Is Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman getting ready to lead a revolution from above?
Change usually comes slowly, if at all, in Saudi Arabia. But its ruling elite have been wracked by a sudden, stunning shakeup in recent days.
Two weeks ago, King Salman announced the formation of an anti-corruption commission. By Monday, 11 Saudi princes, several business tycoons and at least 38 former or current government officials were reportedly under house arrest.
The driving force behind the surprise purge is King Salman’s favorite son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. An ambitious young man in a hurry, Crown Prince Mohammed has spearheaded rapid changes in the political, economic and social spheres.
The 32-year-old–often referred to by his initials, MBS–has elbowed aside rival princes, reshuffled the royal pecking order, and moved ruthlessly to consolidate his own power. Now he heads the anticorruption commission, a new role that gives him tremendous leverage to further shake up the Saudi political and business elite, while reshaping Saudi Arabia’s future.
The anti-corruption purge followed several previous moves to sideline rival princes and smooth MBS’s path to become the first grandson of Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi Kingdom, to ascend the throne. Since Ibn Saud’s death in 1953, the crown has passed from one to another of his sons, but that generation is long past its prime.
The increasingly assertive MBS has leapfrogged over older princes, raising the hackles of other clan factions who resent his drive to concentrate power in his own hands. His detractors see him as a brash and inexperienced newcomer, while his supporters see him as bold and decisive.
Now he has raised the stakes by using the commission to discredit many prominent Saudis, including some of his cousins and other relatives.
Corruption long has been a problem in Saudi Arabia. The boundaries between the coffers of state enterprises and the royal family’s private pocketbooks have often been murky. Rooting out corruption would be a good thing, but it is not clear that it is the sole or even the primary motivation behind the crackdown.
One of the chief targets of the purge was Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, the Minister of the National Guard. He was one of the potential royal counterweights who could have constrained MBS’s campaign to centralize power.
Although Prince Mitab, the favorite son of the late King Abdullah who died in 2015, had already been outmaneuvered by MBS in the competition to become King, he remained a potential brake on the ambitions of the Crown Prince.
Prince Mitab retained an independent base of support as leader of the powerful National Guard, a force of more than 100,000 troops drawn from loyal tribes that protected the royal family from internal and external enemies.
The National Guard also played a role as a praetorian guard that could block military coup attempts, a threat that had overthrown other Arab royal families in Egypt, Iraq and Libya. According to an old joke, every time the Saudis bought a tank for the army, they bought a tank destroyer for the National Guard, as insurance to maintain themselves in power.
MBS, who already controlled the army as the Minster of Defense, previously had gained control over the Saudi Interior Ministry, another important security organ. His predecessor in that post, the well-respected Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was sacked by the King in June.
To his credit, MBS also has gained a reputation as a reformer. He has promoted Vision 2030, an ambitious program to diversify the Saudi economy, reduce its dependence on oil export revenues, create a vibrant private sector, open up the economy to foreign investment and sell off part of the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco.
MBS also has called for a return to a more moderate and tolerant form of Islam, which he contends existed in the kingdom before the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamic extremists. The violent clash with the extremists led the royal family to shore up ties with leaders of the Wahhabi religious establishment, a fundamentalist Islamic sect, as insurance against another outbreak of destabilizing zealotry.
MBS has pushed back against the austere tenets of Wahhabi Islam by lifting restrictions on movies and concerts, supporting greater participation of women in the work force and removing restrictions that bar women from driving, starting next year.
These reform efforts have appealed to young Saudis, particularly the 70 percent of the population that is under the age of 30. They also are likely to support the anti-corruption campaign.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be positioning himself to lead a revolution from above. If he succeeds, it will be a welcome alternative to the disastrous revolutions from below that destabilized many countries in the region during the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
But in pushing for rapid political, economic and social change, MBS risks provoking a backlash from Wahhabi religious leaders, as well as from disgruntled branches of the royal family who have been squeezed out of power or sidelined.
It remains to be seen how enduring his reforms and anti-corruption campaign will be. But the Crown Prince deserves credit for seeing that Saudi Arabia’s status quo was unsustainable.
Now he faces the challenge of proving that his bold leadership can advance the interests of the royal family and Saudi people, not just his own faction within the royal family.