For decades, Saudi Arabia was a stable and reliable economic and strategic partner of the United States. That country no longer exists.
The Saudi Arabia that preferred caution to confrontation in international affairs, that emphasized stability at home and that kept royal family disputes private, has been disassembled by the ambitious young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has seized control of all instruments of policy and power in the kingdom.
With a flurry of arrests of princes and business tycoons over the weekend, the crown prince jettisoned the longstanding practice among Saudi rulers of seeking consensus, or at least acquiescence, from all branches of the family and from the country’s business elite. Can the consensus of the family and the business leadership that they forged survive?
If the Saudis are looking at their own history, they should be worried.
After the 1953 death of the country’s founding king, Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, Saudi Arabia was crippled for a decade by a power struggle between his successor, the profligate King Saud, and Crown Prince Faisal, a leader respected for probity and self-discipline.
Surrounded by sycophants, King Saud emptied the national treasury while a frustrated Prince Faisal sought to rally other princes to his side; critical development projects were put off. King Saud’s ruinous reign ended when the family forced him into exile in 1964 and Faisal took over.
The ruling family learned harsh lessons from that experience. From then until now, it has kept family differences inside the family. In fact, in the years when he was governor of Riyadh before becoming king in 2015, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was known as the mediator and conciliator of family disputes.
The arrests over the weekend, and the dismissals of senior cabinet officers, were presented as a crackdown on corruption, and accepted as such by the docile Saudi news media. But their effect is to consolidate the crown prince’s grip on the country and to warn any potential opponents to stay silent.
It is richly ironic for a ruling clan that has benefited from corruption for decades to now declare it unacceptable. And it is difficult to believe that was the true motivation for the ouster of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of King Abdullah and commander of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong elite force that is the cornerstone of the country’s domestic security. Until the weekend, the Bedouin-rooted National Guard was the only component of Saudi Arabia’s security forces that Prince Mohammed did not control, and thus represented a potential rival power center. That threat has now been neutralized.
The National Guard has been trained by American military contractors since the 1970s. The regular armed forces — which Prince Mohammed also controls as defense minister — are also largely American-trained and equipped. In the short term, there seems to be no reason to think that the turmoil in Riyadh will jeopardize the kingdom’s partnership with the United States on military and strategic issues. President Trump was immediately supportive, writing on Twitter that the anti-corruption campaign was overdue and that “They know exactly what they are doing.” But the purge is unlikely to encourage the foreign economic investment upon which the crown prince has staked the kingdom’s economic future.
Since taking the throne in the spring of 2015, King Salman has bestowed increasing authority on the previously little-known son who became his designated successor, shoving aside two other crown princes. In addition to being defense minister, Prince Mohammed is chairman of the interagency committee responsible for economic affairs, including oil policy. In an earlier shake-up this year, he also gained control over the Interior ministry, which includes the police.
As defense minister, Prince Mohammed quickly departed from his country’s longstanding preference to avoid direct confrontation in international affairs. He committed the country to war against the rebel group that had seized control of neighboring Yemen, arguing that the rebels were supported by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival. With a more assertive policy throughout the region, he left behind the cautious years when the preferred tools of persuasion were diplomacy and cash.
The Yemen conflict, now in its third year with no end in sight, has inflicted incalculable damage on what was already the Arab world’s poorest country, but there has been little public backlash in Saudi Arabia because the government has apparently convinced the people that it is a necessary proxy struggle against a threatening Iran.
Prince Mohammed has also presided over a rupture between Saudi Arabia and some of its allies and neighboring Qatar. The breach, which has defied diplomatic efforts to heal it, has disrupted family and commercial life throughout the Gulf and jeopardized years of American efforts to help the Arab countries of the Gulf coordinate their defense policies and provide them with equipment.
The purging in Riyadh seems to have stopped — for now. But what happens next?
Domestic turmoil is hardly probable, but it may now be more possible than it was before the weekend. The people of Saudi Arabia are taught in school that Islam requires obedience to any ruler whose policies are not inconsistent with Islam. The country has no trade unions, political parties or other channels for organized dissent. The leaders of the religious establishment are employees of the government and tend to do what the palace tells them to do. The more urgent question facing the crown prince is how his latest moves will be received within the ruling family.
The government has not released a list of those detained but has not contested news reports that named, in addition to Prince Miteb, another son of King Abdullah, Prince Turki bin Abdullah. Also arrested was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the kingdom’s best-known international businessman and one of its richest citizens. Prince Alwaleed is an outlier in the family because he is flamboyant and by Saudi standards a social liberal, but he has not been active politically.
It is hard to see how the detention of three princes will enhance the family unity that is the bedrock of the regime.
Thomas W. Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, is the author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.