On November 4, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced an unprecedented move by arresting a dozen of princes, current and former officials, and businessmen in what was portrayed as an anti-corruption drive aimed at restoring the Kingdom’s financial viability. King Salman established an anti-corruption committee under chairmanship of his son, the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) who swiftly moved to order high-profile arrests among which included Alwaleed bin Talal, owner of Kingdom holdings and shareholder in Twitter and Citigroup amongst many other high-profile enterprises, and Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the former king Abdullah and minister of National Guard which is tasked with quashing internal dissent against royal institutions.
Ostensibly, these arrests were made to convey Kingdom’s willingness to domestic and international audience to tackle corruption and rein in those who were previously considered as ‘untouchables’ in the Saudi society.
In another instance, a Saudi prince apparently died in an accidental helicopter crash near Yemen border. Ostensibly, these arrests were made to convey Kingdom’s willingness to domestic and international audience to tackle corruption and rein in those who were previously considered as ‘untouchables’ in the Saudi society. Saudi attorney general sheikh Saud al-Mojeb asserted that in recent decades Saudi finance bore the brunt of misappropriation of more than $100 billion in corruption and embezzlement.
It was a move by MbS which interestingly attracted unanimous accolades from the Chinese, Russians and Americans alike. These arrests also seemingly illustrate that MbS borrows this tact of extracting political obedience and social favorability straight out of the Chinese playbook. In the Saudi system, like in the Chinese system, corruption has been discovered rooted in the ruling segments of the elites. So, if one is desirous to extract obedience from fellow members and generate popular image in society, one can go after anyone on the populist mantra of anti-corruption.
Anti-corruption has always been a popular slogan among the masses of any society and generates a favorable image of the originator of the act in the consciousness of the public. Certainly, this generation of favorable image among masses is imperative for any aspiring king of a Kingdom which is infamously known for its puritanical governance method. Irrespective of the apparent reasons behind those arrests, underlying matters of power consolidation and competing visions portray a different story.
The current Crown Prince MbS has been edging for an absolute control of the Kingdom ever since his father – the current King – promoted him to the position of Crown Prince. As this author noted previously, the 33-year old ambitious and eccentric Crown Prince is the force behind Vision 2030 which aspires to transform the Saudi society and economy in a radical manner and prepare the Kingdom for a post-oil economy. But these radical social and economic reforms require a central authority under whom tremendous power is vested and who has an unparalleled social control over various institutions in a Kingdom like Saudi Arabia.
This latest move by MbS was in the offing for long as he is gradually entrenching himself into the Saudi state and system under the kingship of his father, the ailing 81-year old King. November 4th event was unprecedented in recent history of the Kingdom in scale and scope as Crown Prince appears to be in the final stages of consolidation of powers under him, an exceptional array of powers which may grant him a status perhaps previously enjoyed by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud – the founder of the modern Saudi state.
The Crown Prince indicated that he has little appetite for tradition and incrementally flouted the Kingdom’s decades of broad-based and consensus building decision making, replacing it with a more centralized, and increasingly personalized decision making in the Kingdom. He significantly disturbed balance of power and influence within the royal institution and among various institutions of the Saudi state.
MbS consolidation threatens this intra-institutional, delicate balance of power-sharing by gradually stripping other families of their influence and the control they exercise, and centralizing it within himself and his closest aides.
Traditionally, the Kingdom is ruled by a system of multiple princes controlling different organs of the Saudi state thus maintaining a balance among various families within the monarchy and a sense of check and accountability on princes responsible for various functions of the state. But MbS consolidation threatens this intra-institutional, delicate balance of power-sharing by gradually stripping other families of their influence and the control they exercise, and centralizing it within himself and his closest aides.
Two most important detainees of the November 4th arrests were billionaires and well-networked Alwaleed bin Talal and Minister of Saudi National Guard Miteb bin Abdullah. By depriving princes of their wealth and subsequent influence in international media networks and business groups, MbS sought to deter any potential domestic or international network of dissidence and royal opposition to him and his Vision 2030.
Concurrently, stripping former King’s son Miteb bin Abdullah of his positon as Minister of Saudi National Guard and arresting him gave the Crown Prince greater latitude in policy making and implementation as Saudi National Guard are responsible for dealing with internal dissidence and potential coups – probably the only institution within Monarchy capable of dislodging MbS in a coup.
Recently, MbS also pledges to revert Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam where society enjoins religious tolerance and social diversity, a pledge which clearly contradicts Saudi history.
