• Joshua Schneider-Weiler

Newcastle's Next Owner... Who is Muhammad bin Salman?

According to multiple reports owner Mike Ashley has agreed to sell Newcastle to the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia. In our latest episode we Jon broke down the deal with Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch, Nicholas McGeehan. You can listen to the episode below.

Jon Mackenzie: Tell us a little bit about the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

Nicholas McGeehan: So Saudi Arabia, like many oil rich-states has a sovereign investment arm. The PIF has about $2 trillion in assets and these vehicles that are way for the state to, to invest its money around the world.

It's chairman is Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and the concern about the PIF is that he'll be able to use it to keep direct control of public revenues as if it were actually his private fortune.

So the difference between a Gulf private sovereign wealth fund and, for example, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund is this complete lack of transparency and the way that they can be used to enrich those who control them.

Jon Mackenzie: I want to talk a little bit about the man behind this, the crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Could you give us some of the key points in the history of Saudi Arabia?

Nicholas McGeehan: So the modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1932 but actually it's constitution in many respects, is written almost 200 years earlier between the leading member of the Al-Saud tribe and a fundamental Islamic scholar called Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

Now that created a marriage of convenience, which continues today. The convenience is between a very wealthy family and a group of clerics who want to promote a fundamentalist fashion, an austere version, of Islam. The impact of this probably went global after 1938, when oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia.

So Saudi Arabia is now almost singularly responsible for the spread of extremist Islamic ideology, which is most obvious, for example, with bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and more recently, ISIS. Now this is overseen and tolerated by the Al-Saud family. I guess the marriage of convenience relates to the fact that there are tolerances for their excesses, it's an incredibly wealthy family, which draws heavily on the country's oil money, to enrich itself, but those excesses are overlooked by the clerics. So it is a country which is phenomenally powerful, phenomenally influential, and the head of that family now is the young Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Jon Mackenzie: I think what's so fascinating about the history of Saudi Arabia is that it is so small, just three generations. But also, I think when you're talking about Mohammad bin Salman, what's so interesting about him is that he, it's just so unlikely that he would have ended up in such an important position of power. His father was very far down the pecking order in terms of the chain of succession. And again, MBS himself was even further down the pecking order in his father's family. So how did he end up in this position of power, next in line to the throne, effectively running the country at the moment?

Nicholas McGeehan: Yeah, it's interesting. I think he's the sixth son of the 25th son of the first King Abdulaziz. So yeah, it is by fate and circumstance that he got there. His father, I think was a governor of Riyadh, a charismatic, an effective leader. MBS is his sixth son from his second wife.

The circumstances by which he came to power largely relate to deaths and circumstance. Some of our MBS brothers; died and he eventually was elevated to to King where he sits today. The manner in which Mohammad bin Salman came to power was largely because unlike many of his counterparts in the Saudi family, he shunned Geneva, London, New York. He wasn't interested in that playboy lifestyle. He was far more comfortable at home. He went to law school in Saudi Arabia. He was often found out in the desert hosting lavish banquets. He spent a lot of time networking and making contacts in and around his father's circle.

In many respects he became the apple of his father's eye. He's very energetic. He's very charismatic, also something of a loose cannon. But essentially it was the manner in which he curried favor with his father. His father saw him as a better protector of perhaps traditional Saudi values and traditions, which led to his elevation to crown prince. He was elevated to that position in 2017 after having been made defense minister in 2015. So it was a stratospheric rise to power, which nobody saw coming. But there he is and he's now all powerful.

Jon Mackenzie: Mohammed Bin Salman's rise to power culminates in the, 'Davos in the Desert' investment conference. Could you tell us a little bit about that event?

Nicholas McGeehan: Yes, so Davos was to go back to 'Vision 2030' and this attempt to present Saudi Arabia as a place that's open for business, that's liberal and tolerant. So the world's business leaders were brought to this event in Saudi Arabia and the keynote speaker was the new crown Prince, the new man who is going to be the great leader of this new reform agenda. He was by all accounts very impressive. He talked about the need for reform. He talked about how Saudi had a young population and needed to turn its back on backward ideology.

This was very warmly received at the time. At the time he was being fettered in capitals around the world as the great solution to this longstanding problem within Saudi Arabia, of, you know, fundamentalist attitudes. So yeah, I guess this was probably the high point of his short reign so far, but things quickly went sour.

Jon Mackenzie: You say that you say things go, I've gone sour, but how much of this dry for modernization do you actually believe?

Nicholas McGeehan: I think it's clear there's a drive for modernization. It's clear there is a reform agenda, but MBS wants to achieve that, by at the same time holding onto the country with an iron fist and actually increasing repression.

So there'll be a sort of social liberalization, there'll be the moves to allow women to drive, things that look right, good in Western capitals, things that allow Saudi Arabia to present itself as modern and progressive. But at the same time, he's cracking down very hard on individual rights. He's centralizing power.

He claims to be tackling corruption, while clearly enriching himself and those around them. So there is a reform agenda, but it has to be put in inverted commas because it is not being accompanied by genuine social reforms, by any advancement in individual liberties and freedoms; other than the ones which keep people in the West happy, i.e pop concerts and women driving to them.

Jon Mackenzie: There's also the well-documented case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Nicholas McGeehan: The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October, 2018 was probably the was undoubtedly the incident, actually, that's the biggest spoke in the wheels of this project or the MBS project.

He was lured to the consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents that would him to marry his fiance. He was suffocated and dismembered by a 15 man assassination squad, which had been sent in, people presume by a Muhammad Ben Suleman. A Republican Senator who was briefed by the CIA about it, said, 'if the crown Prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes'. UN special rapporteur said 'it was a pre-meditated extrajudicial execution'.

So there's little doubt that this man [Jamal Khashoggi]- who used to be an advisor to the Royal court, who was well respected, who was a journalist for the Washington Post- was murdered and that he was murdered at the behest of Mohammed bin Salman.

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