Thus far, last weekend’s apparent anti-corruption “purge” of Saudi princes and senior officials by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has been depicted as a power play that consolidated all authority in the young royal’s hands. But that’s not quite correct: In truth, his power grab ended on June 21, the day he was appointed crown prince.
This process only became possible with the deaths of the long-serving ministers of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, as well as King Abdullah himself in 2015. Between them, these four princes controlled their respective ministries for a combined total of 163 years, including Abdullah’s 48-year stint as commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Their passing injected a degree of fluidity into the upper tiers of a system that had stratified into princely fiefdoms over the decades.
When King Salman came to power in January 2015, he signaled that his reign would be the last of the sons of King Abdulaziz, and that his successor would come from the grandsons of the founder. While identifying “third-generation princes” as candidates for the throne had long been something of a parlor game for Western analysts, the transition appears to have unfolded far more smoothly than many predicted. The replacement of Crown Prince Moqrin in April 2015 and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in June 2017 sent rumbles of discontent stirring through parts of the royal family, but did not trigger overt pushback. Counting Sultan and Nayef, both of whom died before King Abdullah, the removal of Moqrin and Mohammed bin Nayef meant that four of the last five crown princes of Saudi Arabia failed to become king. Only Salman ascended to the throne.
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With his father’s support and the passing of the old guard, MbS cemented control over defense, economic, and oil policy, by creating the Committee of Economic and Development Affairs, and restructuring the governance of Aramco, the national oil giant. It is this concentration of authority that has struck many observers of Saudi Arabia, who note that the kingdom long operated through a system of checks and balances that prevented any one figure from exercising truly autocratic power. And yet, that equilibrium developed more by accident than by design, due to the embedded strength of the institutional fiefdoms whose interests had to be balanced before any major decision could be taken. With the old guard out of the picture, there were far fewer constraints on MbS.
To a significant degree, then, the crown prince’s moves over the weekend were merely the latest, most aggressive step in his ambitious project. The moves against some of the highest-profile Saudis in public (and royal family) affairs send a clear signal that MbS intends to write new rules of the game in the kingdom he is set to rule for decades to come.
The Crown Prince is attempting to remake the Saudi Arabia his grandfather created, casting himself as the twenty-first century equivalent to the man whose 51-year reign he may one day emulate. A pair of government reshuffles in April and June 2017 brought many of the “third and fourth” generation of al Saud princes—the grandsons and great-grandsons of King Abdulaziz—into positions of responsibility. They moved the kingdom decisively away from the path to gerontocracy.
Who is left, then? Alongside the 32-year old crown prince, there is a 33-year old minister of interior, and a 28-year old ambassador to the United States—something of an unexpected homage to the 1950s and 1960s, when the sons of King Abdulaziz, then in their 20s and 30s, took control of the expanding, bureaucratizing Saudi state. A key question for Riyadh will be whether the young guard ossifies as their predecessors did. MbS made waves in 2015 when he was appointed minister of defense at 29, but his uncle Sultan was only 32 when he assumed the same role in 1963, and he remained in position for 48 years until his death in 2011.
Yet these are far-off concerns. Within Saudi Arabia, MbS enjoys the wide support of young Saudis, who finally see in him a ruler who looks and sounds like them and understands the changing world. The Crown Prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 project, which is supposed to pull the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil, was popular among those who hoped it would generate jobs commensurate with the qualifications they had gained on government-funded scholarship programs abroad. But restructuring the Saudi economy has proven harder in practice than on paper, due in part to vested economic and political interests that have resisted measures to employ more Saudis in the private sector or reduce energy subsidies. The anti-corruption campaign may thus be a popular move if it leads to improved job prospects for Saudis, regardless of their background or connections.
Herein lies the difficulty for the king-to-be. Moves that resonate in the short term must yield visible results in the medium term. And a (selective) crackdown on corruption that sends a popular message to Saudis may not be so popular among international investors weighing the political risk of doing business in the kingdom. Already, the National Transformation Plan for 2020, intended to be a key nearer-term enabler of Vision 2030, has been revised to make its targets more feasible. While Vision 2030 and the recent Future Investment Initiative projected a bold image of a “new” Saudi Arabia, they offered little detail on the legal and regulatory changes, budgetary processes, and policy initiatives, necessary to get from Point A to Point B. For this reason, the international investors wooed at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh last month will keep a close eye on both the anti-corruption campaign and seizure of assets from targeted individuals.
MbS’s focus on corruption at the highest levels sends a message that he will set the rules for the Saudi Arabia that he intends to govern for the foreseeable future. Whether those ensnared by his campaign receive due process in a judicial system that is neither independent nor necessarily impartial will be an important test for him. As MbS asserts his power, the world will watch to see if his reforms are genuinely transformative or merely superficial. If they prove the latter, they will have left untouched the kingdom’s underlying structures of power and authority. For an ambitious, ruthless young man like MbS, that means he will need to show returns from his high-stakes gambles that, at least in his entanglements in Yemen and with Qatar, have produced little gain so far.