Steffen Hertog | Associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of Princes, Brokers and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia (Cornell University Press 2011)
Mohammed bin Salman already was in charge of all major economic and foreign policies before the current purge, and most members of the Al Saud family’s Allegiance Council had pledged fealty to him when he replaced Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince in June. On Salman’s exit, he should become king by default—short of an unlikely collective challenge such as a declaration by the Allegiance Council that he is unfit to rule. Mohammed bin Salman has antagonized many princes, but has not met any organized resistance in the family when taking critical steps towards the throne.
No one has full information on what is happening in the family, but it looks like the moment to oppose his rise has passed, especially now that he controls all coercive branches of the state. Under Mohammed bin Salman a different political system is emerging, much faster-moving, more centralized and personalized, creating higher political and economic risks on both the upside and the downside. While the economy and state apparatus at large have not changed much to date, on the level of elite politics Saudi Arabia is now a different country.
Bernard Haykel | Director of the Program in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, where he is also the director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia
The recent arrests in Riyadh of up to 200 persons, including many prominent princes, government bureaucrats, and private sector businessmen should be understood in light of King Salman’s and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to revolutionize Saudi society and the way business is conducted, as well as an attempt to raise revenue. Many analysts of the Saudi political scene have argued that these arrests are exclusively an effort to consolidate power by the crown prince. They are wrong. In fact, he had completed the consolidation of power and secured his accession to the throne with the dismissal in June of his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was then crown prince and interior minister. None of the individuals who have been arrested recently represent a political challenge to Mohammed bin Salman’s power. In fact all had pledged an oath of allegiance to him and have no resources, political or military, with which to challenge him.
So, what are these arrests really about? In short, they are an effort to stanch the old practice of princes, in cahoots with bureaucrats and businessmen, of fleecing the government. They are an end to, or perhaps more accurately a restriction of, the culture of corruption with impunity and immunity of those engaged in it. This was draining annually 10–30 percent of the public treasury, a practice that could not be sustained if Vision 2030, the economic reform plan to diversify the economy away from its near exclusive dependence on oil revenues, is to succeed.
A second aim of these arrests is to obtain for the treasury a large portion of the assets of those apprehended. This will be done either through individual settlements, as some have already done, or through trials in court for corruption and money laundering. If this second aim is accomplished, it is conceivable that $100 billion or more in assets can be recovered. Not surprisingly, all this activity in Riyadh is proving to be very popular with the Saudi middle and lower middle class, who have chafed for decades at the venality of these elites. The success of these efforts will further guarantee that Mohammed bin Salman will be the next king of Saudi Arabia.
James Spencer | Independent defense and security analyst, Middle East and North Africa
Nothing succeeds like success. Mohammed bin Salman has generated lots of headlines but achieved little tangible so far. If much of this house of cards fails to solidify or collapses before he can cement his rule, then Mohammed bin Salman’s chance of becoming king will be greatly reduced.
Domestically, Mohammed bin Salman has championed Vision 2030, which has already caused social friction, and risks causing more. Aramco’s IPO threatens the interests of other princely lines, while his corralling the Wahhabi establishment may alienate it and its clients. Crucially, the crown prince’s “anti-corruption” drive threatens investors—Saudi and foreign—on whom Vision 2030 depends. Mohammed bin Salman’s costly foreign policy escapades against Yemen, Qatar, and Lebanon have not succeeded. To withdraw risks embarrassment, yet there are few alternatives. With few but sycophants around him, Mohammed bin Salman may not hear the counsel he needs, and Saudis may question the influence and intention of his foreign mentor, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
Mohammed bin Salman must hope his father survives long enough to paper over the overt failure of too many of his policies. Several senior princes withheld their fealty when Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince. Few will back a “loser” to be king, and the Al Saud are a fractious clan. Some may actively work to undermine him, aided perhaps by the alienated ulama and merchants, as was the shah of Iran in the 1970s. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Bruce Riedel | Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., where he is also director of the Brookings Intelligence Project
Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads. Low oil prices have flatlined the economy, the war in Yemen is an expensive quagmire, and the blockade of Qatar has destroyed the Gulf Cooperation Council. An unprecedented purge of the royal family and the elite is raising profound questions about the kingdom’s stability. Foreign investors are worried that the country is tilting toward instability.
At the center of the storm is King Salman’s favorite son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The epitome of a man in a hurry, the crown prince is both ambitious and anxious. Ambitious to reshape Saudi Arabia for the 21st century and anxious that he has made too many enemies. For now the king provides protection and legitimacy, but when Salman passes, so does the air cover he provides for the crown prince.
Mohammed bin Salman has a remarkable far-sighted vision. Now that he has secured his position, he would be advised to look more carefully at the advice he gets from Arabs and Americans. The siren call of those promising swift, decisive action in Yemen or Lebanon has proven sterile. Drama is not the same as prudent decisionmaking. The region and beyond have an interest in a stable and dependable Saudi Arabia. The choices are grave.