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All ‘hail’ the real king

The Saudi Monarch’s 4 November purge threatens the kingdom’s longstanding policy on dynastic rule, and paves the way for Salman’s abdication of power to his son Mohammed.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo by Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM. All rights reserved. Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS), with the acquiescence of Salman, is now in control of the kingdom’s three centres of military power, its media narrative and much of the funds of the country’s business elite, and is thus able to wield immense influence.

The simultaneous, but not coincidental, forced resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, formed part of this, and together with the purge, threatens to cause regional ructions. Already we have observed an escalation of Saudi rhetoric towards Iran, and the blocking of Yemen’s ports. This is especially the case in Lebanon, where this is likely to lead to the collapse of the current government, which took more than two years to form.

Implemented under the auspices of the newly formed anti-corruption committee, headed by MBS, the purge saw eleven princes initially detained (including Abdullah’s two sons Mut’ib and Turki) together with dozens of businessmen including the influential prince and media mogul Walid bin Talal as well as Walid Al-Ibrahim. King Fahd’s son Abdulaziz, was also reportedly killed trying to evade arrest although it is more likely that he has been banished from the country. Mansour, the son of former Crown Prince Muqrin perished in a helicopter crash close to the Yemeni boarder, reportedly on route to visit local projects in Acir, but whose death is attributed to his attempts to escape capture. In addition, Mohammed bin Nayef, who had previously been placed under house arrest, saw his assets frozen, as well as the assets of thousands of other citizens.

MBS consolidates control

The arrests are part of an MBS pattern of consolidating control over the levers of the country’s power, particularly the political, security, economic and media sectors. He already has political power located in his office after being appointed as secretary of the royal court, ostensibly making him a Prime Minister. In June, he fired then-crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was also interior minister, and a month later the interior ministry was stripped of many powers, which were given to a new homeland security agency headed by the king, thus giving MBS control of the country’s internal security and large amounts of security personnel and military materiel.

it is well known that MBS wields the power behind the thrown

As defence minister, MBS also controls the country’s defence forces. With the arrest of Mut'ib bin Abdullah, MBS now also controls the third important security-military department, the National Guard. The Guard is an important arm of the Shammar branch of the royal family, and is a conglomeration of the tribal forces in the kingdom; the Shammar effectively control the various tribes through their control of the National Guard.

By removing Mut'ib, MBS not only completes his control of the security and military forces, he also is attempting to take control of the kingdom’s tribal confederations. In addition, it is significant that the National Guard was influential in coercing King Saud (1953-1964) to unwillingly hand over power to his brother Faisal in 1964, following a power struggle between the two brothers over the division of political power. By surrounding Saud’s palace in early 1964, the guard ostensibly rendered it impossible for Saud to remain at the helm. This is especially since the Ulamah had already issued a decree/Fatwa in support of Faisal. By removing Mut'ib, MBS not only completes his control of the security and military forces, but also is an indicator that he is attempting to take control of the kingdom’s tribal confederations.

In addition, in recent months he has imprisoned dozens of scholars and academics, who would have been an avenue of opposition to his ascension; while the arrests of the heads of MBC, Rotana Media, and ART ensures the kingdom’s influence over the already tightly controlled media narrative; the kingdom will now ‘speak with one voice’ on succession and foreign policy. The abdication can now be carefully choreographed. It is noteworthy that Salman has in recent months acted more as a rubber stamp for MBS’s aspirations; although all the most recent declarations have been made in the name of the eighty-one-year-old monarch, it is well known that MBS wields the power behind the thrown.

Further, the recent rounds of arrests are also informed by MBS’s need to obtain more funds to drive his ambitious vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to move the country away from its dependence on oil revenue. Currently the budget deficit stands at ten percent of GDP, unemployment had increased to twelve percent, and discontent had forced him to steer away from his intention to reduce state subsidies to free up state funds for vision 2030. This is aside from his intentions to create a five hundred billion dollar megacity (the Neom project), and a possible listing for the Saudi oil company Aramco.

