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Destabilising Saudi Arabia? Crown Prince consolidates control; eliminates rivals

Saudi Crown Prince’s attempts to concentrate power put Saudi Arabia’s whole system of governance at risk

The round-up of Saudi Princes which took place on 5th November 2017 is simply the latest in a succession of purges initiated by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, as he tries to consolidate his position by getting his hands on all of Saudi Arabia’s levers of power.

As is often the case in purges of this kind, a large number of people have been rounded up on ‘corruption charges’ (the standard pretext used to conceal power struggles of this sort) in order to conceal the identity of the true target of the purge.

That target was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the commander of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, the third in the triad of defence and security agencies which underpin the rule of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Family.

Of these three the largest and most powerful is the Saudi military, which Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman controls directly as Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister.

The second is the Interior Ministry, which controls Saudi Arabia’s police and law enforcement agencies.

Its former head, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, was appointed Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s own father, King Salman, in April 2015, shortly after King Salman succeeded to the throne following the death of King Abdullah, the previous Saudi King.

As Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef headed a sprawling police and internal security apparatus built up by his father Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, who was Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister from 1975 to 2012, and who was also briefly Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince for a few months before his death.

In addition, from February 2014 Prince Muhammad bin Nayef also became the head of Saudi Arabia’s external intelligence agencies in succession to the notorious Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was sacked following a disastrous “secret” meeting with Russian President Putin in the summer of 2013..

As Crown Prince, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef retained overall control of both of the Interior Ministry and of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agencies.  However he was abruptly demoted and  sacked from all his posts in the first purge engineered this year by Prince Muhammad bin Salman in June 2017. Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who up to then had been Deputy Crown Prince, then arranged to have himself declared Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince in direct succession to his father King Salman in place of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, making Prince Muhammad bin Salman the direct heir to the Saudi throne and the intended successor as Saudi King of his father King Salman when King Salman dies.

By securing Prince Muhammad bin Nayef’s downfall, Prince Muhammad bin Salman therefore removed from the scene a powerful Prince who was a rival for the throne.

As might have been predicted, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef’s downfall then appears to have been followed by a purge of his supporters from his former power base – the Interior Ministry – and their replacement with people Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman presumably considers loyal to himself.  It seems that the powers of the Interior Ministry have also been significantly cut back.

Having eliminated one potential rival in the person of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and brought the Interior Ministry under his control, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has now turned his attention on another potential rival – Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah – and the third agency in Saudi Arabia’s security triad, the Saudi National Guard.

This is a huge well-equipped paramilitary force – it is said to number 100,000 men – which operates within Saudi Arabia as practically a parallel army to the ‘official’ Saudi army which is headed by Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Like the army the National Guard is equipped with heavy weapons (though not tanks) and has its own air arm consisting of helicopters and light aircraft.

Unlike the official Saudi army recruitment to the National Guard is restricted to members of tribes believed to be especially loyal to the Saudi Royal Family.

In effect it functions within Saudi Arabia as a sort of Praetorian Guard, protecting the Royal Family from the risk of an internal revolution or coup.  As such it also controls security in the two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, the control of which gives the Saudi Royal Family its legitimacy (the official title of Saudi Arabia’s King is “Custodian of the two Holy Mosques” ie. of Mecca and Medina).

The commander of the National Guard is therefore a key figure in the Saudi power structure.

Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, its now ousted head, was not only one of Saudi Arabia’s best connected  and most influential Princes, but he also had a continuous connection with the National Guard extending back to 1990, making it loyal to himself and an effective power base.  He became its commander in 2009.

Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah is also the son of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s former King, who was King from 2005 to 2015, making Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah therefore a potential rival for the Saudi throne.

Like Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah also belongs to a more senior generation of Saudi Princes born in the 1950s, who must be feeling unsettled by the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who was born in 1985 and is only 32.

In addition it seems that Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah were friends, and political allies, a fact which would have made them doubly threatening to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and which would have ensured that the fall of the one would be followed swiftly by the fall of the other.

By ousting Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from his position as commander of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is therefore looking to eliminate a powerful potential rival, and to bring the National Guard under his control.

If Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman can pull off the trick – and for the moment he seems to be doing so – he will have control of all of Saudi Arabia’s defence, intelligence, and internal security institutions – the Defence Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the country’s intelligence services and the National Guard – in his hands.

With Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman already in charge of Saudi Arabia’s economic policies and its civilian ministries, and with a purge of Saudi Arabia’s clerical establishment previously carried out in September, he must hope that this will concentrate all the levers of power in Saudi Arabia in his hands.

