In November of last year, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, purged his country of its wealthiest royals and moguls and locked them up in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton. About three weeks ago, those that transferred their assets to him were released, but those that did not were transferred from their luxurious jailhouse to a maximum-security prison.
Bin Salman’s motive is clear: he is attempting to consolidate power and secure his position as the next king of Saudi Arabia, and in order to do so, he must eliminate his opposition. Yet, after launching a series of modern domestic reforms and disastrous foreign offensives, he has put himself, and his country, in the middle of a delicate situation that could erupt at any moment.
Why does bin Salman need to compete for the throne?
The structure of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy works horizontally rather than vertically, meaning that the kingdom is usually passed from brother to brother, not father to son. The current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, designated his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the crown prince and put him in line for the throne, which will be the first time since 1953 that the throne has been passed down from one generation to the next.
Once Salman bin Abdulaziz became the king, he began to transfer power to his son. After being designated as the heir apparent and, later, the crown prince, bin Salman was tasked with managing the country’s defense policy and rehabilitating its oil-dependent economy.
Bin Salman has inherited a goliath of a task: reforming Saudi Arabia’s economy. His ambitious set of reforms, referred to as the “Vision 2030,” includes cutting down on government subsidies and increasing the role of the private sector as the country’s primary employers. However, many of his policies have been erratic and contradictory. He must be careful, as a poor economic situation could disrupt the support he is garnering from his progressive social policies.
Domestic reforms and a modernist trend
For the past few decades, Saudi Arabia’s social norms have been dictated by a strict Islamic conservatism. Since his rise to power, bin Salman has sought to replace the former rules in an effort to modernize Saudi society. By imprisoning many of his conservative Muslim opponents, he has been able to set into motion a series of progressive reforms essentially unhindered.
His vision includes the flashy—giving women the right to drive, reopening movie theaters, and allowing weekend concerts—as well as the institutional—cracking down on corruption and lessening the role of religious police.
Gaining support from the progressive, youthful part of his population is important for bin Salman, as they make up the majority of Saudi Arabia and will be his support base once he ascends the throne. Thus far, his domestic initiatives have been mostly well-received. His foreign policy, on the other hand, has not.
The perils of bin Salman’s foreign policy
Bin Salman has earned himself a negative reputation from the international community for a series of disastrous foreign offensives. As the man responsible for Saudi Arabia’s defense initiatives, bin Salman is faulted with the war in Yemen, a war that has cost roughly 13,500 people their lives and been declared the worst humanitarian crisis in the last fifty years. The war began as an effort to take power away from Houthi rebels, and was backed by the United States and Great Britain. Now, innocent civilians are suffering from malnutrition and serious injuries from coalition airstrikes. Yet Saudi Arabia has not looked into these war crime allegations.
Less horrific, but still damaging nonetheless, was an unusual interaction with the prime minister of Lebanon. In November, Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to meet bin Salman, but instead of a casual meeting as he had expected, Hariri was emptied of all communicative devices and handed a pre-written speech declaring his resignation and denouncing Iran (a long-time enemy of Saudi Arabia). After rescinding his resignation, he is back in his office now, but the move was incredibly undiplomatic.
In addition, bin Salman has played a large role in a coalition that has attempted to wreck the economy of Qatar, a country whose interests have not aligned neatly with Saudi Arabia’s. The tipping point—though it was denounced by the Qatari government as false reporting—was an article published by Al-Jazeera (the Middle East’s primary media outlet) stating that the Qatari emir had praised Iran and Israel. In an extremely hostile move, bin Salman closed the Saudi-Qatar border (cutting off Qatar’s only access to land) shut down Al-Jazeera, and attempted to give an ultimatum demanding that Qatar renounce its sovereignty. This move was detrimental in two primary ways. First, it alienated Saudi Arabia’s allies by asking for their compliance in actions that are largely detrimental to their interests, and second, it forced Qatar into closer relations with Iran.
Domestic and diplomatic risks
These highly authoritative moves have put bin Salman in a tight situation. In the process of increasing his control, he has angered a lot of powerful people, especially the ones whom he sent to prison. Assassination is not unlikely in Saudi Arabia, and bin Salman is undoubtedly overestimating his popularity.
While he has claimed that imprisoning his country’s wealthy and powerful was merely an attempt at weeding out corruption, it is clear that he is attempting to consolidate his power and wealth. A series of initiatives that have surfaced since the Ritz imprisonment only support this conclusion, such as bin Salman’s using government stipends for personal gain.
Bin Salman’s foreign offensives have made matters worse—the devastating war in Yemen is one of many actions that could get him in trouble with global leaders. The probability of receiving sanctions from the United Nations or its member nations is high, especially if the war crimes go unpunished, and diplomatic relations with current allies could be strained.
Bin Salman is endeavoring to balance the image of a reformer with the power of an authoritarian ruler. He is trying to appear progressive and modern while his large-scale initiatives have been inhumane and backwards. But this attempt to play both sides (maintaining positive public image on the one hand and power-hungry policies on the other) will not last. Either the international community is going to react or the Saudi people will see through this façade—whichever comes first depends on the willingness of an affected group to speak out.
Noa Levin is a Staff Writer for the the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.
Noa Levin is a first-year undergraduate studying Political Science. Aside from writing for The Gate, Noa is doing research with Professor Paul Staniland and is a member of The Maroon Project on Security and Threats (MPOST). She comes from New York (and therefore has high standards for pizza) and enjoys watching Seinfeld in her free time.