Moreover, the Yemeni war, which has been ongoing for the past two years with no end in sight is draining the kingdom’s coffers by between a hundred and five hundred million dollars daily. Bin Talal had reportedly refused to invest in the Neom project, while through the seizures MBS has likely gained over thirty billion dollars, around half the 2017-18 budget deficit. A more extensive freezing of accounts, such as what the increase in arrests and seizures since Saturday are pointing to, would allow MBS to leverage over eight hundred billion more.

MBS’s power grab is likely to cause much ructions within the house of Saud

Saad Hariri’s forced resignation, under the guise of an assassination plot was also in this milieu. Hariri’s business interests are largely based in Saudi Arabia and since the economic downturn that hit the Saudi construction industry, His Saudi Oger construction company has been unable to pay its debts to the kingdom, totalling over three billion. Moreover, his stake in Saudi Oger, will reportedly net MBS around a billion dollars, while the ‘disappeared’ Abdelaziz bin Fahd is reportedly the Saudi Royal point person in charge with Saudi Oger, making him Hariri’s partner. It is likely that the move was sanctioned by the Trump administration; Jered Kushner had visited the Kingdom in October and has likely provided advanced notice of the move, under the guise of discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump has subsequently tweeted his endorsement of MBS’s actions, playing into the Kingdom’s narrative by criticising the opulence and corruption of the detainees.

Consequences

Although successful thus far, MBS’s power grab is likely to cause much ructions within the house of Saud, which previously divided government portfolios amongst the different factions to inhibit fractious succession fights and ensure continuity, especially following Saud’s 1964 exit. Saturday’s moves have upended this policy, placing immense powers at MBS’s disposal. It is likely that factions allied to Bin Nayef, Bin Abdullah, and Muqrin will regroup, especially if Salman abdicates power in the coming weeks. A rebellion amongst the National Guard would be an indicator in this respect. This is as the Guard is a tribally comprised militia, which is fiercely loyal to Prince Mut’ib. Already it has been reported that Mut’ib was planning such a rebellion, while Mansour allegedly sent letters to over a thousand royals, requesting that they refuse to support MBS’s succession. It is likely that the disillusionment will have grown further as a result of the recent occurrences, especially since Mansour was killed, Abdulaziz likely banished, and many others allegedly tortured. If such a rebellion is organised, it will likely lead to the collapse of the royal family, especially since unlike during the 1960s, the household has multiple factions with differing interests, most of whom have been alienated by MBS.

Further, it is doubtable whether the majority of Saudi citizens would accept MBS’s modernisation process, even though Saudi Arabia has a bulging youth population. Already he has alienated and cracked down on many dissident scholars such as Salman Al-Awda, who have called for this modernisation, and who do enjoy much popular support. Moreover, many youth are sympathetic toward the positions adopted by the Islamic State group (IS), especially as reports of the monarch’s opulence emerge. While not necessarily fully sanctioned by many in the Saudi religious establishment, it is possible to see a convergence between religious dissidents and the factions within this demographic.

the recent asset freezes are an attempt by MBS to nationalise some of the country’s wealth

In addition, the arrests of Young Reformers such as Abdullah al-Malki and Mustafa al-Hassan, together with the arrests of Al-Awda in September, point to MBS’s contradictory and two faced reform initiative. Despite relaxing conditions on Saudi women’s authorisation to drive, and advocating a more ‘moderate’ form of regime sanctioned Islam, MBS has recently instituted two committees (the union on electronic and software security, and the national authority for cyber security), both formed in October in an attempt to monitor and control social media. Through this, the regime is moving away from using religious institutions to control public discourse, especially since many scholars that are more conservative have become disillusioned with MBS, towards using a more direct approach of monitoring and controlling dissent. Significantly in this regard, Saud al-Qahtani, the head of the union on electronic and software security, in September suggested that Saudi twitter users work to report and blacklist citizens avowing a different view on the Qatar blockade to that of the monarch.

