When Donald Trump travels to Saudi Arabia later this month, the first country he will visit as President, the attention will be on geopolitics and the complicated friendship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. But the trip also highlights, just off center stage, an unremarked-upon similarity between the current Saudi government and the American White House: in both places, unelected men in their thirties have swiftly amassed power.
In Saudi Arabia, the thirty-one-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy Crown Prince and son of King Salman, is now in charge of the oil industry, the economy, defense policy, a war in Yemen, and various domestic initiatives. In the United States, the national responsibilities of Jared Kushner, the President’s thirty-six-year-old son-in-law, include, according to the Times, “Middle East peace, the opioid epidemic, relations with China and Mexico, and reorganizing the federal government from top to bottom.” Kushner is technically the President’s senior adviser, but you might also call him America’s crown prince.
The most striking similarity between the rise of Kushner and that of Prince bin Salman is that, in both countries, the official narrative is that the young men are bringing modern and advanced ideas into stodgy government terrain. The older rulers—a seventy-year-old President and an eighty-one-year-old King—seem to be making the case that the princes have earned their broad portfolios by being in touch with the latest in finance and technology.
This may be sincere. It may also be a ploy to mask that the young men gained their status through the oldest of means: family ties and court intrigues. Neither distinguished himself in a tech career before taking on his current duties. Kushner helped run his family’s real-estate business; bin Salman did a tour in Saudi government posts before going to work at his father’s foundation. But the narrative of technological savvy resonates—and seems almost natural—because it connects with the predominant view of success and power in our era. Had the princes lived in the age of Napoleon or Alexander, they would be lauded for their military élan. But they live in the age of boy geniuses—of Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Elon Musk. And so the crown princes are presented as tech disruptors.
As consumers, we not only use the boy geniuses’ products and services, we celebrate their ethos: the young have the best ideas, inefficiency is the enemy, disruption is the goal, change is good; faster is always better, the physical will bend before the digital, and resisters just don’t get it. We also celebrate the boy geniuses as people. (You can probably name the C.E.O. of Uber but likely not the leaders of Walmart, Chevron, or Coke.) So it’s not surprising that the boy geniuses would be proposed as peers and role models for Prince bin Salman and Kushner. As Politico reported, “Kushner’s boosters see him as ‘a visionary’ who is bringing to government a disruptive Silicon Valley mindset that helped him succeed in the technology and real estate industries, as well as on Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign.” Kushner’s efforts center on the still-evolving role of the Office of American Innovation. According to the Washington Post, the office has “a particular focus on technology and data” and will function as a “SWAT team of strategic consultants . . . staffed by former business executives.” It has already sought the advice of Bill Gates, Musk, and other tech leaders. Kushner will presumably continue to consult with and apply lessons from his brother, a venture capitalist in tech. The goal of the Office of American Innovation could have come from any Silicon Valley disruptor: “To bring a creative and strategic approach to many critical issues and intractable problems,” as Kushner put it in a White House press release.
Prince bin Salman’s goal is even larger: the transformation of a government, economy, and society. He’s also using the language and symbols of the boy geniuses. Last year, for instance, he and Zuckerberg were photographed togetherat Facebook’s headquarters, color-coördinated, both wearing designer jeans (although the deputy Crown Prince wore a white button-down shirt and a gray jacket, not the Full Zuck gray T-shirt). The centerpiece of Prince bin Salman’s plan is the complicated, multi-faceted Vision 2030, a plan developed in conjunction with consultants at McKinsey. The heart of this vision for a better Saudi Arabia is not, alas, democracy; it’s an I.P.O. The engine of Vision 2030 is to use the proceeds of the I.P.O. of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, to feed the largest state investment fund in the world. That fund will finance investments “in large international companies and emerging technologies from around the world” and non-oil industries in Saudi Arabia, which will (according to the plan) reduce Saudi oil dependency and ignite changes in the country.
The narrative of bin Salman as a benevolent disruptor has been undercut now and then by his behavior. Last year, he bought a half-billion-dollar yacht on a whim, while cutting benefits and salaries to Saudi state employees and reducing energy subsidies for the country’s citizens. Kushner, too, appears to spend a fair amount of time skiing rather than solving today’s most intractable problems. And both men often seem enamored by the alchemical ability of capital to render their fortunes more glamorous in the eyes of the global élite. Even before his father-in-law became President, Kushner was in the process of mutating some of his own family’s wealth—built on vast holdings of apartment buildings in New Jersey—into the New York Observer and the most expensive office building ever bought in Manhattan. (A decade later, the deal is in trouble, presenting a tempting opportunity for those seeking to curry favor with Kushner and, through him, Trump.) Prince bin Salman, too, sometimes appears like a grandson embarrassed by the source of his grandfather’s fortune, trying to convert it into something that plays better in London and New York. Under his reign, the first high-profile investment of Saudi’s Public Investment Fund was a three-and-a-half-billion-dollar stake in Uber, an investment that seems unlikely to change Saudi society.
Nonetheless, the men also seem sincere in their desires to use innovation to achieve good ends. And we should probably root for their success. If a more efficient government better serves American citizens, Kushner’s success would be good for everyone. Innovation has already brought us wealth and improvements in everyday life. (President Obama, too, spoke warmly of Silicon Valley innovation.) And Saudi Arabia—with a rising youth population and sectarian tensions, a suppressed civil society, and a ruling family whose oil wealth is being challenged by U.S. shale production and non-fossil-fuel consumption—seems precariously unstable, in a region that exports instability. Vision 2030’s goal to broaden Saudi economic competitiveness in many sectors—retail, renewables, defense, finance, tourism, health care, education—would be good for the country.
Nonetheless, the boy geniuses of tech provide an imperfect model in the public sphere. They rush forward, damn the consequences. As President Obama pointed out just last year, “Government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view.” And even in Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy doesn’t incorporate disparate points of view (to say the least), the idea that one can transform a society dependent on oil by making it instead dependent on an investment fund seems to overestimate the magic of modern finance—and, incidentally, the ease of generating returns as an investor.
Should Kushner travel with his father-in-law to Saudi Arabia (he is, after all, in charge of peace in the Middle East) he will almost certainly meet again with bin Salman, whether it’s alone, in a large group, or just the four of them—princes, President, and King. One can imagine the princes discussing the similarities of their programs and values, and maybe the boy geniuses they both know. It is harder to imagine a discussion of a particular risk facing them: whether either of them will be around to implement his program. The irony of the power that Prince bin Salman and Jared Kushner hold is its impermanence. Kushner’s reach extends no further than Trump’s, and Trump’s support is rooted in a white working-class nostalgia for manufacturing and nineteen-fifties America. Prince bin Salman faces three threats: his ailing father’s mortality, family members with claims to his portfolio, and challenges to the entire ruling family’s power. The Saudi monarchy derives its wealth from Silicon Valley’s least favorite source of fuel and its social control from a conservative interpretation of Islam.
Both crown princes stake their political legitimacy on being innovators and disruptors. But the foundation of their power seems more like what—and whom–our contemporary world is disrupting. It’s a good thing that the princes think of themselves as tech guys: they’re going to have to act fast.