Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, investigative reporters for The Wall Street Journal, approach the topic differently in “Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power.” For a certain kind of reader, this book will be ideal. It is lively and well written, and it draws a sharp portrait of the man at its heart.
But be forewarned that this is a book on an engrossing but narrow topic: M.B.S.’s lust for wealth and how it has been bound up with his drive for power. On that subject, Hope and Scheck have done a great deal of digging and have unearthed some eye-popping tales.
Many of the stories are not sourced, however. They often appear plausible but it’s impossible to be sure. And as F. Gregory Gause, one of the leading Western academic experts on Saudi Arabia, likes to say, when it comes to the royal family, those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.
Of greater consequence, because of this focus, geostrategic and geoeconomic factors often get short shrift in their telling. Thus, they have an entire chapter on M.B.S. buying a Leonardo da Vinci painting for $450 million but only a few pages on the decision to intervene in Yemen, arguably Riyadh’s most important (and damaging) strategic gambit of the past 30 years.
At times, they assert a narrative consistent with their emphasis on the foibles of M.B.S. at the expense of these other dynamics. So the 2020 oil war with Russia, in which Riyadh flooded the market to try to force Moscow to agree to collective production limits, gets reduced to a byproduct of M.B.S.’s overweening pride.
Whatever role ego may have played in it, this version overlooks the facts that the price of oil was plummeting, and the Saudis and other producers desperately needed to stabilize it, but Russia refused to do so. Moreover, the Saudi decision to flood the market and drive the price down below $20 per barrel worked. It forced Moscow to agree to production cuts and so was a huge victory for Riyadh.
Every alliance is difficult. Even Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt got frustrated with each other — let alone with Stalin and de Gaulle.