A shake-up of power in Saudi Arabia

Ritz Carlton in Riyadh © Getty images
The Riyadh Ritz Carlton became a prison for those on the wrong side of MBS

The arrest of dozens of members of the Saudi elite marks the creation of a new ruling dynasty, but the promise of reform is overshadowed by the threat of war, says Simon Wilson.

What happened?

Last Saturday, Saudi police arrested scores of high-profile citizens on the orders of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), his 32-year-old son and heir. Those held – many of them in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel – as part of an “anti-corruption” clampdown, included 11 royal princes, former and current cabinet ministers, and some of the kingdom’s best-known businessmen.

The purge came hours after Salman created a new anti-corruption authority headed by MBS. It follows an earlier move in September, when dozens of intellectuals, human rights activists and clerics were arrested. Whether MBS acted to see off a specific threat, or was simply laying down a marker “pour encourager les autres” is not known. Are the purges a sign of strength? Or do they reflect a justified nervousness about the strength of future resistance to his policies? Either way, it’s a seismic moment for the region.

Is this really about corruption?

Only in the same sense as Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive in China – in other words, the people being pulled aside are likely to have done something that can be pinned on them, but at the same time, they’ve almost certainly been targeted because it’s politically expedient.

As Nicholas Kullish and Davd D. Kirkpatrick point out in The New York Times, corruption is a tricky term to define “in a kingdom where the law has so far included little or no regulation of what other countries have labeled and outlawed as self-dealing”. The royal family’s investment interests are secretive, sprawling and largely undisclosed. No one knows exactly how much income the members generate from the country’s oil revenues, or state contracts, or how King Salman, for example, can afford to own “as much as $28m in London luxury homes.”

Why is this such a crucial moment?

It involves unprecedented consolidation of power in the hands of one man – and also a radical generational shift and the creation of a new dynasty. Founded in 1932 by King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the kingdom’s six next monarchs – including King Salman – have all been sons of the founding father, who died in 1953.

Power has passed from brother to brother – in the 1950s, the kings who came to the throne were in their 50s. In this century, Abdullah was 80 when he took power in 2005, and Salman was 79 in 2015 when he took over. So MBS will not only be the first grandson of Ibn Saud to become king, but he may also be the first of a new dynasty in which only descendants of Salman can become king.

What are MBS’s policies?

Domestically, he has promised a raft of reforms under the broad strategic banner of “Vision 2030” – a drive to cut Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil and instead boost the tourism, health and education sectors. In the short term, he has announced a drive to get more women into work (part of the rationale behind the decision to drop the ban on women driving from June 2018).

And he has vowed to weaken the power of the conservative clergy, and return Saudi Arabia to what he claims it was before the Iranian revolution – a “country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe. Seventy per cent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas.”

That all sounds rather positive?

Indeed. If successful, MBS’s plans could result in a more diversified economy, a more open society, and a more lastingly stable polity. One senior businessman told The Guardian approvingly: “He is shattering the accommodation that had existed between the elite and the state. They were one and the same. This is at least partly about creating citizens from subjects.”

Yet while MBS may well be serious about reform, an enlightened despot is still a despot. And it looks very much as though he intends to be the sole despot in a society which has been ruled for decades by gradualist consensus and delicate trade-offs, among a vast despotic class. That’s a huge gamble – members of other branches of the family may not take to it too kindly. It is also worrying in terms of Saudi foreign policy.

Why’s that?

Because autocrats have more freedom to take rash actions, such as Saudi’s disastrous war in Yemen. Tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have been bubbling since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which turned Iran into an Islamic Republic – the first real Shia power and a direct threat to Riyadh, which has long believed (with some reason) that Iran wants to export its revolution.

Western analysts credit the Saudi royal family’s consensus-based approach for preventing a war with Iran up until now. They worry that without moderating influences (and with the volatile Donald Trump as chief MBS cheerleader), there is now a much greater risk of an Iran-Saudi war. This week’s events – Riyadh accused both Iran and Lebanon of acts of war against it – have only fuelled those fears.

  • Andrew Crow

    I would imagine that the pentagon is relying on ” a much greater risk of an Iran-Saudi war.”

    The US, as is its wont, is playing dangerous games in foreign parts. If I were MBS I’d treat American cooperation, or even the hint of approval with the utmost distrust. The US has a track record of discarding its allies once they are no longer of service. Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden spring instantly to mind. Both were American creations armed and bankrolled to meet semi covert policy aims.

    American fracking has altered the balance of interests in the Middle East in a major way. Only time will tell how this new game will play. I expect it will be messy.

    If the US is going to proceed like this Americans might aswell have elected Hillary. At least she has expertise in this sort of devious international meddling.