For the first time since Saudi Arabia Founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud left the throne to his son Saud in 1953, a father is once again leaving the throne to his son. King Salman’ son Mohammad is the Crown Prince and he’s proven to be a relentless heir in a scenario akin to “One Thousand and One Nights.” Intrigues, dying princes, prosecuted millionaires, potential detractors being “taken care of,” and a country under reform.
It can be argued that Saudi Arabia is one of the most powerful countries in the world. Thanks to its enormous reserves of oil and the role it has played in regulating its price, all the other countries pay homage and turn a blind eye to its serious defects: it is an extremely conservative country, dominated by an outdated monarchical family (the Saud) and supported by an extremist vision of Islam, which has been exported to the entire world, and serves as a breeding ground for the largest terrorist groups.
Even the United States, which presents itself as the greatest enemy of international terrorism, remains silent on this situation because its economic stability is linked to the Saudi petrodollars. In addition, it profits to win hundreds of millions of dollars selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, parts of which ended in the hands of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But those times are over. Perhaps coincidentally, knowing that the kingdom’s oil reserves will be finished in about three decades, the first public criticisms of the Saudi social system began to be heard. The fact that the United States maintains a low oil price for political reasons, without its partner being able to do much, but to tighten its belt, does not help in improving the Kingdom image either.
Saudi Arabia can no longer decide on its own the price of oil because there are too many producers outside the cartel it controls (OPEC, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Also because it has lost another pillar of his power within that group – its religious influence over other Arab and Muslim countries. This is based on the fact that two of the most sacred cities for Muslims are in Saudi territory, Mecca and Medina. But due to the misuse it has made of this, the distrust of other Muslim countries towards its guidance has also grown.
In addition, an ideological rival arises in the figure of Iran, which has greater influence over Shia Muslims, while Saudi Arabia still dominates the Sunni side.
In terms of foreign policy, the Saud have been unconditional allies of the United States and Europe. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, because the West fills the country with dollars in exchange for oil and Saudi Arabia’s reinversions in the same Western countries. Hence, they have also formed a more or less covert alliance with Israel, which is the number one friend of the United States in the Near East.
The problem is that this axis United States-Israel-Saudi Arabia has suffered a series of defeats in the region. First it was Iraq, which after being “liberated” from the oppression of Saddam Hussein, went on to the side of Iran. Then it was Syria, where the hopes of the axis were that the Islamic State overthrew Bashar al-Assad, but that obviously will not happen and Syria came much closer to Iran, which was one of the two countries that prevented the fall of its legal government. More recently, the United States and Israel supported the Iraqi Kurds in their independence adventure, which also failed when Saudi Arabia joined, counteracted by an unlikely alliance between Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.
But in those cases the Saudis followed their allies, so the failures could be deemed tangential. However, it has undertaken two other adventures directly and both are doing badly, very badly.
One is Yemen, a small and poor country on its southern border, with a large Shiite population. A couple of years ago, taking advantage of the internal divisions and in support of the ousted president, the Saudis decided to intervene militarily in what seemed like a sure victory. Somehow, the Yemeni rebels have managed to resist and strike hard at the invading power, causing indiscriminate attacks by the Saudis against civilians and a series of human rights violations that make it increasingly difficult for their allies to keep their eyes off. To explain its failure, Saudi Arabia blames Iran for supporting and arming the rebels, although there is no evidence of such support, beyond the public solidarity between Shiites.
The second proper failure is Qatar, another tiny country with a common border, but with a high level of wealth per capita. With several unsustainable excuses, such as Qatar’s support for terrorist groups (which is true, but it is already said that Saudi Arabia committed the same sin), it formed a coalition that politically and territorially isolated that country. The United States (which has its largest military base in the region) and Turkey gave their support to the small kingdom, but the worst was that Iran established an air and sea bridge to bring to Qatar the food and other essential materials that the Saudi were blocking.
Riyadh tried to crush Qatar for being too independent and only got it to come much closer to the great enemy: Iran.
