Prime Minister, Lebanon, Ben Hubbard discussed on Fresh Air


Character than many realize he's a heavy handed autocrat known for spying on citizens and arresting his critics and he's given to strange and sudden foreign policy moves such as kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon to for some to resign but he's also initiated meaningful reforms in the country loosening strict Islamic social codes and giving women more freedom Ben Hubbard speaks and reads Arabic and has spent a dozen years covering the Middle East he's currently the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times he spoke with fresh AIR's Dave Davies about his new book M. B. S. the rise to power of Mohammed bin Salman in Hubbard welcome to fresh AIR so let's talk about what Mohammed bin Salman has done with his power in Saudi Arabia they're just it's full of contradictions he has big ideas for economic reform and modernization be presented these to the Obama administration of various trips to Washington give us a sense of his vision for the country and its future and how he catches it well he's he's a young man who has big dreams and you know who really thinks he can he can do big things I mean I think that there are plenty of twenty year olds are people in their early thirties who think that they know better than the older generation and you know the difference is that his father is the king of a country and he can give them tremendous power and that he also has access to tremendous resources and so he's able to sort of you know hire consultants and hire people to try some of these things out and so we've seen this kind of whole raft of of hugely ambitious initiatives so you know this goes from his you know vision twenty thirty which was his big plan to sort of reform out both Saudi society and the Saudi economy and it's it's it's this huge ambitious plan that goes through you know trying to get more Saudis into the private sector trying to get more women Saudis into the workforce it goes all the way down to you in changing society so that Saudis have more access to entertainment it it goes into trying to encourage more Saudis to exercise on a regular basis I mean this is huge kind of sprawling document about all the things that he would like to see change in Saudi society and you know I think when it came out a lot of people kind of Pooh poohed it and kindness and all this is you know I don't think there's much in it that's objectionable I think what's remarkable is that it's so incredibly ambitious I mean we can certainly debate how likely it is that he's going to be able pull all of these things off but you know I remember thinking at the time well you know there's a lot of other leaders in the Arab world for not thinking this positively about the future of those countries you know I don't think that Bashar Assad in Syria for example is thinking about where his country is going to be and and in two thousand thirty and so you know I think it's in it's in in one way it's quite encouraging that he's thinking about these things and that he's actually making some effort to put them into practice let's go through some of these one at a time because I think they're interesting I mean these Klay made some major changes in social life in Saudi Arabia the list the economic projects he had some huge grandiose ideas for you know new cities rising in various places give us a sense of some of those ideas one of them was gonna be called NEO M. Neil yes Neil what was he talking about her so on the economic front he has a whole raft of initiatives some of which have actually begun some of which may it may never quite make it off the ground well you know one of the bigger the ones was the privatization of Aramco and and so you know this was something that he had announced quite that was quite a surprise to everybody including many of the executives inside of Aramco which is the state oil monopoly and it's really the economic engine of the entire country he basically mentioned in an interview with the economist magazine that he was going to privatize Aramco when it sent everybody sort of you know scrambling for information and people who work in oil markets what does this mean this has been you know the largest one large yeah I think it's the largest company in the world and all of a sudden he wants to privatize it what is this going to mean what's it going to mean for its relationship with the royal family and so they kept setting dates it was delayed numerous times and then finally late last year they did offer a limited IPO of Aramco but only on the domestic Saudi stock market so they got some money out of that and you know there's there's there's debates about sort of how wise that was and what the what the benefits of that decision where you know he's got very solicitous to try to get more women into the workplace and I think that those those were actually those actually predated Mohammed bin Salman Abbas King Abdullah the previous monarch who was the first to really try to get more Saudi women into the workplace including in retail as supermarket cashiers and things like that and MBS has really stepped up and I think that there's a lot of success going on there some of these other things are quite high are much much more ambitious the really pie in the sky project is this thing called me home and he announced this and in may two thousand seventeen he held at an investment conference in Riyadh and invited him business people from all over the world I mean people hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people showed up for this thing and the big reveal at the conference was this thing called me home and he said you know we have this unexploited piece of land in the northwestern corner of the country near the