The ongoing purge in Saudi Arabia for the first time asks a question which has not been asked since the coup of 1964, in which Prince Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz overthrew his brother King Saud and made himself King of Saudi Arabia in Saud’s place: how stable is the Saudi Kingdom?
The short answer is that we do not know, but the situation today appears to be much more serious than it was in 1964.
At the time of the 1964 coup King Saud was widely perceived as a weak and extravagant ruler, no match to his austere and thrifty brother Faisal, who had no difficulty labelling him corrupt and incompetent. Moreover in launching his coup Faisal had the support of the great majority of the Saudi Princes and of Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, as well as the strong backing of the armed forces and of the National Guard.
The result was that the coup was bloodless and swift, with Faisal replacing Saud swiftly, first as Regent and then as King, and then ruling the Kingdom vigorously and effectively for ten years in his ousted brother’s place. The 1964 coup nonetheless unsettled the Kingdom, leading to an attempted coup against the Saudi Royal Family by the army in 1969, which led to Faisal creating the elaborate internal security and intelligence apparatus which protects the position of the Saudi Royal Family to this day.
The purge which Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has now launched bears some similarities with the events of 1964 in that a member of the Saudi Royal Family is once again using the issue of corruption to eliminate rivals for the throne. As was the case with Faisal in 1964, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is also trying to project the image of a reformer and moderniser, though whereas Faisal projected an image of thrift and prudence Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman advocates a break-neck industrialisation programme financed by massive spending.
However there the parallels end.
Whereas the 1964 coup targeted one specific member of the Saudi Royal Family – King Saud – the current purge seems to be directed at a whole group of Saudi Princes whom Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman obviously sees as a potential threat.
More importantly, whereas the 1964 coup was basically bloodless, with King Saud effortlessly overthrown and sent into exile in Greece along with his family, the multiple arrests of Saudi Princes suggest this time something altogether more violent.
Beyond that there is the news of the death of Prince Mansour bin Muqrin – supposedly in a helicopter crash – and of the reported death of Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Fahd – supposedly whilst trying to evade arrest.
Whilst information about these reported deaths is patchy – and in the case of Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Fahd it may not even have happened – it is difficult to believe that they can be unconnected to the ongoing purge.
The killing of Saudi Princes as a result of a power struggle within the Royal Family is something unheard of in modern Saudi history. If Prince Mansour bin Muqrin and Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Fahd did die because of the purge, then that can only mean that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is facing resistance. Moreover In a society where family honour and the duty to avenge murdered relatives is still taken very seriously – King Fahd was assassinated in 1975 by the brother of a Saudi Prince who had been killed by Saudi security forces in an attack on a television station to which he objected on religious grounds – the killing of Saudi Princes could make Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman potentially the target of retaliation.
One of the reasons why the Saudi Family has been able to see off all challenges to its rule since it gained control of the Kingdom in 1932 is because in spite of the occasional quarrel (of which the 1964 coup was by far the most serious) the Saudi Family has always managed in the end to remain united.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s actions are threatening that unity and are doing so moreover at a time when the Kingdom is facing a severe fiscal crisis – which Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s reckless spending plans can only aggravate – is fighting and losing a war in Yemen, and is facing multiple external threats, all of which it has brought on itself.
It remains to be seen how successful Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is in consolidating his power through his purge. However the big risk he runs is that even if he achieves some short-term success, it would be at the price of preparing the ground for an enormous backlash to come.
In that case Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman might not be the only person swept away. In the present volatile situation in the Middle East it is easy to see how that could sweep away whole Saudi monarchy as well.