Domestic Troubles for the Saudi Arabian Leadership

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Saudi Arabia’s leadership is increasingly on a path toward serious domestic challenges following recent events in the kingdom’s east and the arrests of religious and public figures. Doubts are surfacing about the steadiness of the ship of state in light of the failing health of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the inexperienced hands of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Complicated and unresolved regional issues add their own pressures on a leadership that, events indicate, may have gambled too recklessly over the last two and half years, first in Yemen and recently against Qatar. Both sets of challenges and complications come at a time of uncertainty at the putative start of economic restructuring as hydrocarbon prices maintain a sluggish recovery, which could threaten the kingdom’s social contract and its leading regional and international position.

While the June transition from Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN) to Mohammed bin Salman in the position of crown prince did not come amicably, events since then have shown that the new heir to the throne may not be treading cautiously in domestic affairs. Stripping his predecessor of all prestige after forcing him out may have upset delicate balances within the royal family. Clamping down violently on dissent in the Eastern Province, constraining freedoms of speech and thought, and sidelining ultraconservative clerics doubtlessly threaten domestic tranquility. Aggressively changing the old social contract between the ruler and the ruled, while necessary, may challenge the delicate conditions of legitimacy and power. In fact, the rapid contestation of cherished traditions and gradual change, to which Saudi Arabia is accustomed, may actually help pull the rug from under the crown prince’s feet.

Shake-up in the Royal Family

Since King Salman’s rearrangement of the order of succession in April 2015––removing Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and giving his position to his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and appointing his own son Mohammed bin Salman Deputy Crown Prince––MbS has been busy cultivating opportunities that help him pounce on the number two spot. But the demeaning fashion in which MbN was dispatched will always be remembered by him and his supporters as a harbinger of dangerous royal family relations. While such relations had not always been cordial because of the existence of competing interests and factions, publicly announcing that MbN had an addiction problem that affects his decision-making was, according to his defenders and supporters, as insulting as it was untrue. It is indeed difficult to see the affair as helping to solidify the royal family’s unity; at this time, the country requires steady leadership as it faces both internal and external challenges, many of which could be considered too complicated for the inexperienced Mohammed bin Salman.

MbN is also said to be under house arrest, with security guards (assigned by MbS) limiting his movement to a palace in Jeddah. This, according to sources, was done to sideline any opposition to MbS’s ascension and power. Bin Nayef’s loss of position as crown prince was accompanied by his removal as Minister of the Interior, and that after the ministry’s intelligence, prosecutorial, and other functions were folded into a new security agency commanded by bin Salman’s loyalists. Moreover, bin Nayef has not been heard from since he was sidelined, adding to the increasing speculation about his future fortunes in a kingdom governed by the man who deposed him. Other royals, such as former Crown Prince Muqrin, Minister of the National Guard Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, and Prince Khaled bin Sultan—the son of the late Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz—have also been quiet.

Mohammed bin Salman’s expected accession to the throne also changes the traditional manner that has so far governed the choice of monarch in Saudi Arabia. King Salman appears in this arrangement to be the last in the horizontal line of succession among the sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, the late King Abdulaziz Al Saud. His son’s ascension to the throne, after Salman’s brother Muqrin was removed, would be a generational skip (King Salman is 81 years old and his son is 31) and would give MbS the opportunity to establish a succession process based on primogeniture, after what presumably would be a long reign. But whether he maintains the old brother-to-brother succession or chooses his successors from among his own sons in the future, power in the royal family may now be seen as having shifted to Salman’s progeny to the exclusion of possibly hundreds of his nephews. It obviously remains to be seen whether MbS succeeds in his position, now and as king; but given the absoluteness of monarchical authority, the die of Saudi rule may have very well been cast for generations to come.

There is criticism of Mohammed bin Salman’s impulsiveness in decision-making and policy choices, especially those regarding initiating and pursuing a war in Yemen and breaking with Qatar. Nine months into the Yemen war, which began in 2015, the cost to Saudi Arabia was $5 billion, while monthly outlays now are estimated at $700 million. This is at a time when Saudi Arabia is beginning to administer some painful belt tightening. The Yemen war has brought international opprobrium, with more than 10,000 civilians casualties from military action and another 40,000 wounded. Cholera has so far killed 2,000 Yemenis and infected over half a million others as a majority of the population needs assistance. The Saudi-led coalition is accused of committing war crimes and is blamed for preventing humanitarian aid from reaching areas affected by the war and dislocation. Continuing the war thus has serious domestic and international repercussions about which every member of the Saudi royal family and its factions is bound to worry. Perhaps one of the most consequential effects regarding the kingdom’s international standing is the soured mood and relations with the American Congress, where calls have increased for cutting off military aid to Saudi Arabia until a peaceful solution is found for the Yemen quagmire.