Red Sea and we're going to turn it into the sort of Mecca for technology development business into anything that you can think of they're gonna he said they were gonna spend five hundred billion dollars on it they were going to bring in business people to write the regulations so that to sort of create the perfect climate for innovation for business for everything they were gonna bring in technology companies he said that they they were gonna have so many robots working there that they might actually outnumber the human inhabitants they were gonna take advantage of the Saudi sun and have it all run on solar power I mean this is like complete pie in the sky stuff I mean Saudi Arabia really has no experience with solar power with robotics with a lot of the things that he's talking about but he just felt that if I create momentum behind this that people are going to come to it you know and then there were sort of once they got working on it they you know there were a bunch of other documents that came out the Wall Street journal did an amazing report where they got access to some of the internal documents which I cite in the book where he was talking about wouldn't it be great if we could have a beach with glow in the dark sand and they they just kind of couldn't deal scientists were sort of working on Jeez how we make glow in the dark sand haven't quite figured out a safe way to do it wouldn't it be cool if we had an artificial moon that sort of launched over near home at night Kerry by some drones I mean really like you know really crazy stuff and so I mean this is one of the tricks about understanding Mohammed bin Salman is all one hand you feel like you know you should at least appreciate appreciate the ambition this is a guy who really wants to change things in a country that I think many people felt was in dire need of change in two thousand fifteen but but sometimes you hear about this project can you sort of wonder like you know does he really think this is possible when and if it's even possible is that really a valuable way to spend all that money like glow in the dark sand really huh right so let's talk about some of the more practical things that he has achieved one of them was kind of curtailing the power of the conservative clergy this was quite real wasn't this was very real and and to be Frank I wasn't even sure about it at the time I never I remember I was not in Saudi Arabia when it happened it was done somewhat unceremoniously the government just basically made an announcement and said that the you know the religious police no longer have the power to arrest and that they were supposed to be sort of kind in their interactions with us all the citizens and I remember sort of seeing this and saying I don't know like is this for real this is not for real is this just sort of a PR thing and it's very difficult to tell and it sort of messaging a bunch of my Saudi friends it's like what do you think and they just kind of said we have no idea either was going to have to wait and see and looking back this was a major major stop I mean this was again if you have got together sort of a panel of Saudi experts in two thousand fourteen and said do you think that you know Mohammed bin Salman or some some of the king consort of snap his fingers and take the power to arrest away from the religious police do you think he's going to get away with it I bet that most of them would have said no there was this belief that these guys were untouchable there was this belief that they had the backing of very powerful conservative sectors of society would have risen up and who would have gone to see the king and and in the end it works and you know it's it's it's made it a very different place and I think that MBS realize that if you did want to make some of these changes specifically in terms of advances for women in terms of women driving in terms of women working in terms of entertainment and movie theaters and things like that he had to get these guys out of the way and he pulled it off no tell us about what Saudi Arabia was like when when you first went there in terms of the availability of you know music to listen to or movies to see the kinds of entertainment that people take for granted in the west and help him beat how Mohammed bin Salman change that it was really really a doll I mean I would go and I will check into a hotel and then I would sort of try to figure out okay what do I do now and you know I mean I took it it took a while to sort of develop contacts to get to know people to figure out who would actually talk to you and it also I would spend sort of as much time as I could working but then you know you can only work so long and then you know you're in a new country you want to go out and sort of see what the place looks like and there was just kind of nothing to do you know you've been a hotel and okay you can go sit in the lobby and drink coffee we can't order a beer because there's no beer okay maybe I'll go to a movie there's no movie theaters they shut down all the movie theaters in the decades ago so you can't do that live music maybe I can catch a show there's no live music because we don't really like maybe in the hotel lobby you would hear some fairly quiet instrumental music but definitely nothing live okay and I remember thinking can let me know I was staying at a hotel that happen to be right next to a mall is Evelyn at least like a walk in Riyadh the capital of Saudi Arabia's not particularly friendly city for pedestrians by circulating on the mall and take a walk around and I showed up in his guards at the door he said no no it's family time you as a single man you can't you can't come in well well okay fine so I sort of sat.

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