr. Kushner in one meeting, asking to postpone the visit until 2018. “They’ll never come through.”

“During the preparation, a member of Trump’s security detail gave the advance man a tip: “The president fucking hates Toby Keith.” ”

When Mr. Bannon heard, he dismissed the officials as the “deep state.” Such staffers’ priority, Mr. Bannon argued, was to maintain their own power and prop up their own allies abroad rather than do what’s good for the United States. They couldn’t be trusted to support the kind of new order Trump’s advisers envisioned.

Mr. Kushner argued that the White House should give the Saudis the opportunity to deliver, so Trump staffers set up a call between the new president and King Salman.

“I’m a great admirer of you, Mr. President,” King Salman said.

“Okay, King,” Mr. Trump responded. He said he would put Mr. Kushner, his son-in-law, in charge of organizing the trip. King Salman responded that he had tasked Mohammed with taking care of the Saudi end and offered the former reality TV star a flattering flourish. “If you don’t think he’s doing a good job,” King Salman said, “you can tell him, ‘You’re fired!’”

In the interactions that followed, Prince Mohammed gave Kushner confidence that he was a new kind of prince, one who understood the importance of the world of money and technology and wasn’t interested in age-old grievances. In comparison, MBN seemed stodgy and averse to change.

Mr. Kushner told Prince Mohammed he wanted all the Saudi promises surrounding the trip put in writing. The prince responded by sending a veteran security official called Musaad al-Aiban to Washington for several weeks.

Once the deals were worked out, Mr. Aiban returned to Riyadh and Prince Mohammed’s team started planning a series of lavish public ceremonies while Mr. Kushner focused on the other daily dramas that characterized the Trump White House.

In February, just months before the trip, a cherub-faced former presidential advance man named Steve Atkiss got a surprising call from the White House. “It looks like the president’s first trip overseas may be to Saudi,” an aide named Joe Hagin told Atkiss, a former colleague. “No one here has any knowledge of how to plan a trip, and no one has any knowledge of Saudi.”

Mr. Atkiss, who’d helped with previous presidential trips to the Kingdom, offered to help as a volunteer and managed to cobble together a plan just in time for the trip.

Prince Mohammed’s staffers began working day and night to make it a blockbuster trip, arranging to not only host the President of the United States but the leader of just about every Muslim-dominated country as well as a cast of top American CEOs for a parallel business summit. They paid top dollar to fly in top chefs.

To show Trump that he—not MBN—was the most fervent fighter of terrorism in the Saudi government, Prince Mohammed brought engineers and a construction crew to transform a decrepit Royal Court hotel lobby into a Battlestar Galactica–style “war room” for a new anti-extremism center under Mohammed’s control. As later became clear, it was more a made-for-TV set for world leaders to convene on than an indicator of any kind of significant shift in Saudi priorities.

And to show Trump that Saudi Arabia loves America, Mohammed had staff arrange for performers like the Harlem Globetrotters to be in Riyadh when Trump arrived. Flying in celebrities from a visiting leader’s own country was an unconventional strategy, but Mohammed figured it might appeal to Trump’s apparent unease with anything too exotic.

Everything about the visit was carefully orchestrated to prop up Prince Mohammed. Even small missteps were rapidly corrected.

They paid country singer Toby Keith—famous for his post-9/11 lyrics telling terrorists “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”—several million dollars to pause a concert tour to be on hand to perform in a Saudi palace.

“Prince Mohammed had unbelievable headlines and glowing coverage of the country and its reforms—the best anyone could remember since the days before 9/11.”

But during the preparation, a member of Trump’s security detail gave the advance man, Atkiss, a tip: “The president fucking hates Toby Keith.” He passed that on to the Saudis, who arranged for the country star to be whisked away to perform elsewhere in Riyadh, rather than in front of the president.

The Saudis presented Mr. Trump with a pile of lavish gifts—bejeweled sculptures, swords, daggers, headdresses, and a robe lined with white tiger fur among them—and Trump and his staff would return to the United States claiming a foreign-policy victory of resetting ties with Middle East allies.

Prince Mohammed, on the other hand, had unbelievable headlines and glowing coverage of the country and its reforms—the best anyone could remember since the days before 9/11. He had shown his father he could not just handle, but excel at deepening the country’s relationship with its most important ally. Boosted by the experience, he kicked plans to consolidate power into overdrive, arresting cousins, uncles, and a host of billionaires on allegations of corruption, rearranged the government, and bumped MBN out of position to inherit the throne.

This is an adapted excerpt from Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, by Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, to be published Tuesday, September 1, by Hachette Books.

Bradley Hope, based in London, is The New York Times bestselling coauthor of Billion Dollar Whale (optioned for film by SK Global) and covers finance and malfeasance for the Wall Street Journal. Before that he spent six years as a Middle East correspondent. Hope is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Gerald Loeb Award winner.

Justin Scheck, based in New York, has worked at the Wall Street Journal since 2007, covering white collar crime across four continents. He has been writing about Saudi Arabia since 2016. Scheck is a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Originally published: 2020-08-31 03:17:09

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