The concocted crisis with Qatar must also be another point of contention within the royal family. It has been reported that Mohammed bin Nayef’s demotion and sidelining a few weeks after the severing of diplomatic relations with Doha may have been caused partly by his opposition to the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar. It is indeed hard to imagine that the Saudi royal family, en masse, would approve of a punishing siege on a sister Gulf Cooperation Council state and people, one that would effectively force Doha to seek to secure its supplies from Iran and Turkey. Similarly, it is not unfathomable that the royal family is as evenly split as the general population about boycotting Qatar, as a recent survey attests. (Another survey found that a majority in the United Arab Emirates thinks that a peaceful compromise with Qatar would cement a better front against Iran.)

Domestic Security Challenges

Mohammed bin Salman’s ascension to the throne also faces ongoing internal security challenges arising from the Eastern Province, home of the kingdom’s largest hydrocarbon deposits. Last August, Saudi Arabian security forces took over the old quarter of the town of Awwamiya in the province, which had been a hotbed of activism and, according to authorities, a place where “terrorists” took refuge. The Shia-majority province has for decades received the unwanted attention of a state keen on fighting opposition which it sees as fomented and encouraged by Iran. In June and July, a number of security incidents in the area were responsible for the death and injury of government troops and civilians.

In fact, there have been a string of attacks and counterattacks for years; but the last two have been especially tense after the execution, in January 2016, of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric from Awwamiya who had supported calls for change when Arab Spring protests reached Saudi Arabia in 2011. Al-Nimr was accused and convicted of terrorism and was executed with 46 other Shia activists as well as Sunnis belonging to al-Qaeda. His execution led to demonstrations inside the country and widespread criticism from Iran and its supporters in the region. Protesters in Iran ransacked Saudi diplomatic installations in Tehran and Mashhad, precipitating a cutoff of relations between the two countries.

But in addition to perceived security challenges in the east, the Saudi Arabian government has had a problem with home-grown terrorist threats, although it has succeeded to a degree in limiting their impact. Saudi Arabian security services were busy conducting a campaign against extremists after 2003. Today, the kingdom is threatened by the arrival of the so-called Islamic State (IS), which many Saudis have joined in recent years to fight in Iraq and Syria. IS-affiliated individuals have also conducted some operations against Shia mosques and areas, exacerbating the original sectarian problem between the central government and its Shia community in the east. Government installations have not escaped being targets of extremist activities. On October 5, Saudi Arabian security forces dismantled an IS cell in Riyadh that was planning to attack the defense ministry and killed two individuals and arrested five others. In fact, the kingdom cannot claim to escape the scourge of extremist activities that have plagued neighboring Yemen, Iraq, and Syria—a situation that makes the counterterrorism effort a constant drain on attention, personnel, and resources.

Crackdown on Internal Dissent

The security clampdown in the Eastern Province was followed lately by a campaign against activists and clerics in the kingdom. In mid-September, Saudi authorities arrested at least 16, and possibly up to or more than 30, citizens on charges of inciting instability in the country, including “clerics, a journalist, a poet, at least two women and a prince.” They were accused of receiving money from foreign governments and of being friendly with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Yemeni Houthis. Two civil rights activists, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily and Issa al-Hamid, were also jailed a few days later after having been previously convicted but had remained free. In early October, another 22 individuals––all Saudi Arabian except for one Qatari national––were also held for circulating videos that “stir public opinion about public issues and incite directly and indirectly members of the public to commit criminal acts.” While the government has recently lifted the ban on WhatsApp and Skype calls, the Ministry of Communications will continue to monitor them to prevent their use by activists and militants in order “to protect society” and “the public interest.”

Among those rounded up since September were Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, three clerics with a wide following on social media. Al-Awdah was a pivotal leader in the early 1990s of the Sahwa (Awakening) Movement that sought to harness the energy of young people in a push for modernizing the kingdom. He followed an Islamist trend that broke the quietist Salafist tradition at the heart of the politico-religious arrangement governing the country. Al-Awdah called for the expulsion of American troops from Saudi Arabia after the 1990-1991 Gulf War and was imprisoned until 1999. Since then, he has limited his activities to preaching; however, he apparently ran afoul of the government when he did not throw his considerable clout behind its dispute with Qatar. He has reportedly been arrested after he tweeted his satisfaction with the now-aborted thaw in the GCC crisis when Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, telephoned Mohammed bin Salman in early September and the two agreed to start a dialogue about resolving the conflict.

Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown appears to have caused much consternation around the kingdom, even among intellectuals and influential people friendly to the regime. Jamal Khashoggi, a liberal newspaper columnist and former editor-in-chief of al-Watan newspaper, recently penned a scathing criticism of the situation in Saudi Arabia in which he related the difficulties he and others like him in exile face. He pointedly said that the recent arrests were meant to shame “intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to express opinion contrary to those of my country’s leadership.” Madawi al-Rasheed––a professor at the London School of Economics and longtime dissident––thinks that the recent arrests and clampdown are directly linked to Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to stamp out the opposition before his ascent to the throne. Anonymous protesters have taken to social media to voice their displeasure in both MbS’s ascendance and the crackdown on free speech and assembly.

