Something very strange has happened already and is going on in Saudi Arab Politics. The heir apparent of the monarchy, Prince Muhammad bin Salman has jailed his own cousins and others influential people in the kingdom in what the regime describes as an anti-corruption crackdown. In a kingdom where personal fortune and national wealth means the same thing, this war on corruption is hard to understand, especially in the context where there are hardly any rules governing the conduct of members of royal family. In the name of reforms, it is really a power game to gain absolute power avoiding any fear of loosing it.
In 2013, Saudi prince Bin Salman described himself simply as a ‘lawyer’. On 23 January 2015 he was appointed Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, overseeing the third highest defense budget after the United States and China. At the end of that month, he was named head of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs and, two months later, became chairman of the Public Investment Fund after its transfer from the Finance Ministry. On 15 April 2017 he was promoted to deputy crown prince and two weeks later appointed head of the Supreme Council of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, the globe’s largest petroleum corporation. To cap it all, on 21 June, he was elevated to crown prince at the expense of his 56 years old cousin.
Almost 28 years old Prince Muhammad bin Salman overambitious and cunning, a heartbeat away from succeeding his 81 years old father King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. Bin Salman reportedly suffering from dementia – leading his own Game of Thrones in the Desert Kingdom. A young, inexperienced heir to the Arab world’s most powerful throne, Bin Salman is consolidating his power by crushing potential centers of power outside the Royal Court.
Mohammed bin Salman said he wanted to radically change Saudi Arabia. He intends to move away from extreme interpretations of Islam and oil, once the kingdom’s lifeblood, and build a modern economy and give young Saudis more rights. He has given his plan the name ‘Saudi Vision 2030.’ His country is damned to realize this vision. Should it fail to, it won’t just perish because of the current annual state budget deficit of $200 billion.
He is the first of six sons born to King Salman’s third and last wife, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan, nearly 20 years junior to her husband who ascended the throne on 23 January 2015. Unlike his four elder half-brothers who enrolled at Western universities, he obtained his undergraduate law degree in 2007 from King Saud University in Riyadh. He proudly describes himself as a member of the generation that grew up playing video games. Since becoming deputy crown prince, Bin Salman colluded with his father to undermine designated Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef with a series of ill-disguised rebuffs. The climax came on 21 June. The monarch stripped Bin Nayef of his long-held post of Interior Minister, passing this on to 33 years old Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud, who lacks law enforcement, intelligence or counterterrorism experience.
On 4 November the father-son starting to cut short potential challenges to their power grab. First, King Salman decreed a new anti-corruption committee, with powers to arrest and confiscates corruptly obtained assets, under Bin Salman. He reshuffled the cabinet, replacing the Sandhurst-trained Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah as commander of the National Guard, made up of tribes loyal to the House of Saud, with a Bin Salman loyalist. As head of the anti-corruption committee, Bin Salman immediately detained princes, ministers and others total 208. All are prisoner glided in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton. Detainees were prohibited from contacting their lawyers.
The timing is related to the growing list of Bin Salman’s misadventures. Within two months of becoming defense minister, he spearheaded an air blitzkrieg in the Yemen civil war against Shia Houthis controlling the capital of Sana’a and large parts of the republic. He did so without a clear overarching strategy. A headstrong unilateralist, he did not coordinate his campaign with the National Guard and the Interior Ministry. As it happened, National Guard commander Prince Mutaib was out of the country. He is now confined at the Ritz-Carlton.
Enhancing international dominance:
Muhammad bin Salman started to opened up international dominance. Even since he has assumed position of importance, he is conducting a brutal campaign of state terror in Yemen, where thousands of women and children have died or are starving to death. He recently orchestrated the resignation of the Saudi vassal, Saad Hariri, as the prime minister of Lebanon, a move in which the Saudi hand became apparent as the announcement was made on a Saudi allied television and in Saudi Arabia. In between all this, he tried to reduce Qatar as his appendage much like Bahrain but then Qatar resisted and clearly the Saudi blockade against the tiny country has evaporated with the deluge of support which Qatar received.
Even in the case of the war in Syria, the prince has not been successful in dislodging Basher al Asad from power, partly because of the support that the Asad regime received from Russia and Iran. If the motive of all this was to break the Shia influence, then it has roundly failed. Iran is now perhaps even more powerful than it was before and it will take the Saudis many more years.
Events in Lebanon all point to the fact that the stage is being set up for countering Iran and forcing it to go to war. In its pursuit of blind hatred towards the Shias, the Saudis are even considering an alliance with the state of Israel to bomb parts of Lebanon which have Hizbullah influence. If true, then this will surely force Iran to retaliate in ways which can be other than diplomatic. In the meantime, during the proxy war between Saudis and the Iranians, common Muslims have been suffering from Yemen to Syria and Qatar to Bahrain.
Greedy of Power
With 10,000 princes, the Saudi royal family is easily the world’s largest. But only a handful of these princes have actual political ambitions. Recently Mohammed bin Salman neutralized the most important among them, Mutaib bin Abdallah, one of the former king’s sons who was in charge of the Saudi National Guard. The Guard’s officers were personally indebted to him. Leaks from within the royal family made it known in July that Mutaib was resisting his pending dismissal by the Crown Prince.
The prince no longer faces immediate threats from the security apparatus. In June, he had already dismissed and put under house arrest his biggest rival, powerful Interior Minister and heir to the throne, Muhammad bin Nayif. As both crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed controls Saudi Arabia’s intelligence and security services. He broke with the decades old tradition of spreading these positions among the Al Saud family’s various branches in order to keep the balance of power among them.
The prince does not need to worry about serious opposition from the media or business sector, either. One of the princes he had arrested is Al-Walid bin Tallal, one of the richest men in the world, an influential media mogul in the Arab World. He ran the opposite of a conservative media empire and a jet-set playboy who enjoyed making liberal, critical remarks in international media. Few Saudis will shed tears for the men imprisoned even if their arrests come across as highly selective and were far from constitutional or transparent. It is actually likely to enhance Mohammed bin Salman’s popularity.
Saudis have increasingly complained about rampant corruption, which could cost their economy more than $ 100 billion per year — about a quarter of the overall state budget. The people are also fed up with living in a system that slaps barbaric punishment on ordinary citizens while the royal family is rarely prosecuted for its misconduct. Even if the prince is not quite democratic in his reforms which look more like an effort to consolidate power. His ascent has helped bring down the men who created and continue to defend the inflexible old Saudi Arabia.