Though in the short term Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman appears to be achieving some success, it must be said that this is a high risk strategy.

Though Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, its King has never before ruled as an autocrat.  Rather he has ruled on behalf of the entire Saudi Royal Family as its trustee.

That means that the Saudi King has traditionally consulted widely within the Royal Family before making important decisions, and that he has always given power to other members of the Royal Family, to whom he has entrusted important functions such as the control of the Interior Ministry and of the National Guard.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is throwing all that out of the window.  By seeking to concentrate all power in his own hands he really does seem to be aiming at making himself Saudi Arabia’s autocrat.

In the process he must be causing intense anger within the Saudi Royal Family, with many of its members furious at the way in which they are being shunted aside, and at the shabby treatment – as many of them will see it – of the Family’s senior Princes like Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah.

Beyond that the use of the issue of corruption as the cloak behind which to carry out the purge is one which is all but guaranteed to provoke further anger and alarm.

Saudi Arabia though possessing many of the trappings of a state is nonetheless ultimately the property of the Saudi Royal Family.  In such a system lines between what is corrupt and what is not inevitably become blurred.

The result is that what in many countries would be seen as corruption in Saudi Arabia is the accepted norm, becoming in effect the organising principle of Saudi Arabia’s government and society.

It is doubtful that most of the Saudi Princes, accustomed to thinking of the Kingdom’s wealth as their own collectively held personal property, even think of many of the things they do as corruption.

The result is that almost any prominent Saudi Prince can be classified as ‘corrupt’, with the term from their point of view having little or no meaning or having much relevance to the things they do.

In such a situation for Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to start jailing Saudi Princes because he calls things which all of them do and have been long accustomed to doing ‘corrupt’ is all but guaranteed to provoke alarm and anger across the rest of the Royal Family.

Since the accession of his father King Salman in 2015 Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has been remarkably active as he he looks to put into effect his own vision of himself and of the future of the Kingdom.

He has launched a war against the Houthis in the Yemen which by all accounts is not gong well.  He has also conducted a feud with Qatar which seems ill-advised, and he has now extended his meddling to the affairs of Lebanon as well.

He has also committed the Kingdom to a grossly over-ambitious and unrealistic economic policy, with the latest fantasy being the creation from scratch of an all-new industrial city for which there is no obvious purpose or need.

He is now acting to eliminate his rivals and to concentrate all power in the Kingdom in his hands, achieving thereby a position of greater power in Saudi Arabia than any Saudi King before him except for the Kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Said.

At the same time he is purging the country’s clerical establishment, enacting liberal innovations such as allowing women to drive cars, whilst declaring that he intends to replace Saudi Arabia’s stern Wahhabi religious ideology with a more ‘moderate’ version of Islam, which he claims – falsely – to have been that of the Kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud.

This purported internal ‘liberalisation’ of Saudi Arabia looks to me like a ploy by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to gain popular support as he consolidates his power from the younger, more liberal and better educated members of the Saudi elite.

I am as skeptical of it as is Gilbert Mercier and I would add that it is anyway at odds with the reality of the rapidly growing centralisation of power in Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s own person which is now underway.

As I said in my previous discussion of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s grandiose economic policy, the person of whom his actions increasingly remind me is the late Shah of Iran.

Like the Shah Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman promotes an appearance of ‘modernisation’ and ‘liberalisation’ in order to disguise and justify his increasingly autocratic and arbitrary behaviour.

Like the Shah Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is doing this whilst pursuing a break-neck military build-up, a grandiose and completely unrealistic foreign policy, and an economic policy which is so grandiose that it has left all reality behind it.

Like the Shah Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has the unqualified support in all his follies of the US, whose Secretary of State Rex Tillerson almost certainly gave the purge the green light during the course of his recent visit to Riyadh.

In the case of the Shah it all ended in tears, with the Shah forced into ignominious exile by the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Saudi Arabia is a very different society from Iran, lacking Iran’s history and its ancient culture and tradition of parliamentarianism and democracy.

The fact however remains that by acting to eliminate all rivals Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman must be provoking huge anger within Saudi Arabia, whilst by concentrating all power in his own hands he will have no one else to blame if things go seriously wrong.

Meanwhile his purported religious ‘liberalisation’ – because of the way it is being combined with his growing trend towards achieving personal power – is more likely to be seen as threatening by most sections of Saudi society than as attractive to them.

One way or the other by his recent actions Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has taken Saudi Arabia further down the road first to autocracy, and then to collapse.

What do you think?

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