Recent events in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are confusing to some and of concern to others. The conservative monarchy has been upended by its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known to the media as MbS).
The 32-year-old prince, acting under the auspices of his father, King Salman, has been busy since replacing his uncle in June of 2017 as crown prince, Domestically, he has launched a radical transformation of the kingdom by making sweeping arrests of dissidents, Islamists, and even members of the royal family. He has even given women the right to drive.
His upheaval would not have been possible without upsetting the balance of power arrangements which have maintained stability in the kingdom. KSA was built on balances of power with balances of power the National Guard, lead by the previous crown prince was located in and around Riyadh. Conversely the Army is located on the periphery of the country and oriented outward. The army and the national guard are basically the same size. The air defense forces are separate from the air force. The Mutaween (also called the Islamic Secret Police) offset the secret police. There were also coalitions within the royal family, however their conflicts rarely came to light until the current coup or counter coup by MbS.
In 2015 MbS was appointed by his father as Minister of Defense. On April 22, of this year Prince Fahd Bin Turki was promoted to Lieutenant General (LTG) and appointed commander of the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF). LTG Fahd had once been the commander of the Saudi Special Forces. This is one of MbS’s steps to upset the balance of power. He selected LTG Fahd and I am sure cemented his loyalty. LTG Fahd also comes from a different wing of the royal family thus securing additional loyalty within the family.
Next he had the commander of the National Guard placed under arrest along with the Commander of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces. He assumed control of the ministry of the interior. In another move to upset the balance he had the role of the Mudaween dialed back extensively.
He also assumed control of the economic planning agency. He has pushed the sale of Saudi ARAMCO, the Saudi Oil Company, suggesting that it would bring several trillion dollars if placed on the open market. He is also pushing for decreased dependence on oil as a source of income for the kingdom.
Finally, he arrested numerous princes and other financial leaders on grounds of corruption and froze their assets, thus potentially recouping many billions of dollars if their gains are found to be the results of corruption. It is interesting to note that the royals who are imprisoned in the Ritz Hotel in downtown Riyadh are guarded by Saudi Special Forces on the outer perimeter. On the inside it has been reported that the security is provided by contractors who would be loyal to whoever was paying the bill. (Another example of the balances of power being upset)
On the international front he launched a blockade against its neighbor Qatar, tightened the ongoing siege on Yemen, threatened to torpedo the fragile government in Lebanon, and sought to shore up a coalition against archrival Iran, which leads the Shia sect of Islam. On Sunday, he chaired the first-ever meeting of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Coalition of 41 Muslim countries where the group declared a global war on terrorism.
Some have suggested that : “He is dragging the country — with Western critics kicking and screaming — into the 21st century.”
In many ways MbS may be seeking to fulfill a longstanding Saudi dream of leading the Arab world, and has sought to rebuild strong ties with the Trump administration, with over $7 billion worth of precision munitions having been purchased recently.
Any domestic forces that might have been arrayed against MbS are now weak, with most of his rivals held in luxury prisons, keeping a low profile, or under house arrest. Civil society is fragmented after decades of repression and cooptation. Saudi Arabia has always been politically restrictive, and could yet become even more so under MbS. However because he could be the dominant figure in the lives of Saudi citizens for the next half century, no one wants to cross him.
If MbS becoming the crown prince was the coup, then the counter coup was the upset of the balance of power by either muting or gaining control of the balancers. Finally if there was a group of royals and financial leaders who were plotting a counter coup then the latest efforts might be called a counter counter coup.
The international activities of the next few months as MbS seeks to counter the growing influence of Iran will be important to watch.