If Saudi Arabia didn’t already have enough worries in a fast-changing Middle East, yet another crisis has hit home for the once-stable desert kingdom: the sweeping arrests of 11 princes and former ministers. The move ordered by King Salman and carried out by his impulsive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known increasingly as “MBS,” could well mark the beginning of the end for this increasingly uncertain U.S. ally.
Given the 82-year-old monarch’s declining health, the obvious question looms: Will the king abdicate the throne to his son before death calls? Most analysts agree that the 32-year-old crown prince made a fatal mistake by firing at least one prince — the pivotal head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. From my perspective, MBS’s brash, so-called anti-corruption crusade is not aimed at ridding the kingdom of corruption. Rather, it’s aimed at removing potential rivals for the throne, paving the way to absolute power. As to opening Saudi Arabia to more transparency and freedom — the prince’s supposed reason for these arrests — it’s nonsense.
So what’s the next move for royal members who have been effectively sidelined? More than ever, the campaign of arrests and detentions is already coalescing into a major political storm and significantly increases the risk of instability — and not only within the kingdom but across the greater, strife-torn Middle East.
This turn of events comes on the heels of shocking news. London’s Guardian credits claims by an anonymous Saudi prince who states that two letters have circulated among senior members of the royal family encouraging them to stage a coup against King Salman. The rationale: The king and his powerful son have been implementing dangerous policies that are leading the kingdom to political, economic and military ruin. Mere disclosure of these memos raises serious concerns. Will we witness a repeat of the assassination of King Faisal in 1975? Quite possibly!
Undoubtedly, MBS has amassed more power the past two years than any member of the House of Saud, including its kings. Apparently, the crown prince is on a power trip to the point of disregarding protocols vis-à-vis royal succession. Yet MBS has neither held positions of genuine, proven long-term significance within the Saudi government (unless you count furthering a questionable war with neighboring Yemen) nor the experience to lead. I find it perplexing how MBS, by royal decree, is in charge of the kingdom’s primary source of wealth, Saudi Aramco.
Make no mistake: With royal infighting erupting and revealing itself to the outside world, it marks the beginning of the end for Saudi Arabia as we know it. Far-reaching consequences will resound not only economically and politically but religiously and geopolitically, only ensuring further chaos across the region.
What the crown prince does not want to accept is that the kingdom, since its creation in 1932, has been ruled by generally thoughtful and conservative consensus. He believes that he can change that through the whim of a few arrests and intimidation. Alas, it’s typical of Arab/Muslim leaders (give or take very few) who think they’re given some divine right to rule with an iron fist. One doesn’t wonder why the Muslim/Arab world lags behind so many other global powers in the world.
While dozens of leading businessmen (including those heading up media, airline and telecom companies) and princes have been arrested, two men stood out in terms of their potential to threaten MBS’s ascension to the throne: Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in a helicopter crash near war-torn Yemen this month, and Prince Mitaib bin Abdullah, who has been removed as head of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard. The National Guard is a potent force within Saudi Arabia and one of many potential pools of discontent.
MBS’s sudden change of decades of rule by consensus and consultation in favor of determined autocracy has undoubtedly made him enemies of hundreds, if not thousands, of wealthy and influential princes and businessmen. These princes and businessmen are unlikely to wait for their royal invitation to the Ritz Carlton.
Where from here? In the Middle East, anything is possible, even likely, but the time may be at hand to take “Saudi” out of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is sure to experience major political instability, a gloomy economic outlook given the drop in oil prices, regional and global isolation because of its ongoing atrocities in Yemen and now royal succession issues. Looks to me like a kingdom in fast decline.