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The purge in Saudi Arabia, explained

“It is the most volatile period in Saudi history in over a half-century.”

Donald Trump Has Lunch With Saudi Deputy Crown Prince And Defense Minister
Mohammed bin Salman.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Mohammed bin Salman, the ambitious 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is rounding up the opposition — specifically, the opposition inside his own royal family.

Over the weekend, Saudi police arrested an astonishing 11 princes, along with dozens of other officials and businessmen, at the direction of bin Salman and his father, King Salman. Nominally, the arrests are part of an anti-corruption drive spearheaded by the prince, widely known as MBS, but many experts say what’s really happening is the crown prince and heir to the throne jailing potential rivals to cement his own power.

“Corruption charges can be generated on just about anyone in government or business,” says Colin Kahl, a professor at Georgetown University who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Obama administration. “This looks like the final step to consolidate MBS's authority by removing possible challengers.”

The roundup is part of a series of steps that MBS has taken since becoming crown prince in June to secure his own position as, essentially, the architect of Saudi policy for the remainder of his father’s reign.

The goal appears to be a fundamental transformation of the Saudi political system, previously based on consensus within the royal family and compromise with the religious establishment, into a more centralized system in which power is more heavily concentrated in the hands of the monarch.

Whether bin Salman’s consolidation is good or bad depends on where you look. When it comes to domestic policy, MBS’s ascendance largely been a force for reform: He has shown tremendous willingness to battle the religious establishment, including championing the ultimately successful push to grant women the right to drive, and seems committed to modernizing the oil-dependent Saudi economy. But on foreign policy, he has been incredibly destructive — masterminding Saudi Arabia’s escalation in Yemen, a war that has claimed more than 13,500 lives, and badly bungling a diplomatic crisis with Qatar.

The weekend’s crackdown is thus not merely a minor family dispute: It is the most significant shot yet in a war over Saudi Arabia’s policy and political future, one that is very far from over.

“The unusual arrest of prominent figures close to the Saudi royal family this weekend is a big deal. It is part of unprecedented and hasty measures that could have tremendous repercussions on Saudi Arabia and the region," Abdeslam Maghraoui, a professor of political science at Duke University, writes via email. “Keeping in mind that Bin Salman is still crown prince, the succession after his father’s death or retirement will not be smooth.”

MBS is consolidating an unprecedented amount of power

U.S. Defense Secretary Visits Saudi Arabia Jonathan Ernst/Pool/Getty Images

To understand the true implications of these sudden arrests, you need to understand a little bit about the recent history of Saudi royal politics.

King Salman took power in January 2015 after the death of the prior king, Abdullah. Salman was already old for a world leader, 79, and was not expected to have a reign defined by tight personal direction of policy. There are widespread rumors that he is suffering from some form of dementia.

That meant his coronation kicked off a quiet struggle for influence over the direction of the Saudi state between the many competing branches of the sprawling royal family. Bin Salman, just 29 at the time of his father’s ascension, quickly emerged as the big winner: Shortly after Salman’s coronation, the king appointed his son defense minister.

MBS wasted little time in exercising his new influence. He was, by all accounts, the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to intervene in neighboring Yemen’s civil war in April 2015 — supporting the internationally recognized government against the Houthi rebel group, viewed in Riyadh as a proxy for Iran.

The intervention has largely been a disaster, with thousands dead and no end to the conflict in sight, but that didn’t stop bin Salman from continuing to expand his influence under his father’s regime. MBS became the leading influence on the kingdom’s domestic policy as well as its foreign relations, serving essentially as the head of government while his father performed the formal head of state duties.

MBS quickly moved to consolidate power, both in the institution of the monarchy and himself. In April 2016, for example, MBS stripped the religious police of their right to arrest individuals — a clear attack on the power of Saudi Arabia’s powerful Islamist religious establishment. In June 2017, he convinced his father to dismiss then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and appoint him as his father’s new successor.

This weekend’s events are, in one sense, merely an extension of an MBS power grab that’s been ongoing since 2015. But they’re much more than that: an unusually public attack on his rivals within the House of Saud.

“The royal family has always been secretive about managing its internal affairs,” Maghraoui explains. “The arrests have now appended that quiet, implicit arrangement, opening the way for public conflict and power jockeying among royals and between tribes, families, and religious conservatives.”

Hence why MBS rolled up so many influential people: Potential threats are being snuffed out. Among the arrested, for example, is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — owner of the $10 billion investment fund Kingdom Holdings and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals. His wealth gave him tremendous power, which MBS clearly saw as a potential threat.

