In an extremely busy twenty-four hours in Saudi Arabia this past weekend, a series of moves by the palace sought to consolidate the power of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman – who already effectively runs the kingdom, centre all power in his office, and pave the way for his accession to the throne – even before his father, King Salman, dies. In the process, the power grab upends the slower, more consensual decision-making processes in the royal family, and establishes MbS, as the crown prince is known, as a more authoritarian ruler concentrating power in his person rather than in the family that has ruled the country since the 1930s. The moves this weekend (and earlier) achieve four major objectives for Muhammad: granting him control over a vast pool of assets around the world; putting him in charge of the Saudi voice outside the country through media networks owned by Saudis he has arrested; consolidating his power over the three main branches of Saudi military and security services; and removing (if temporarily) any voices of dissent to his father’s abdication and his becoming king.
The past weekend saw Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, announcing his resignation in Riyadh, at the instruction of MbS; the arrests of eleven members of the royal family (including two sons of the former king, Abdullah – Mut'ib and Turki), four ministers and dozens of former ministers, government officials and businesspeople, the disappearance of Abdulaziz bin Fahd (the son of another former king; while some reports say he was killed while trying to escape arrest, others suggest he was renditioned to Abu Dhabi where he is incarcerated and tortured); the death in suspicious circumstances of Mansour bin Muqrin (the son of a former crown prince, who perished in a helicopter crash close to the Yemeni border); the warning that assets of hundreds of other Saudis will soon be seized; and the dramatic ramping up of rhetoric against Iran and Lebanon. All of this threatens serious long-term consequences for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally.
The arrests and freezing of assets of the detainees were conducted ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption drive under the auspices of a newly-formed anti-corruption committee (headed by MbS), but it is clear that the reasons are much more comprehensive, and the move was planned before the committee was even inaugurated.
The arrests are part of an MbS pattern, with Salman’s acquiescence, of consolidating control over the levers of the country’s power, particularly the political, security, economic and media sectors. He has already centralised political power in his office – despite concern among many royals. Indeed, some sources claim that Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in the helicopter crash on Saturday night, had sent a letter to some 1 000 princes urging them not to support MbS’s accession to the throne. These same sources also claim that Mansour’s helicopter was deliberately targeted by state forces under instruction from MbS.
With the latest arrests, the crown prince has now taken over the military and security structures of the kingdom. In June, then-crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was also interior minister, was fired (and has been under house arrest since), and a month later the interior ministry was stripped of many powers, which were given to a new homeland security agency headed by the king, thus giving MbS control of the country’s internal security and large amounts of security personnel and military materiel. As defence minister, MbS also controls the country’s defence forces. With this weekend’s arrest of Mut'ib bin Abdullah, MbS now also controls the third important security-military department, the National Guard. The Guard is an important arm of the Shammar branch of the royal family, and is a conglomeration of the tribal forces in the kingdom; the Shammar effectively control the various tribes through their control of the National Guard. By removing Mut'ib, MbS not only completes his control of the security and military forces, he also is attempting to take control of the kingdom’s tribal confederations. The influence of the National Guard is indicated by the fact that it was responsible for coercingKing Saud to hand over power to his brother Faisal in 1964, following a power struggle between the brothers over the division of political power. By surrounding Saud’s palace in early 1964, the Guard rendered it impossible for Saud to rule.
The arrests of the heads of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Rotana Media and ART – Walid bin al-Ibrahim, Walid bin Talal and Salih Kaamil respectively – gives the Saudi regime effective control of Saudi media that broadcast outside the kingdom. (The palace already tightly controls the media internally.) This will ensure a common narrative on issues such as foreign policy, MbS’s accession to the throne, and the demonisation of dissent.
Furthermore, dozens of clerics, scholars and academics, who might have been opposed to or critical of Salman’s abdication in favour of his son, were jailed in September for no apparent reason. This move also signalled to the clerical establishment, whose influence MbS wants to curtail, that only supportive voices from its ranks will be tolerated. The clergy will be a concern for MbS, who has been talking of Saudi Arabia as a ‘secular’ state, and about diminishing the role of religion and the clergy, which would upset a compact between the royal family and the clergy about them supporting each other. Like the National Guard, the clergy too had a hand in the abdication of Saud in 1964. It took only twelve senior clerics’ support, including that of the grand mufti, to legitimise Saud’s ouster.
The latest arrests also help shore up MbS’s economic control in the kingdom, and are, at least in part, related to the need for him to mobilise funds to drive his ambitious Vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to move the country away from its dependence on oil, and improve an economy that is worse than it has been in decades. Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit stands at ten per cent of GDP; unemployment has increased to twelve per cent; and popular discontent has forced him to drop plans to reduce state subsidies (which he hoped would free up funds for Vision 2030). The need for extra funding is exacerbated by his plan to construct a 500 billion dollar megacity (dubbed Neom), which has attracted substantial interest from Israeli businesses. Moreover, the Yemeni war, ongoing for two years and with no end in sight, is draining the kingdom’s coffers by between 100 and 500 million dollars daily. It has been estimated that the seizing of the wealth of the businesspeople arrested thus far will add around 33 billion dollars (half the 2017-18 budget deficit) to Saudi state coffers, a substantial contribution to the 2030 and Neom projects. With hundreds more people on the list for their assets to be seized, that figure could increase dramatically. Furthermore, MbS’s plan to list the oil company Aramco on the New York Stick exchange was not universally supported in Saudi Arabia; nor were his plans for Neom. The dissenting voices on these matters have now largely been neutralised through their detention.
