Middle East
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Episode 127
Featuring Ben Hubbard
Demetri speaks with the New York Times’ Ben Hubbard about Saudi Arabia and the rise to power of Mohammed bin Salman. Topics include the ongoing oil price war, tensions with Iran, the war in Yemen, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. The two also discuss the impact of coronavirus for the region’s politics and security.

In Episode 127 of Hidden Forces, Demetri Kofinas speaks with Ben Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times about Saudi Arabia and the rise to power of Mohammed bin Salman. Topics include the ongoing oil price war, tensions with Iran, the war in Yemen, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. The two also discuss the impact of coronavirus for the region’s politics and security.

According to Ben Hubbard, when King Salman of Saudi Arabia ascended to the throne in January 2015 and began bestowing enormous powers on his 29-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, it sent minds reeling. Given Saudi Arabia’s importance as the wealthiest country in the Middle East and a key partner of the West, foreign officials, journalists, experts, and spies had long scrutinized the Saudi royal family to anticipate who might come to power in the future—and MBS, as he was known, had remained far off the radar. Who, they wondered, was this inexperienced young prince who swiftly asserted his control over the kingdom’s oil, military, finances, and domestic and foreign policy? And could he be trusted? 

Ben closely tracks MBS’s trajectory to shed light on the man and the critical country he controls. He explores Saudi Arabia’s closed and opaque society and tracks Mohammad bin Salman from his earliest days in power. With vows to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil, loosen its strict Islamic social codes, and champion the fight against extremism, the young prince won admirers on Wall Street and in Washington, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood with his grand visions for a new Saudi Arabia and a reordered Middle East. In 2017, Saudi Arabia made global headlines by announcing that it would lift its long-time ban on women driving and hosting a lavish “Davos in the Desert” conference, where MBS wowed international financiers with plans for a new $500 billion city that he said would be powered by sustainable energy and staffed by robots—serving as “a roadmap for the future of civilization.”  However, Hubbard’s reporting from a half-dozen countries and hundreds of interviews with a range of sources reveals that a harsher reality was building quietly behind the hype. To secure his path to the throne and quash opposition to his plans, the young prince empowered a covert team to silence critics at home and abroad while deploying new technologies to consolidate his authoritarian rule. He soon made headlines again, for forcing the resignation of the prime minister of Lebanon; locking hundreds of princes, businessmen, and government officials in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton on allegations of corruption; for the hacking by Saudi operatives of cell phones of Saudi dissidents, journalists (including a suspected attempt on Hubbard himself), and others who supported views critical of the Saudi regime; and most infamously for his links to the operatives who killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

Their conversation explores these palace intrigues, as Ben and Demetri consider how this bold (and perhaps dangerous) new leader is changing the face of the Bedowin kingdom, both for the better and for the worse.

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Producer & Host: Demetri Kofinas

Editor & Engineer: Stylianos Nicolaou

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Ben Hubbard is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. An Arabic speaker with more than a decade in the Middle East, he has covered coups, civil wars, protests, jihadist groups, rotten fish as cuisine, religion and pop culture from more than a dozen countries, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Yemen. His first book is MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman. Before becoming a journalist, Mr. Hubbard studied history in Chicago, Arabic in Cairo and journalism in Berkeley, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa. A Colorado native, he lives in Beirut with his wife.

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Morbi interdum mollis sapien. Sed ac risus. Phasellus lacinia, magna a ullamcorper laoreet, lectus arcu pulvinar risus, vitae facilisis libero dolor a purus. Sed vel lacus. Mauris nibh felis, adipiscing varius, adipiscing in, lacinia vel, tellus. Suspendisse ac urna. Etiam pellentesque mauris ut lectus. Nunc tellus ante, mattis eget, gravida vitae, ultricies ac, leo. Integer leo pede, ornare a, lacinia eu, vulputate vel, nisl.

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