And it wasn’t just arrests. The head of Saudi Arabia’s national guard — less like the US national guard and more like a parallel army designed to protect the royals from a military coup — was fired on Saturday, as was the commander of the navy. Both were replaced with officials who are less likely to be threats to MBS’s power, concentrating even more authority in the crown prince’s hands.

It’s a truly astonishing level of power consolidation for a monarchy where, traditionally, decision-making authority was shared among the various different members of the family.

“In effect, [MBS] and his father are the most powerful kings Saudi Arabia has ever seen,” Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel told Foreign Policy’s David Kenner after the arrests.

MBS’s agenda is good for Saudi women and the economy — but dangerous for the region

A Yemeni father and son.
Abdo Haider/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not clear whether, on net, MBS’s growing power is a good thing for Saudi Arabia and the world.

The most common description of bin Salman in the international press is “reformer.” He’s typically described as a young man looking to bring Saudi Arabia into a new age, and his public rhetoric focuses almost obsessively on the need to move Saudi Arabia away from its dependence on the oil industry and moderate the religious establishment’s brand of Islam.

"We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe," the prince said at an October conference. "Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas.”

By all accounts, he’s fairly serious about these causes. In February, the Saudi government launched an ambitious $50 billion investment plan in renewable energy. In September, the country lifted its longtime ban on women driving. Both moves looked like MBS’s reformist agenda in action.

But while bin Salman may be forward-thinking when it comes to domestic policy, his approach to the Middle East has been exceptionally aggressive. He sees Iran and its growing influence across the region as a near existential threat, and has tried to use basically every tool at his disposal to expand Saudi Arabia’s influence at Iran’s expense.

His aggressive approach is popular with the White House, where President Trump has been openly shifting US policy and rhetoric to align more closely with Saudi Arabia and more strongly against Iran. Ties are also warming on the personal level: In late October, MBS met with senior Trump aide Jared Kushner in one of many meetings between the two men.

Yet the human costs of bin Salman’s approach are tremendous, with the war in Yemen being the prime example. Impoverished before the war, Yemen has suffered greatly due to a Saudi blockade and airstrikes that have destroyed hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure. Roughly 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs, out of a prewar population of 28 million. Yemen is now the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, eclipsing even Syria.

But MBS has done other destabilizing things too. Earlier this year, he led a coalition of Gulf monarchies in cutting off economic and diplomatic relations with Qatar — an attempt to force Doha, which had been trying to chart a course independent of Riyadh’s influence, in line with his vision for the region. Thousands of Saudis living in Qatar (and vice versa) had their lives thrown into chaos, and Qatar has yet to come to heel.

Just this weekend, Saad Hariri, the Saudi-backed prime minister of Lebanon, resigned, allegedly at Saudi Arabia’s direction. The idea appears to be to create a challenge for Iran — its proxy militia Hezbollah is part of the governing coalition, and will have to manage the fallout. That Hariri’s resignation happened around the same time as the arrests in Saudi, experts say, is not a coincidence.

“Consolidation ... does solidify the more hawkish camp on foreign policy that is willing to take risks to confront Iran — not just in Yemen but perhaps in Lebanon and elsewhere,” Kahl says. “Saudi may be encouraging a conflict in Lebanon that will bleed the Iranians and their proxies as the Saudis have been bled in Yemen.”

All of this assumes that MBS’s hold on power remains as strong as it is now. It’s possible his sweeping policy changes and unprecedented public arrests will lead to a backlash from other members of the royal family, or even a kind of soft coup against MBS.

“The coming to power of a new generation of princes, including crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, is creating uncertainty and stress within the power structure,” writes Maghraoui. “Without new and open institutions, such anxiety could result in unwise decisions and usher in an era of political instability if not violent infighting.”

The point, then, is that bin Salman is taking a massive gamble. His ambitious policy agenda would already be controversial; trying to implement it at the same time as imprisoning members of the royal family seems guaranteed to provoke some kind of backlash. The only certainty is that the near-term future of Saudi Arabia — and MBS himself — is one of turmoil and uncertainty.

“The kingdom is at a crossroads: Its economy has flatlined with low oil prices; the war in Yemen is a quagmire; the blockade of Qatar is a failure; Iranian influence is rampant in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and the succession is a question mark,” Bruce Riedel, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Brookings Institution, writes in Al Monitor. “It is the most volatile period in Saudi history in over a half-century.”