Paul Pillar

Saudi Arabia, Wellspring of Regional Instability

The anachronistic family enterprise known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been politically fragile.  In some respects it is remarkable that this entity has endured into the twenty-first century.  A clan of royals lives on rake-offs from the country’s petroleum wealth, while using more of that wealth to buy off a fast-growing population.  The Saudis have had to continue playing that game through vicissitudes of the oil market, on which the Saudi economy depends.  The potential for breakdown has always been present.  Now a king and his favorite—and ambitious and inexperienced—son are bringing the potential closer to becoming reality.

The power plays by that son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), include the latest spectacular purge, which extends to senior princes in government as well as leading private sector figures.  The power plays flout some of the principal conventions through which the Saudi royals have held their enterprise together so far.  Although only one man can be king at a time, the system of rule to date has involved a distribution of power among different branches of the royal family.  With the latest purge and the concentration of power in the young hands of MBS, that system is destroyed.

Another feature of the Saudi political scene over the past few decades has been a leaving open of the question of exactly where the royal succession, which had been working its way through sons of kingdom founder Abd al-Aziz, would go once the succession reached the grandsons of Abd al-Aziz.  There is no evident reason why MBS’s father Salman—the sixth Saudi king since the death of Abd al-Aziz in 1953—should have had the prerogative of giving the nod to his favorite son as the holder of power in the following generation.  Salman himself was already showing signs of losing his faculties when he assumed the throne two years ago at age 79.  Not only are there some other sons of Abd al-Aziz still around; there are also grandsons who would rank ahead of MBS in experience and demonstrated ability.  Some of those grandsons are themselves sons of kings—such as the longtime intelligence chief and former ambassador to the United States and to Britain, Prince Turki bin Faisal.

No matter how smooth has been the purge and how much window dressing about family approval adorned the king’s earlier naming of MBS as crown prince, there is bound to be significant resentment and opposition within the royal family over MBS’s power grab.  Discontented royals can seek common cause with sources of discontent outside the royal family.  That is a prescription for even greater internal instability in the kingdom.

The young prince’s audacious moves bring to mind the power plays of another favorite son in a family autocracy, Kim Jong-un of North Korea.  The two heirs are nearly the same age; MBS is a year and half younger than Kim.  Both have unhesitatingly purged people without letting family ties get in the way.  The North Korean princeling’s purges have involved killing the victims—with anti-aircraft guns reportedly often being the weapon of choice.  The far milder Saudi method has been to incarcerate purged individuals at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.  This is obviously a more humane approach, although one has to wonder whether MBS has crossed a Rubicon beyond which only something closer to Kim-style ruthlessness will enable him to keep rivals out of the way.

The internal Saudi instability is important for outsiders, including the United States, regarding the need to realize what they are embracing when they choose to embrace a ruler such as MBS.  (For a reminder of the implications of such an embrace, look at the other side of the Persian Gulf and recall what happened to U.S. influence following Washington’s close embrace of the shah of Iran.)  In addition, there are external implications.  MBS’s internal machinations are related to the export of instability from Saudi Arabia to the rest of the region.  This is partly a matter of how the concentration of power in MBS’s young hands amplifies the effects of rashness and inexperience.  It also is a matter of how rulers have long used external conflicts to complement their solidification of internal power, by providing a distraction from internal problems and benefiting from nationalist sentiment.

Saudi Arabia was already, even before the rise of MBS, a source of instability and a practitioner of throwing weight around elsewhere in the region.  Its moves have included the use of armed force to suppress the Shia majority under Sunni rule in Bahrain, and the stoking of civil war in Syria in collusion with extremists of the al-Qaeda stripe (longstanding Saudi dalliance with whom has been another Saudi channel for exporting mayhem, whether intentionally or not).

MBS is moving faster and farther along this trajectory of regional destabilization.  The prime exhibit is the disastrous war in Yemen, with the Saudi and Emirati offensive taking an internal conflict that was about tribal disaffection from the Yemeni government and turning it into an international humanitarian catastrophe.  The emboldened prince will make the situation even more catastrophic.  Shortly after his purge in Riyadh he announced he was making the partial blockade of Yemen a total blockade of all ground, air, and sea ports, thereby further extending collective punishment of the Yemeni people in a vain effort to salvage some kind of win.

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