Is Mohammed bin Salman Overplaying His Hand?

Momentous events have overtaken what are normally quiet times in Saudi Arabia since the elevation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last June. Over the last two months, scores of activists were detained, thousands of ultraconservative clerics were removed from their positions as mosque imams, and women were allowed to drive and attend sports events. But the latest decrees by King Salman bin Abdulaziz to sideline powerful princes and arrest business, media, and military officials on corruption charges are nothing short of an earthquake that will consolidate his son Mohammed bin Salman’s power and are sure to change the kingdom’s future. What adds to the gravity of the situation are the opacity and suddenness with which the latest decisions were made. Indeed, they are clear signs that the diffuse decision-making process in Saudi Arabia may have finally come to an end in favor of a top-down approach directed by one center of power in the person of the king, soon to be Mohammed bin Salman.

The newest developments also come against the backdrop of a fluid regional environment in which Saudi Arabia has a stake. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned from his position while on a state visit to the kingdom, citing reasons that include fears of assassination, Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs, and Hezbollah’s status as a state-within-a-state. The Gulf Cooperation Council crisis in which bin Salman has had a pivotal role continues to threaten the alliance while Qatar shows increased signs of resilience as it faces the blockade Saudi Arabia and others have imposed. Yemen’s rebels continue to constitute a clear and present danger on the Saudi southern border and, in fact, targeted the capital Riyadh with a long-range missile shortly after Hariri resigned. Iran remains in the crosshairs of the Trump Administration as its reach into Arab states becomes more entrenched and the Saudi leadership feels compelled to face it. Finally, the peace dividend resulting from the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq does not seem to benefit Saudi Arabia; instead, Iran is a clear winner in both countries’ future political maneuverings.

Sidelining opponents and imprisoning powerful men in Saudi Arabia have serious domestic and regional repercussions that are likely to remain the defining characteristics of Saudi politics for the foreseeable future. Whenever Mohammed bin Salman becomes king, he will be the one dealing with the outcomes of what are widely believed to be his own machinations, ones that are feared to bring unwarranted instability to an otherwise stable polity. As David Ottaway, Middle East Fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, warns in The Atlantic, the recent actions “could well threaten the House of Saud’s stability for years to come.”

The Domestic Outcomes

Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman’s moves affect at least three interrelated political and economic dynamics. First, the decision to strip his cousin Mit’eb bin Abdullah of his Ministry for the National Guard eliminates a threat from a royal equal and would-be challenger and consolidates bin Salman’s power. As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution writes, Mit’eb’s “ouster is the most crucial part” of the “wave of arrests in the kingdom that suggests deep opposition” to the young Mohammed bin Salman. The National Guard has always been the repository of tribal power in the Saudi state and has acted as a praetorian guard for the royal family. While the decree to remove Mit’eb simultaneously appointed Prince Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Muqren in his place, it is not farfetched that the guard be folded into the regular armed forces—although the process may not be easy since it would infringe upon the myriad power centers in the pecking order of powerful Saudi tribes. With Mit’eb, the royal decrees dismissed the commander of the Royal Navy, Abdullah al-Sultan. And before Mit’eb, King Salman removed the previous Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the representative of another branch of the family, and folded his fiefdom, the Ministry of the Interior, into a new security agency under his own son’s control.

Second, arresting such a tycoon as Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and other economic power brokers, such as Economy Minister Adel al-Faqih and construction magnate Bakr bin Laden, speaks to bin Salman’s desire to eliminate independent economic forces as he launches his “Vision 2030” plan, whose aim is to wean the country off hydrocarbon revenues. Among its general objectives, the plan aims to help the rise of a private sector that can spur economic development in isolation from the government, but also one that can assist in providing employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands of young Saudi Arabians every year. Sidelining powerful men in the Saudi economic and financial sectors prevents these individuals from controlling the fortunes of the vision plan and, in fact, helps other rising stars who, then, will be beholden to bin Salman and will represent a loyal constituency. Simultaneously, if the fortunes of economic planning become controlled solely by bin Salman and his cronies, questions will be raised as to whether international investors will feel confident enough to participate in the plan and its projects, as Ottaway contends.

