Saudi Arabia’s ambitious young crown prince won over Donald Trump by flattering his ego, savaging Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and making Jared Kushner feel important, a new book reveals.
Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Trump’s election victory in 2016 because the new president hated Obama’s deal with Iran and seemed to care little about human rights, in contrast to the ‘irksome’ Clinton.
The 35-year-old heir to the throne, widely known as MBS and seen as the kingdom’s de facto ruler, saw Trump as a ‘man who could be won over with a bit of flattery’ – as well as nine-figure deals for US companies.
The prince’s father King Salman joined in the charm offensive with a ‘you’re fired’ joke when he spoke to the new US president in 2017, while MBS played to his audience by berating Trump’s favourite targets, Obama and Clinton.
Trump’s trip to Riyadh in 2017, where he posed with a glowing orb and drank Diet Coke from a traditional Arab coffee pot, was a triumph for the kingdom and for MBS who ousted his cousin to become the new crown prince only weeks later.
Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, the authors of the new book Blood and Oil, say that Prince Mohammed knew how to ‘ingratiate himself with fragile old men’ from his experience with the Saudi princes – whom he steadily outmanoeuvred to secure his own grip on power.
Friends: Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, heir to the throne and de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman at a G20 summit in Japan last year
Orb of power: Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Donald Trump stand around an illuminated globe on Trump’s trip to Riyadh in 2017
Trump’s shock election victory in 2016 was met with fear and alarm by much of the Islamic world after his pledge to ban Muslims from the United States.
Before running for president, Trump had demanded that the Saudis give America ‘free oil for the next ten years or we will not protect their private Boeing 747s’.
However, MBS saw Trump as an opportunity – treating his campaign slogans as nothing more than ‘bluster’ and preferring him to the ‘irksome’ Clinton, who was more likely to pester the kingdom about human rights and freedoms for women.
Moreover, Saudi rulers hated the nuclear deal which Obama had made with their arch-enemy Iran, fearing the Islamic Republic would use the economic gains to cause ‘turmoil’ in the Middle East.
MBS was also critical of Obama’s reaction to the Arab Spring, and had tried but failed to dazzle Obama officials with his utopian plans to modernise Saudi Arabia and transform its oil-dependent economy.
The prince complained in private that ‘Obama stopped supporting us’ and was furious when a minor Saudi royal appeared to be backing the Democrats before the election.
By contrast, Trump was a critic of the nuclear deal who would pull the US out of the pact within 18 months of taking office, leaving it in tatters.
On top of that, Prince Mohammed privately sympathised with Trump’s criticism of ultra-conservative Muslims who gave Islam, and Saudi Arabia, a bad reputation in the West.
Once Trump was in office, the Saudis secured a publicity coup by inviting Trump to the Gulf for his first overseas trip as president.
In a preparatory phone call, King Salman told Trump he was a ‘great admirer’ – to which the president responded ‘Okay, King’.
Salman said that MBS would be in charge of arrangements, adopting Trump’s reality TV catchphrase by saying: ‘If you don’t think he’s doing a good job, you can tell him: You’re fired!’
Target of criticism: Former president Barack Obama, pictured in the Oval Office in 2013, was viewed wearily by Mohammed bin Salman
Rivals: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince came to see Trump as his preferred candidate in the 2016 election, ahead of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (pictured in an election debate)
Before the visit to Riyadh, Prince Mohammed went to the White House and won a warm reception by criticising Obama and calling Hillary Clinton ‘disrespectful’.
The prince then turned his attention to Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who has long seen himself as a bringer of change in the Middle East.
MBS and Kushner sent each other WhatsApp messages in which the prince explained that he was promoting a more moderate form of Islam.
Kushner told two Saudi envoys that the kingdom had to modernise, for example by allowing women to drive – a reform which had long been discussed but never implemented.
Ultra-conservatives had long warned that allowing women to drive would lead to sin and expose them to harassment, and women who defied the laws were sacked from their jobs and banned from travelling abroad.
Prince Mohammed saw things differently, believing that an angry and overpopulated youth with access to social media was more of a danger to him than the hard-line clerics.
But although he already had reform in his sights, Mohammed’s underlings allowed Kushner to think he was wielding influence and convinced the White House adviser that the prince was a reformist.
The ban was eventually lifted in June 2018, allowing women into the driver’s seat for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history.
In part, MBS was trying to shore up his own position within the kingdom, where rules of succession have often been nebulous and personal relationships are key.