Bin Salman’s social agenda may also garner unwanted, and unwarranted, opposition from the ultra-conservative religious establishment that has been at the heart of the Saudi Arabian political formula since the founding of the kingdom in 1932. On a visit to Russia in early September, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced that Riyadh has dismissed thousands of extremist imams who supposedly were spreading incitement and a hateful ideology. Crown Prince bin Salman also pronounced that the kingdom wants to return to a “moderate Islam” and that religious extremism was only a response to the Iranian Revolution. While sidelining extremists in a drive to moderate religious discourse are welcomed by wide sectors of Saudi Arabian society and the international community, which accuses the kingdom’s Salafism of fomenting extremism in the Muslim world, they nonetheless may have serious repercussions for the legitimacy of the royal family’s rule and control. As Saudi Arabia ventures into the uncharted territory of allowing women to participate in the labor force (though in circumscribed fashion), run and vote in elections (though only at the local level), and drive cars (though after receiving a male relative’s permission), the unqualified support of different sectors of the religious establishment is essential—and the royal family knows it.

The Other Elephant in the Room

While the royal family faces the prospect of disunity following Mohammed bin Salman’s accession to the crown prince position and the government busies itself with its perceived security challenges, the country approaches monumental decisions regarding reforming its economy. As oil prices stagnate at less-than-optimal-levels, the kingdom’s decades-old social contract is in danger of unraveling if the crown prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 initiative does not bring in the required structural changes that can supplant the traditional social contract. So far, Saudi Arabia has counted on a quid pro quo between rulers and the ruled, which may have become a tired formula as Saudi youth and middle classes are ready to take advantage of advances in education, technology, and a comfortable standard of living to help structure an independent private sector.

But just like all rentier economies, the plan to open up the economy for foreign investment or allow for an independent private sector requires fundamental political changes in how the kingdom is governed such that investors, businessmen, entrepreneurs, and others can impact the bureaucracy and the market. Furthermore, an independent private sector requires equal access to capital, the source of which—for the foreseeable future—will be the Saudi Arabian state itself, since it is in control of hydrocarbon revenues. This situation would be hard to manage without considerable strain on the governance exercised by the king and royal family. On the technical side, it is legitimate to question the feasibility of creating a vibrant and new private sector while the government, according to the restructuring plan, is cutting subsidies and limiting its spending to individuals and on public projects. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s newest announcement about building a mega-city that spans Egypt’s and Jordan’s border at an initial cost of $500 billion also adds uncertainty to future economic plans.

An important part of the restructuring plan is listing a portion of the hydrocarbon giant Saudi Aramco on the stock exchanges of New York and London, or locally. Whatever the decision regarding this technical issue (doubts abound about the choices), it will be fraught with uncertainties. First, the listing will necessitate the lifting of the secrecy imposed on the country’s wealth by the king and royal family, thus allowing the general public equal access to privileged information. Second, how the revenue from the public offering gets used and who benefits from it may open up the kingdom and its elites to unwanted scrutiny and competition that will undoubtedly help shake the foundations of rule there. Third, if the Aramco shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, whatever revenues they generate may most assuredly be caught up in lawsuits against Saudi Arabia in accordance with the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) that was passed by the US Congress in 2016.

Uneasy Times Ahead and Needed Steps Forward

The issues besetting Saudi Arabia’s political, economic, social, and security environments threaten the country’s stability and prosperity if they are not quickly and decisively addressed. Leadership dynamics are pivotal for the tasks ahead. King Salman’s ascension to the throne upon the passing of his late brother King Abdullah in early 2015 has produced a more ambitious and strident regional agenda that may have had its own implications for the kingdom’s domestic conditions. Having at least participated in, if not initiated, the formation of this agenda, would-be King Mohammed bin Salman will have to summon extraordinary skills—ones that his time in office has not yet been sufficient for mastering—to navigate the Saudi Arabian ship amid the turbulent waters of the Middle East.

What in fact is needed for Saudi stability and domestic peace is an about-face by the current leadership that, while risky and laden with unforeseen repercussions, can redirect energies and refocus policies. First, it behooves King Salman or a council of elders from the royal family to restrain the stridency with which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is carrying out his responsibilities. Such a step should not be interpreted as undercutting him or his authority but as moderating his policies, from the domestic crackdown on dissent to implementing the difficult economic restructuring program. It also is high time the royal family counseled against the by-now exposed folly of the crisis with Qatar that weakens Saudi Arabia and may have destroyed the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Second, there is an immediate need for reintegrating the Mohammed bin Nayef faction within the royal family for the express purpose of maintaining unity among the family’s members and power brokers. Bin Nayef was at the center of decision making in the kingdom for decades and his dignity must be restored so that he can reemerge into the country’s political life and contribute to its future development.

Third, Saudi Arabia would do well to reassert its regional and international position and role by adhering to the principles of good global leadership. This should begin by a quick resolution of the current GCC crisis and the lifting of the siege on Qatar. Saudi Arabia should also support sincere efforts for a peaceful resolution of the Yemen debacle that, first and foremost, has become a quagmire for the kingdom and a humanitarian disaster in the Gulf.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here