It is suspected by many that Hariri’s forced resignation is partly also part of the effort to bolster Saudi state finances. Hariri’s assets are worth more than a billion dollars, and his business interests are mainly based in Saudi Arabia. Since the economic downturn that hit the Saudi construction industry, Hariri has been unable to pay his debts to the kingdom. His stake in Saudi Oger is worth just under a billion dollars, a reasonable contribution to MbS’s coffers. Interestingly, the disappeared Abdulaziz bin Fahd was the Saudi point person in charge of Saudi Oger, and, thus, Hariri’s partner. Hariri has, since his ‘resignation’, been rumoured to be interned in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, along with others arrested on Saturday. However, Hariri’s removal also has political objectives. MbS, with the support of the USA and Israel, hopes to increase the pressure on Iran through its proxies and associated groups. Thus the removal of Hariri can be read as part of the effort to escalate tensions in Lebanon, and to begin an offensive against Hizbullah.
He identified Iran’s role in Lebanon and the region, and his dissatisfaction with Hizbullah as reasons for the resignation. Yet, shortly before he left for Saudi Arabia, he met with Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor on international relations to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei; and Hariri’s party’s relations with Hizbullah have not been any rockier than usual.
MbS’s power grab has already caused much disquiet within the house of Saud, which previously divided government portfolios between the different family branches to prevent fractious succession battles, and to ensure continuity. Saturday’s moves have upended this policy, centralising immense power in MbS’s office. It is likely that the families of Nayef, Abdullah and Muqrin will join forces, especially if Salman abdicates power in favour of his son in the next weeks. Abdulaziz’s disappearance and Abdullah’s death will aggravate this urge. Any rumblings of protest from within the National Guard at the firing of its former boss, Mut'ib, to whom the Guard had been fiercely loyal, would be an indicator in this regard.
Further, despite earlier expressions of enthusiasm for MbS’s ‘modernisation’ proposals – especially from Saudi youth, it is uncertain whether the majority of Saudi citizens will accept MbS’s plans, even though Saudi Arabia has a bulging youth population, especially after the recent crackdown. He has already alienated many critical clerics who had previously called for such modernisation, and who enjoy much popular support, as well as created fear in the business community, and anger in many sections of the royal family.
Additionally, the arrests of young reformers such as Abdullah al-Malki and Mustafa al-Hassan, together with the arrests of cleric Salman al-Awda in September, suggest two faces of MbS’s ‘reform’ initiative. Despite, for example, voicing support for increased freedoms, relaxing conditions on Saudi women’s restrictions to drive, and advocating (rhetorically) a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, MbS instituted two committees (the Union of Electronic and Software Security, and the National Authority for Cyber Security) in October to monitor and control social media, and curtail freedoms. Already, the head of the Union of Electronic and Software Security, Saud al-Qahtani, called on Saudi tweeps to report citizens sympathising with Qatar in the issue of the blockade on that country. Another example of MbS’s two-faced policies is his commitment to ‘privatise’ Saudi assets such as Aramco, while the recent crackdown shows that he is just as happy ‘nationalising’ private assets of those he dislikes.
The increasingly gung-ho attitude from the Saudi palace will also have serious regional consequences. MbS and his deputies have hardened the kingdom’s stance toward Iran, used war-like rhetoric in reference to Iran and Lebanon, further threatened the Houthi in Yemen, and instituted a full blockade on Yemeni ports. While a war with Iran is unlikely, Riyadh’s moves threaten to destabilise Lebanon’s complex, sectarian consociational political system in a manner that could have disastrous consequences; some Lebanese are talking about the possibility of another civil war.
While there is concern in the Middle East about where this will lead to, MbS and his authoritarianism have won unqualified support from the USA and Israel. Both the US president, Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner enjoy a close relationship and mutual admiration with the crown prince. Kushner returned to the USA from a personal visit to Saudi Arabia just a week before the recent arrests, sparking speculation that MbS briefed him about his plans for the arrests and for Lebanon. After the arrests, Trump tweeted that he had ‘great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing’. Israel, which MbS reportedly visited in September, has also been jubilant about the new crown prince and his keenness to normalise relations with the Zionist state. The events of the past weekend have been pounced upon by Israel, with its envoys around the world being instructed to use the Hariri ‘resignation’ to attack Hizbullah and Iran. Whether this was coordinated with Saudi Arabia or not, events in the kingdom are proving useful to Israel in its battle with Iran, and, ultimately with the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, thirty-two-year old Muhammad bin Salman, has thus cast his country and the Middle East region into a period of great uncertainty. From the time he was appointed deputy crown prince by his father in April 2015, he began to present himself as the face of the kingdom’s future, and many of his actions – domestically, regionally and globally – have been crafted to concentrate power in himself, show Saudis and the world that he is tough, willing to deal decisively with his enemies, fully in league with the United States, and to prepare for his coronation. This year, the blockade against Qatar, increased sabre-rattling on Iran, normalising relations with Israel, developing intimate relations with the the US Trump administration, and the events of the past weekend have all had a singular motive: strengthening MbS’s hand in preparation for his being handed the throne by his father. The latest arrests and firings are an attempt to silence criticism of his ascension to the throne, and to shore up his military, economic and media power.
Furthermore, MbS is transforming Saudi Arabia into a strong regional client that will help the USA maintain global ascendency, and serve, together with Israel, as a US proxy in the Middle East. MbS has set himself up as the new regional strongman whose role has been rubberstamped by Trump. The US administration has given him wide permission to consolidate his position in a way that will allow him to become an effective instrument of the USA in the region. The focus and escalating rhetoric on Iran (and its proxies) helps consolidate this position by ensuring that Saudi Arabia, the USA and Israel will be on the same page, with a common enemy that they each can rally their constituencies against.