In short, we have a country –Saudi Arabia– doing everything possible to counteract another country –Iran– in different territories, but losing again and again, becoming increasingly isolated in the process, while its natural wealth and source of political power is slowly depleting.
But the situation can get worse.
Saudi Arabia can blame Iran for all its ills, although there is no evidence of a single action undertaken by the Ayatollah regime against it. But it can not hide that its problems come from the inside.
Iran is not to blame for oil having a low price or for its depletion in the Kingdom. It is not its fault that the Saudi economy is not diversified and depends almost exclusively on black gold. It is not to blame for social repression based on an extremist view of Islam. It’s not its fault that the country is in a monarchical and feudal system holding progress back. Nor is it to blame for the palatial power struggles that characterize Saudi Arabia and that come to violence from time to time.
These evils are typical of the country and more specifically of the Saud family, the dynasty that has maintained power since the British created the kingdom in 1932, without a single major change in all this time.
Although the House of Saud go back centuries and centuries in the history of the region, the founder of the dynasty at this modern stage was Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who held the throne until 1953. Since then, Saudi Arabia has always been ruled by one of his reportedly 45 sons. One of Ibn Saud’s methods to unite the tribes of the region, besides the war, was marrying women of the families that governed them, which explains the high number of children and the divisions between them, since they do not share the same mothers.
For example, his first successor was his eldest son Saud, who governed until 1964, when he was deposed by his half brother Faisal during the Cold War, supposedly because of the leftist inclinations of the former. King Faisal was murdered by a nephew and another half brother assumed, Khalid. The current ruler is the sixth king son of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, Salman, who took the throne in January 2015 and two years after that the story becomes stormy again.
In the atmosphere of palatial intrigues, different mechanisms have been developed to guarantee balance of power between the different groups of brothers. One of them is the “fair” distribution of official posts among the princes.
Another measure was that a king designated a successor from another group, which would supposedly prevent internal power struggles. In the case of King Salman, the Crown Prince was his brother Mukrin Bin Abdulaziz. But the king replaced him soon after by a nephew, Muhammed Bin Nayef, who would be the first third-generation Saud (grandson of the dynasty’s founder) to grab the reins of the kingdom. At the same time of this change, in 2015, he introduced one of his sons, Mohammad Bin Salman, to politics.
On June 21, in a measure that broke all family traditions and balances, King Salman issued a decree that deposed Bin Nayef of his Crown Prince title, which was transferred to Salman’ son Mohammad. The latter is a “young man” of 32 years old and was already Minister of Defense, a position he continues to hold, along with those he took from Prince Bin Nayef, like Minister of the Interior. In that capacity, Bin Salman is the main responsible for the failed adventures in Syria and Yemen, which nevertheless earned him great internal support, as did his populist measures to allow musical concerts and women to drive vehicles.
If the transfer of government between Salman and Bin Salman is materialized, it will be the first time that a father handed over the throne to his son since Abdulaziz did it in 1953.
ARROGANT AND AMBITIOUS
Although virtually unknown on the international scene until 2015, Mohammad Bin Salman had already attracted the attention of Western intelligence services. Specifically, the German BND that in December 2015 took the unusual step of publicly warning of a new interventionist policy encouraged by the young minister (he was 30 years old) that threatened to destabilize the Arab world.The reason would not be more than his arrogance and thirst for power, for which he did not hesitate to use Sunni sectarianism and move towards a direct clash with the Shia Iran.
Last September, he ordered the imprisonment of a number of clerics, academics and intellectuals, without even pressing charges, although there were several supporters of the government among them. The Muslim world was shocked after the arrest of the respected cleric Salman al Awdá, apparently because he wrote on Twitter his wishes that Saudi Arabia and Qatar could resume their friendship after efforts of Muhammad Bin Salman himself.
The last case of indiscriminate repression occurred on November 4. King Salman signed a decree creating an Anti-Corruption Committee, whose appointed leader was, of course, Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. An hour later the Committee met and, shortly after, eleven princes and 38 other prominent personalities were arrested without specific charges and only general accusations of corruption. Almost everyone was attending an event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and they were arrested right there in the middle of all the guests.
