What is happening in Saudi Arabia at the moment is a mere power game. A young and ambitious crown prince is trying to outmanoeuvre potential rivals and competitors. We have all read something about the kings and royals of yore – about palace coups, conspiracies, manoeuvrings and the rise of one family at the expense of others. A real game of thrones is being played out in Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom is undoubtedly at a crossroads. The kingdom is faced with multiple crises both at home and in the region. The situation is very volatile and fragile, with the economy in a serious crisis due to the low oil prices. The young crown prince wants to consolidate his position – by going after potential opponents and challengers.
The purge underscores an unprecedented restructuring of the kingdom as Crown Prince Mohammed shores up power before his eventual succession as king. Apart from the arrests, the head of the Saudi National Guard, once a leading contender to the throne, the navy chief and the economy minister were all replaced over the weekend in a series of high-profile sackings that raised alarm throughout the kingdom. The round-up also targeted Prince Mitaib bin Abdullah, who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard, recalling a palace coup in June which ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister.
Over the past year, Prince Mohammed has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among some in the Al-Saud dynasty who are frustrated by his meteoric rise. The recent arrests and purges of powerful princes, ministers and business tycoons is a well-calculated pre-emptive strike by the crown prince to strengthen his position within the royal family and Saudi Arabia’s power structure.
Let’s dig deep and examine the factors that are resulting in the young crown prince taking such drastic measures. Everyone knows that the prince is calling the shots in the kingdom – almost as the de facto king.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to fight three different fronts at the same time. He is fighting to gain complete control over the state apparatus and to remove every hurdle and obstacle that might come in his way. On this front he has an edge. His biggest challenge is the kingdom’s ailing economy, which he is trying to modernise. He desperately wants to reduce the role of the state in the running of the economy and to provide jobs to the people through the private sector. Implementation of neoliberal economic policies to liberalise the economy and to stop the further fall in the economy seems to be on the agenda. In that regard, privatisation of state-owned companies is already underway.
The prince is already supervising the biggest cuts on wages, subsidies and state spending, and has introduced many taxes – especially targeting foreign workers. Prince Mohammed has no option to fail on the economic front. If he fails to stimulate the economy then his authority will come under question. An economic meltdown can have catastrophic consequences for the young crown prince.
The crown prince’s performance on the third front is already under scrutiny. He has failed to crush the rebellion in Yemen and international criticism has increased as a result of the civilian causalities there, including women and children. The Saudi strategy failed miserably in Syria and now it is on the retreat. Saudi Arabia is also finding it difficult to contain rising Iran. The prince is pursuing a hard line and tough foreign policy towards Iran and also used strong-arm tactics to bring Qatar in line. Qatar , though, refused to bow down and forged new alliances to survive the hostile environment. Prince Mohammed is most likely to fail on the external front if he continues with the existing policies.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman is using his cards cleverly and playing to both galleries at the same time. He has mixed his personal ambitions with a reform agenda to give it a liberal face, introducing reforms, giving some rights to women, imposing restrictions on the religious police and finally using corruption as an excuse to crush his potential competitors and opponents. His strategy on corruption is resonating with the middle class. In fact, though, he is attacking one section of the ruling elite and royalty while at the same time protecting and patronising the other one. Both these sections amassed wealth using the same methods of exploitation, state patronage and cronyism. There is a very thin line between state resources and royal money – Bonapartism at its best.
The point, then, is that Prince Mohammad bin Salman is taking a massive risk. His ambitious policy agenda is already controversial; trying to implement it at the same time as imprisoning members of the royal family might provoke some kind of backlash. The only certainty is that the near-term future of Saudi Arabia – and the crown prince himself – is one of turmoil and uncertainty. Whether the crown prince succeeds or fails, one thing is certain: the kingdom will no longer be the same.