Third, some of the targets of the corruption arrests include principal media moguls such Al-Waleed bin Talal himself, head of the Rotana media empire, and Waleed al-Ibrahim of the MBC media group. Sidelining them in a saturated media market opens many opportunities such as allowing for a new set of media personalities to control the propaganda market and influence the general public, especially those who are consuming and participating in social media. A battle for the hearts and minds of the Saudi population, especially the youth, will use the new media environment in a powerful public relations campaign to give bin Salman a monopoly over the important and ubiquitous forces that influence the Saudis public.

Regional Considerations

While the royal decrees are arguably meant to address the domestic challenges facing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, they stir up equally significant regional issues. First is the stagnant situation in the five-month-old GCC crisis. Consolidating power in the hands of the crown prince and unifying the armed forces under his command may prompt potentially dangerous thinking and adventurism. As the crisis continues with no end in sight––in fact Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt continue to resist mediation efforts––a more-than-confident Mohammed bin Salman may feel emboldened to either ratchet up the pressure on Qatar or actually launch military operations against the country. With no institutional restraints on him applied through such officials as Mit’eb bin Abdullah or Mohammed bin Nayef, this becomes even more possible by the day. Absent a firm Trump White House stand against such a move, who is to tell how this might develop, considering the raw emotions that have so far controlled the tempo of the crisis?

Second is how to deal with the many cases of Iranian interference about which Saudi Arabia is worried. Will an unchallenged rulership by bin Salman devote its full energy to confronting the Iranian challenge in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, all simultaneously and presumably at a huge cost? Can the kingdom be unified enough to support what the would-be king intends to do, considering that facing Iran is all at once a political, military, and economic campaign? On the first front, it cannot be assumed that the latest decrees have assured unity under bin Salman’s leadership; i.e., he may have created more enemies within the state than he can deal with. On the second front, are the Saudi Arabian armed forces prepared for continuous readiness and deployment, and can they provide what is needed for different battlefields? After all, Saudi forces entered the Yemen quagmire more than two and a half years ago and the results have so far been unsatisfactory. Moreover, is Saudi Arabia ready to fund a strident foreign policy whose central theme would be to fight Iran on many fronts?

Finally, the latest decrees appear to arrive as more proof becomes available about the failure of bin Salman’s many grand ideas and plans. The Yemen war, which he championed and launched, is at a standstill; indeed, the last two days have proved that the Houthi and Saleh rebels there can still target Riyadh. The “Vision 2030” plan is becoming less believable as international investors shy away from participating in it, mostly because of the lack of an institutional infrastructure protecting foreign investment. And as if the vision plan were not enough, the crown prince just announced a grand scheme for building a mega-city that covers more than 26,000 km2 of Saudi, Egyptian, and Jordanian desert lands with an initial investment of $500 billion—while the kingdom is tightening the purse on its own citizens. As Riedel warns, this is “the most volatile period in Saudi history in over a half-century.”

More Than Caution Is Needed

Now that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has eliminated at least some of the potential opposition to his consolidation of power, Saudi Arabia is likely set for increased domestic and regional challenges in its foreseeable future. Fighting corruption was the operative phrase over the last few days; but what is at work may be more like the construction of a fully authoritarian regime centered around the person of a young and inexperienced crown prince. Where Saudi Arabia succeeded over the last few decades was in collective decision-making which, while sometimes inefficient, assured the participation of all factions of the royal family.

Mohammed bin Salman may think that consolidating power in his hands will help the kingdom face its many challenges, but he would do well to know that sidelining important political and economic personalities may result in weakening Saudi Arabia’s domestic front and regional role. As David Ignatius contends, Mohammed bin Salman “would probably be flattered to be described as a Saudi Trump. But Xi [Jinping of China] and his anti-corruption power play may be the real role model”—that is, using the fight against corruption to consolidate a one-man show. Gary Sick, a longtime analyst of the Middle East and senior scholar at Columbia University, agrees, saying in an interview that bin Salman and others like him “say it’s all about corruption but I really don’t believe that.”