By Stanly Johny
When the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz, removed Mohammed bin Nayef as Crown Prince in June and appointed his favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the next in the line to the throne, many had warned of brewing instability in the House of Saud. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has hardly been seen since then, with some reports claiming he’s under house arrest. The early morning developments on Sunday when 11 princes and senior government ministers and officials were arrested on orders from Crown Prince Mohammed suggest those warnings were realistic. Two of the princes arrested were Mutaib bin Abdullah, son of the late King Abdullah, King Salman’s half-brother, and Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the Arab world.
The official explanation is that the arrests were carried out as part of an anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by MBS, as Crown Prince Mohammed is widely known. Some others see MBS as “a risk-taking reformer” who is challenging both the establishment royals as well as the Wahhabi-Salafi clergy of the Kingdom to reshape the country.
It is too early to reach any such conclusions. Beyond the reform and anti-corruption banners which the pro-MBS factions are propagating, what is actually unfolding in the House of Saud is an unprecedented power struggle in which the 32-year-old Crown Prince is trying to amass as much power as possible in his hands before his 81-year-old father leaves the throne.
The anti-corruption campaign looks more like another weapon for MBS to consolidate his position. The committee chaired by him that ordered the arrests was announced only hours before the purge was carried out. The reform promises he’s made will be tested in the days to come. The Vision 2030 plan, which MBS unveiled earlier to reduce Saudi dependence on oil, has been a non-starter. Even in his promise to allow women to drive, he has simply given in to long-standing demands from within and abroad, and hasn’t signalled if he would go beyond it to usher in other reforms that would provide more freedoms.
Pattern in the Purges
On the other hand, there’s a pattern in the purges. When King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015, initially he was careful not to disrupt the balance within the palace even as he made MBS, his favourite son, the Defence Minister. He first appointed Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the Deputy Crown Prince and a loyalist of King Abdullah, as the Crown Prince and allowed Mutaib bin Abdullah, King Abdullah’s son, to continue as the chief of the National Guard. But in a few months, King Salman replaced Prince Muqrin with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and thereby ensured that the leadership of the three branches of the Saudi armed forces was distributed among the three powerful branches of the family — MBS to control the regular army as the Defence Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to oversee the interior ministry and intelligence, and Prince Mutaib to head the National Guards, whose job is to protect the royal family.
MBS first targeted Prince Nayef in the June surprise. He got the King to remove his cousin as the Crown Prince. By removing Prince Nayef, he has also brought the Interior Ministry and Saudi intelligence under his control. The arrest of Prince Mutaib on Sunday fits into the pattern. Prince Mutaib was removed as the National Guard Minister hours before his arrest. Now, MBS is practically in charge of all branches of the Saudi armed forces. He already controlled the Royal Court and had taken over economic policies. The latest arrests also allow him to tighten his grip over the country’s media. Saleh Abdullah Kamel, Waleed al-Ibrahim and Prince Alwaleed, the respective owners of Arab Media Company, Middle East Broadcasting Corporation and Rotana media groups, are now behind bars. Of these, Prince Alwaleed has formidable financial resources and enjoys warm ties with several Western governments and corporations. He was also reportedly close to deposed Crown Prince Nayef.
The way MBS has consolidated power in less than three years in a country that’s run on patronage, tribal loyalty, tradition and royal consensus is unprecedented. No Crown Prince in years, if not decades, has enjoyed the kind of authority he now wields. But the repeated purges indicate not only MBS’s growing clout but also turbulent politics within the palace. The kind of instability Saudi Arabia sees now where even a powerful former Crown Prince is not seen in public for months and the chief of the National Guards is put under arrest is uncharted terrain.
In his rise, MBS has already upset tradition, broken consensus and turned against the sheikhs. Dealing with the crisis his actions have generated will be his first post-purge challenge. As of now, all the arrested princes are housed in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton (in picture). Is MBS going to prosecute them, transfer them to a prison, force them to flee or buy their loyalty in return for their freedom? He has already confiscated some of their assets. Former Crown Prince Muqrin’s son died in a helicopter crash near the Saudi-Yemeni border while reportedly fleeing the country. Will the wounded princes and the sheikhs who back them accept MBS as their future King?
New Theatre Of Conflict
Answers to these questions will seal Saudi Arabia’s future. But the regional repercussions of the crisis at home are already visible. It need not be a coincidence that hours before the purge was carried out, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was leading a unity government in which Hezbollah, the Shia party, was a part, announced his resignation while in Riyadh, blaming Iranian influence in Lebanese politics. It’s quite an unusual way for a country’s Prime Minister to announce his resignation from another country, blaming it on a third nation. But Saudi Arabia wasted no time in stepping up its anti-Iran, anti-Hezbollah rhetoric citing Mr. Hariri’s resignation, while Lebanon sank into another spell of uncertainty. This could be MBS’s plan to open another front against Tehran, which fits into his disruptive, anti-Iran regional approach. It’s evident from his policy adventures over the past three years — be it the bombing of Yemen, the proxy war in Syria, the blockade of Qatar or the formation of a Sunni coalition — that he’s using the anti-Iran plank for support at home and dominance in the region. Unsurprisingly, he is playing the same card again when palace politics boils over.
However, MBS’s track record is dismal. At best, he is a disruptive force, but a bad manager of the outcomes. Three years since it started bombing Yemen, Saudi Arabia is now groping in the dark for a solution. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad won the civil war. Qatar refused to toe the Saudi line despite the pressure, threats and blockade. But failures clearly do not stop him from moving on to Lebanon. And if the instability at home worsens, which is the likely scenario, Riyadh will turn up the heat on Hezbollah, drawing Iran closer into a larger conflict.