When Trump was elected, Prince Mohammed was only the third in line to the throne, behind crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef who had many friends in the US establishment.
However, Kushner and his fellow Trump adviser Steve Bannon instantly warmed to the prince, reassuring MBS that Washington would not stop him as he plotted to remove his rival.
When he did, having Muhammad bin Nayef stripped of his titles later in 2017, there was no sign of protest from Washington as MBS was installed as the heir to the throne.
Ceremony: Trump receives a medal from King Salman in 2017 – a stunt which worried Trump aides who said the president does not like to be touched
Influence: Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner (right) was given the impression that he was exerting influence on Saudi policy
‘The prince knew just how to deal with Trump,’ the book’s authors say.
‘He’d grown up in an extended family dominated by striving, geriatric princes who were terrified of humiliation, desperate for respect and obsessed with adding to their inherited wealth.
‘And Mohammed had learned to ingratiate himself with those fragile, old men.’
Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia in May 2017, staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh with separate suites for Donald and Melania.
The visit was a huge success for the kingdom, which hailed a ‘new partnership in confronting extremism and terrorism’ after the strained relations of the Obama years.
The trip had its perils: White House aides were wary of a plan for Trump to receive a gold medal, because the president does not like to be touched by strangers, and country singer Toby Keith had to be hurried away when the Saudis were told that Trump ‘f***ing hates’ him.
Trump was served Diet Coke in a traditional Saudi coffee pot and caused consternation by failing to recognise some foreign leaders.
Much attention fell on a bizarre picture of Trump, King Salman and the president of Egypt with their hands on a glowing orb to mark the opening of a new state-of-the-art counterterrorism centre in Riyadh.
But MBS came away with his standing enhanced at home while Trump went back to Washington with hopes of a new alliance, and gifts including tiger-fur robes and a jewelled sword.
Later, there was a setback to the prince’s relations with Trump, when he was shown a map on a White House visit that indicated how US firms would gain $12.5billion from Saudi arms sales.
The prince was left ‘privately fuming’ at the map, which appeared to show that the president saw Saudi Arabia as little more than a market for US arms dealers.
Murder victim: Saudi journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi (pictured) was killed in 2018 – but Trump’s criticism of Saudi authorities was muted
However, Trump was helpfully acquiescent to when the Saudis ordered the ‘blockade’ of Qatar in 2017, accusing the country of backing Iran.
Qatar is home to more than 10,000 US troops, and Trump’s aides warned him that the blockade would cause chaos and leave Qataris struggling for basics such as milk.
Trump allegedly replied by telling his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that ‘I don’t give a f*** about milk’, telling Kushner that the Saudis should be left to handle the matter as they saw fit.
Obama’s ambassador in Riyadh had repeatedly warned the Saudis that aggressive behaviour in the region made it harder for US politicians to support them.
By contrast, Bannon told Saudi Arabia’s allies in the UAE that Qatar needed to be brought under control, comparing the country to Iran.
The following year, Trump was muted in his criticism of Saudi Arabia at the height of the Jamal Khashoggi investigation.
While MBS cultivated his image as a reformer abroad, he continued to stamp out dissent and purge his political enemies at home.
Scandal erupted in 2018 over the grisly killing of journalist and regime critic Khashoggi, who was murdered at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Prince Mohammed denies involvement, but a UN special investigator said last year that there were reasons to suspect the crown prince.
Trump called the killing a ‘horrible crime’ but rejected calls for a tougher response, saying in 2019 that Saudi Arabia was a ‘big producer of jobs’ and buyer of US products.
Still, the murder tarnished Prince Mohammed’s image in the West and led some investors to pull the plug on their relationships with Saudi Arabia.
MBS had exchanged WhatsApp messages with Amazon supremo Jeff Bezos about a possible $2billion investment by the firm in the Middle East.
But Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post for which Khashoggi wrote, called off an appearance at Mohammed’s ‘Davos in the Desert’ event in the wake of the killing.
Bezos went to Istanbul last year to console Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz, who waited in vain for the journalist to return from the consulate in October 2018.
In January this year, a report commissioned by Bezos revealed that his the billionaire’s phone was probably hacked by Saudi operatives.
But other US businesses are staying put – with MBS, a millennial prince who could rule the kingdom for decades, too valuable an ally to lose.
Blood And Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest For Global Power by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck. Published by John Murray, £20.