Furthermore, MbS fervently acted in a monarchical way by arresting academicians and clerics critical of his socio-economic vision and foreign policy. In September 2017, more than 20 influential preachers and clerics were arrested who may have apprehensions regarding the trajectory MbS is opting for the Saudi society in the coming decades. This move also won blessings of the top religious body in Saudi Arabia known as the Council of Senior Scholars. Recently, MbS also pledges to revert Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam where society enjoins religious tolerance and social diversity, a pledge which clearly contradicts Saudi history.
Saudi Arabia is also quashing internal criticism by intellectuals, activists and academicians against policies adopted by MbS. Their criticism ranges from the feasibility of Vision 2030 to foreign policy militarism in Yemen. However, sensing a potential political opposition in the making, MbS seems to show no tolerance to any type of criticism regarding his policies therefore ordering rounding up of any domestic dissident. Subsequently, maintaining state’s monopoly over the narrative on different state matters.
Now, He effectively controls three significant organs of the Saudi state –the royal family, security and religion, an unparalleled control which was pre-requisite to make his socio-economic Vision of 2030 a reality.
These social control and power consolidation measures undertaken by MbS give him a peculiar set of powers and clout within the Saudi state. Now, He effectively controls three significant organs of the Saudi state –the royal family, security and religion, an unparalleled control which was pre-requisite to make his socio-economic Vision of 2030 a reality.
Under Vision 2030, MbS seeks to create an alternative economy whose finance is not only dependent upon oil revenues. In this regard, MbS is seeking to go public with 5% of Saudi Aramco. A share which the Chinese, Americans alongside the British and many others are competing for.
Moreover, through the earnings of IPO (Initial Public Offering) of Saudi Aramco, MbS seeks to invest those earnings in numerous industries including creation of an indigenous arms industry. Recent easing of restriction on women driving should also be seen in this context of economic reformation of the Saudi economy and not only a social transformation of the society, which has a long way to go to become a modern and vibrant society.
However, MbS policies on foreign policy front may complicate his efforts for reforms at home. No nation can sustain this paradoxical positioning whereby at home the leader seeks to have a paradigm shift in economic and social dispensation while simultaneously engaging in blatant militarism and an increasingly belligerent behavior abroad.
KSA participation in Yemen conflict at the request of internationally recognized Yemeni Government to balance Iranian influence which supports the Houthis, has been an overkill so far and left Yemen in a tattering condition which the United Nations considers as the present-day largest humanitarian crises. Concomitantly, MbS aggressively wanted to confront Iranian threat head on. In May 2017, He remarked in an interview: ‘We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran’.
But this ratcheting up of antagonistic rhetoric may also be borrowed by MbS from the playbook of authoritarians. There is a known tendency among authoritarians of ratcheting up nationalistic and belligerent political rhetoric, and limiting and controlling kinetic actions to extenuate any internal opposition regarding domestic policies which, in peaceful circumstances may attract a profound controversy. So, this new Saudi nationalism can be a divisionary political tactic to divert public and clergy attention towards the ‘other’ known enemy.
Aside from bellicose rhetoric and optics, KSA under MbS seemingly realizes new ground realities in their cold war with Iran. The conditions in which Iran created its influence in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are distinct from conditions today. While KSA and its allies almost lost their war in Syria with their tactic of distributing weapons among various non-state groups, MbS is deploying a relatively different tact by war gaming through political actions.
MbS recent engagement with Muqtada Al-Sadr of Iraq and Saad Hariri’s resignation of premiership of Lebanon can be contextualized in this new Saudi strategy of bleeding Iran politically and creating an opening for KSA to exert its influence in countries known for hosting an immense Iranian clout. MbS is also reorienting Kingdom’s international relations by increasingly balancing Saudi relations with China, Russia, and the United States.
He apparently goes all-in by his gambit on his future and the future of the KSA on the success of Vision 2030 initiative. His foreign policy may yield favorable results for KSA – which is also strongly dependent upon how his economic vision unravels domestically – in manufacturing a space for exertion of their influence in the region, creating a regional balance with Iran. But if MbS engages in direct warfare then it is sure to drain Kingdom’s coffers and with it his politics.
On home front, his polices of browbeating his critics of all kinds may placate opposition in the short term however there is a probability that in the long term a strong opposition based on different actors within the Saudi state apparatus may arise to challenge him particularly if his Vision 2030 fails to give desired results.