Further, while advocating privatisation, the recent asset freezes are an attempt by MBS to nationalise some of the country’s wealth. This may unintentionally cause investors to exercise caution when investing in his 2030 vision for fear of their funds meeting the same fate. Already the Saudi stock exchange has fallen; shares owned by bin Talal have dropped, and investing houses have called for more transparency.

The region thunders

The increasingly gung-ho attitude from the Saudi palace will also have serious regional consequences. MBS and his deputies have hardened the kingdom’s stance towards Iran, used war-like rhetoric in reference to Iran and Lebanon, further threatened the Houthis in Yemen, and instituted a full blockade on Yemeni ports. While a war with Iran is unlikely, Riyadh’s moves threaten to destabilise Lebanon’s complex, sectarian consociational political system in a manner that could have disastrous consequences. Even though it may not lead to an all-out war, added measures, such as those Saudi Arabia has recently announced regarding Saudi citizens travelling to Lebanon, will severely impact the Lebanese economy, which is dependent on Saudi and Gulf largess for its survival. Lebanon’s economy is heavily reliant on GCC tourism, investments, and five billion dollars in remittances sent by Lebanese nationals working in the Gulf; the country relies on Gulf support to maintain its banking sector and currency.

Thirty-two-year old Muhammad bin Salman, has thus cast his country and the Middle East region into a period of great uncertainty.

While there is concern in the Middle East about where this will lead to, MBS and his authoritarianism have won unqualified support from the USA and Israel. Both the US president, Donald Trump, and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner enjoy a close relationship and mutual admiration with the crown prince. Kushner returned to the USA from a personal visit to Saudi Arabia just a week before the recent arrests, sparking speculation that MBS briefed him about his plans for the arrests and for Lebanon. Moreover, it is reported that MBS contributed around a billion to Trump’s businesses on his May visit to Saudi Arabia, while the world bank’s female entrepreneurship fund, an initiative championed by his daughter Ivanka, received a hundred million dollars from bin Salman.

Israel, which MBS allegedly visited in September, has also been jubilant about the new crown prince and his keenness to normalise relations with the Zionist state. Whether this was coordinated with Saudi Arabia or not, events in the kingdom are proving useful to Israel in its battle with Iran, and, ultimately with the Palestinians. It is however noteworthy that for the time being a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which many are predicting will be an outcome of the MBS actions and Tel Aviv’s subsequent intensification of criticisms toward the party, is unlikely in the immediate term. Hezbollah will concentrate on stabilising Lebanese politics, while Israel will not want to risk a conflict which would increase the group’s support base. However, this destabilization will allow Israel to continue its violations of Lebanese airspace without consequence

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, thirty-two-year old Muhammad bin Salman, has thus cast his country and the Middle East region into a period of great uncertainty. From the time he was appointed deputy crown prince by his father in April 2015, he began to present himself as the face of the kingdom’s future, and many of his actions – domestically, regionally and globally – have been crafted to concentrate power in himself, show Saudis and the world that he is tough, willing to deal decisively with his enemies, fully in league with the United States, and to prepare for his coronation. This year, the blockade against Qatar, increased sabre-rattling on Iran, normalising relations with Israel, developing intimate relations with the US Trump administration, and the recent events have all had a singular motive: strengthening MBS’s hand in preparation for his being handed the throne by his father. Being a young leader, with decades of rule left, it is likely that MBS will influence the region for years to come.  

About the authors

Ebrahim Shabbir Deen is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute based in Johannesburg South Africa. His interests include political Islam, Middle Eastern politics, development issues, and climate change. He is a frequent media commentator on political events in the Middle East-North Africa region. He is author of the book ‘Hezbollah vs. the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: A social democratic perspective’ 2012. He holds a Masters in International Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand and is an abbot Wigan Athletics supporter.

Matshidiso Motsoeneng is currently a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She previously worked as a researcher at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, working on Local Economic Development and the advancement of socio-economic rights. Her interests includes political thought, Middle-Eastern politics, African politics and peace-building processes, development issues, water security and gender. Matshidiso holds a BA in Politics and International Relations (Honours) from the University of Johannesburg and is currently completing her Masters at the same university, focusing on the representation of women fighters in war.


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