Lauerman: King Salman Has Painted Saudi Arabia Into A Corner— Part 1

This is part 1 in a two-part series


King Salman has painted his kingdom into a corner by concentrating power in his matrilineal line of the royal family, and his young and inexperienced son Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in particular, since ascending the throne in January 2015. By making MBS crown prince in June 2017, after pushing aside two previous princes from other lines of the family, and making his son de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, the king has inadvertently made the House of Saud brittle.

In the past, the Saudi royal family had the ability to remove a poorly performing ruler, as was the case when Faisal replaced Saud in 1964. But this is unlikely the case with MBS, as he has gained direct control over the three main levers of state power — military, national guard and internal security services —– previously distributed across the matrilineal lines of the family. At the same time, MBS has orchestrated a campaign of repression against fellow royal family members and commoners alike since the Night of the Long Knives at the Riyadh Ritz Carleton in November 2017, to quell domestic and sometimes foreign dissent to his misrule.

Since becoming crown prince, MBS has been playing from the post-Mao Chinese playbook. Economic prosperity and secular nationalism have become the basis of regime legitimacy, rather than the blessings of the hardline Wahhabi clerical establishment, with his modest social reforms playing well to women and younger Saudis — 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.

This shift has been supported by a major increase in state-sponsored repression, using increasingly sophisticated methods and surveillance technologies to identify those to repress. The crown prince deserves a gold star on this front, but is failing when it comes to providing a higher standard of living for his subjects and fanning the kingdom’s newborn secular nationalism.

MBS appears to be raising the white flag in his Cold War with Iran, after a long line of setbacks in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and inability to protect his kingdom’s most important infrastructure from outside attack, is dousing, rather than fanning, the flames of secular nationalism. Saudi Vision 2030, the crown prince’s plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil before global consumption peaks and create jobs for his kingdom’s rapidly rising population, was a shambles before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now likely dead in the water.

Saudi repression

MBS has arbitrarily arrested people from across the spectrum of Saudi society over the past three years, often holding them incommunicado and outside any recognizable legal process, according to New York-based and widely respected Human Rights Watch (HRW). These include royal family members, current and past government and military officials, businessmen, clerics, intellectuals, and human rights and women rights activists.

The mass detention of over 200 of Saudi Arabia’s elite at the Riyadh Ritz Carleton — and the torture of at least some of them according to The New York Times — may have been the most extreme example, with MBS extorting up to two-thirds of their assets in return for their release, but smaller scale detentions have been occurring ever since.

On the eve of Saudi retaliation for Russia refusing to agree to MBS’s demand to increase crude oil production cuts at the OPEC+ meeting on March 6 in Vienna, the crown prince had three senior princes detained, including the final two who likely had any chance of thwarting his ascension to the throne — Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s full brother, and only other surviving one from the powerful Sudairi matrilineal line; and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the previous crown prince and long-time interior minister, removed from both positions in June 2017, after which he was placed under long-term house arrest.

“Despite waves of criticism, the lawless behavior of Saudi authorities during the de facto rule of Mohammed bin Salman continues unabated,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “Now we have to add Prince Faisal [son of the late King Abdullah, arrested in late March and held incommunicado and without charge since] to the hundreds detained in Saudi Arabia without a clear legal basis.”

Of course, MBS’s campaign of repression and intimidation extends well beyond Saudi Arabia’s border, with the assassination and mutilation of dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by a 15-man hit squad in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in early October 2018, the most notable example.

The Guardian has since reported that the mobile phone of Amazon billionaire and owner of the Washington Post Jeff Bezos was “hacked” several months before, after receiving a WhatsApp message from the personal account of MBS. The team performing the digital forensic analysis found with “high confidence” that the Saudis had “gained private information” from the phone, including information about the extra-marital affair that contributed to the end of Bezos’s marriage, as reported by the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer.

Part 2 of this article will explore MBS’s failures on the economic and foreign policy fronts, and how these failures will likely contribute to the fall of the House of Saud during his reign based on two separate theories of regime change.