The procedure is interesting: first they were arrested and then the investigation into their corruption began, so they will be informed of what they are accused of when the investigation is over.
An unknown number of other public officials were dismissed throughout the country.
Among the detainees was Prince Mutaib Bin Abdullah, who until then was the head of the powerful Royal Guard. It is not necessary to say who took that position. Now, each Saudi police or military officer is under the orders of the Crown Prince.
In a case that so far does not seem related, another prince of the royal family died in what was reported as a helicopter crash near the border with Yemen. Prince Mansur was the son of Mukrin, former Crown Prince of King Salman. Another prince, Abudulaziz (son of the late King Fahd), died in detention, allegedly due to a heart attack (he was 44 years old).
In addition, a general ban was imposed for travel abroad of all princes and princesses, unless they obtain royal permission. They will also be limited to transfer funds abroad. A first analysis of the reason of these measures is that it prevents organizing “counterattacks” from abroad, where detainees have powerful friends.
In the same sense, more measures are expected against the princes who are abroad.
Since the night of the “coup,” other princes were placed under house arrest or their palaces were surrounded by special forces, their property was confiscated or, in the case of all those who occupy positions in the armed forces, they were ordered to be at the disposal of the Court instead of the King, which means they are subject to Bin Salman. In a harsh measure, all were barred from access to government contracts and arms deals.
More than a thousand bank accounts have been frozen and in the case of the detainees their content was transferred to the Crown.
The Saudi media (all pro-government, of course) praised what they describe as an operation against high-level corruption. It is also the version that was disseminated internationally, although there are reasons to doubt it. In fact, in a society as corrupt as the Saudi, if that were the case, there would be no important official outside the jails. The problem is that, when managing the country as a large family business, the limit between personal and public money tends to fade.
Interestingly, in addition to corruption, it was said that international terrorism financing was being attacked.
An alternative interpretation also benefits Bin Salman, since it points out that the detainees are officials who oppose the reforms that would open up the society a little more. The Crown Prince has become the leader of the group that demands these reforms, which includes the internal and international demands for greater openness and moderation of religious extremism. It is curious that the main promoter of these reforms in the Arab world is Qatar, which is nevertheless the only “friend” directly attacked by MBS (the media has already baptized him that way, Western diplomats call it “Mr. Everything,” for his mania to monopolize all the positions and campaigns of the government).
But there is another explanation. In effect, the detainees appear to be “conservatives,” who oppose the reforms demanded by the whole world. But it turns out that the Crown Prince, as the self-appointed spokesman for these demands, considers that to oppose the reforms is to oppose his will. Therefore, he not only arrested “conservatives” but also those who oppose his mandate, which leads to a total concentration of power in his hands, something not seen since Abdulaziz ibn Saud reign. Among the detainees there is no “corrupt” from his own family or business group (he took control of Saudi Aramco, the state company that is the largest exporter of hydrocarbons in the world, an executive who opposed his policies is among the detainees).
Superficially, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia dealt a severe blow to corruption in his country, while moving away the opponents of the liberalizing reforms that the country needs. Besides, as a result of the self-coup, the price of oil experienced a rise in international markets.
At a second glance, Mohammad Bin Salman got rid of political enemies and concentrated even more power in his hands. The only thing that stands between him and the Saudi throne is his father who rumors say is about to resign (he is 81 years old and has mental problems, according to intelligence services).
That would explain the rush MBS has had since he was appointed heir last June. Maybe it will be the new Saudi king before the end of the year and then we will finally know his real motivations.
Only one thing is certain. Whatever the interpretation of this maneuver, it highlights internal divisions. By repressing their cousins, MBS has nipped in the bud any chance that Saudi Arabia will play a major role in the international arena. Obviously, a new armed adventure is impossible and Iran should only expect rhetoric. It will be a long time before MBS has enough internal calm to be a threat abroad.
And he will spend the rest of his life taking care of his back from his own family.