Hostile Takeover: How Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Reshaped the Kingdom

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 15, 2017. Picture taken November 15, 2017. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

The United States should stay out of Saudi’s domestic shuffle for power.

The recent upheavals by the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his son, Mohammad bin Salman (widely referred to as MbS) represent more than just a purge and consolidation of their power but, much more profoundly, an auto-coup. Their actions constitute a coup because, if successful, they will result in changing the “constitution” of Saudi Arabia, which is its fundamental political and governance system. In this case the coup was executed not by the military but by the king and, under his own authority, hence the auto-coup. No doubt, the new regime and the old are both autocracies, but their fundamental mechanisms will have been changed, at least for the moment.

The events began with King Salman’s June replacement by MbS as Crown Prince, minister of the interior, and heir apparent Mohammed bin Nayef, a son of Abdulaziz the founder of the House of Saud. So far, all of the Saudi kings after King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud were chosen from among his sons. Moreover, they were chosen by some clandestine arrangement of unknown criteria, some approximation of consensus, among the many sons. Whatever the arrangement and the accompanying “compensation” to the losers, the result was accepted, perhaps until now.

If successful, the appointment of MbS and his ultimate succession would replace that system. The Kingdom is running out of sons of Abdulaziz so the system could not continue much longer. King Salman is eighty-one years old. A few sons of Abdulaziz remain alive, but they would be too old once King Salman passes away, and some will not even live to see that day. The succession had to pass to a new generation. There are many grandsons of Abdulaziz so the logical revision would have paralleled the existing system, the “constitutional” process, by some kind of similar consensus among the grandsons with the blessings of, as before, the Allegiance Council of senior Al Saud family princes and various religious and tribal leaders.

The abrupt replacement of Mohammed bin Nayef accelerated the biological clock. His replacement by MbS on the sole authority of the king was the first blow of the coup. True, the Saudi kings have had absolute authority, but that authority has never before been used to “subvert” the existing “constitutional” process. Moreover, MbS (who had been minister of defense) proceeded immediately to enlarge his role dramatically. First, with the apparent blessing of King Salman, he produced Vision 2030, a plan to privatize and diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy from oil rentals to a technology-based, globally integrated, twenty-first century system, including more freedom for women. Second, he inserted Saudi Arabia directly into the civil war in Yemen and against the Iranian-backed Shi’a Houthis on behalf of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a one-time adversary who became an ally. All this even after a failed missile launch against Riyadh’s civilian airport and denying access to Yemen by land, sea and air. Third, with the UAE, he moved against Qatar, isolating it within the Gulf Cooperation Council (heretofore also working by consensus but under Saudi leadership) and then imposing a land, sea and air blockade because Qatar housed leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and allowed its financial institutions to fund jihadists in various countries. Also, he subsidized Al Jazeera because it supported the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who opposed the Gulf monarchies. Fourth, he was apparently behind the (temporary) resignation (delivered in Riyadh, not Beirut) of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, which threatens to upend Lebanon’s delicate confessionally based balance of power and authority. Fifth, he replaced Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah as the head of the Royal Guard responsible for protecting the House of Saud. That should have been the first warning. In an authoritarian regime the praetorian guard is critical to the security of the central personages, and the replacement of its head by someone of undisputed direct personal loyalty suggests their uncertainty, especially regarding the major changes that person intends to inaugurate. And finally, he caused the arrest and confinement of nearly a dozen princes and dozens of others (perhaps close to two hundred) in the elite—ministers, military officers, civilian officials, major businessmen and political dissidents—on charges of corruption. Irrespective of the veracity of the charges, this purge looks suspiciously like a traditional coup in which important figures in the ancien régime are arrested, charged and imprisoned to eliminate them. Indeed, King Salman gave a new committee, headed by MbS, the power to issue arrest warrants, disclose and freeze accounts, seize assets or prevent their transfer, and ban travel of those it accuses or suspects of corruption.