The prince who read the instruction manual

Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State

The Washington press corps is shocked, shocked that Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman (aka MBS) may have ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist (among other things) whose work appeared in the Washington Post.

It shouldn’t be. MBS is a prince. If you want to know what makes princes tick, read the instruction manual. It was written by a guy named Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513, and it is as on point today as it was when it was written.

Unlike most contemporary princes, Brits William and Harry for instance, MBS is actually running a country — a country whose political and social maturity arguably more closely resembles that of 16th century Italy than 21st century Britain, at that.

Unlike William and Harry, MBS is playing for keeps. The game he’s playing is A) bringing Saudi Arabia’s economic, social and political institutions into the 21st century, and B) personal survival. Not necessarily in that order.

In other words he’s exactly the sort of guy for whom Machiavelli said he was writing his book: “a new ruler who will need to establish himself in defiance of custom.”

Early on, Machiavelli tells you how exquisitely dangerous this game is and why:

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” (Chapter 3)

Economically, Saudi Arabia is essentially a one-commodity economy — oil (or oil, natural gas and petrochemicals if you want to be picky about it). The Kingdom is not in any danger of running out of oil anytime soon, but it is in danger of seeing demand for its oil peak and start to decline as fossil fuel energy is supplanted by renewables and nuclear power, and by the explosive growth of petroleum production elsewhere thanks to horizontal drilling and fracking.

That poses an existential threat to the Saudi political and social structures, both of which are based on buying loyalty with oil revenues.

Machiavelli would view this strategy as an example of buying the love of the country’s population. He would also consider it potentially ruinous, because (from Chapter 17):

“… friendships that are obtained by payments … are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared … but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

This follows from the most famous, and infamous, question Machiavelli addresses in The Prince, “whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?”:

“It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” (Chapter 17)

However, while Machiavelli comes down on the side of fear rather than love, he reaches that conclusion with a couple of important caveats:


“[A prince] ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke … injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less…” (Chapter 8)

And second:

“Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony…” (Chapter 17)

Shortly after being named crown prince, MBS ordered the arrest of dozens of rival princes within the royal family who had profited from the corruption endemic within the Kingdom (proper justification and manifest cause), imprisoned them in a five-star hotel, and demanded they return at least some of their ill-gotten gains or else. Most have paid up.

This much was straight out of The Prince: The injuries were done in one stroke; they were severe enough to inspire fear but (probably) not hatred because he did not take their royal titles and inherited wealth — their patrimony — only their ill-gotten gains. So far so good.

But for MBS peril remains, because in inflicting the stroke he ignored another of Machiavelli’s rules:

“If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” (Chapter 2)

MBS may have succeeded in making himself feared (but not genuinely hated) by his rival princes, but he has not done them the sort of injury that would keep them from plotting against him and seeking revenge. Chances are the rival princes in royal family are currently seething with intrigue and conspiracy.

And the princes of the palace aren’t even MBS’s most dangerous enemies. That honor goes to the princes of the mosque. MBS’s reform campaign poses an existential threat to the country’s Wahabi Islamists. The reforms threaten their titles and place in Saudi society — their patrimony.

(For that matter, for Saudi religious and social conservatives, MBS’ steps toward liberating Saudi women is a case of the prince taking “their” women — and in a breathtakingly more sweeping way than Machiavelli might ever have imagined.)

But why would MBS want to take out Khashoggi?

Chances are MBS wouldn’t deploy a 15-man hit team over something Khashoggi wrote in the Washington Post. A more likely reason is that Khashoggi has long-standing ties to Saudi Arabia’s Islamic militants — starting with Osama bin Laden, who was an old high school buddy of his.

His big breakthrough into journalism was scoring some fawning interviews with bin Laden while the latter was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Throughout his career he advocated the creation of Islamic republics throughout the Muslim world.

He was also an advisor to Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate. And he was the nephew of Adnan Khashoggi, a multi-billionaire Saudi arms dealer best known in the U.S. for his part in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration.

In short, Khashoggi had the connections and the motives to be at the nexus of a plot against the prince, or at least to have extensive knowledge of one.

Don’t be surprised if the next turn in the case is that the Saudi government announces the discovery of a plot against the crown to which Khashoggi was a party.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.