TLDR UpFront: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (MBS) has launched a revolution-from-above as radical as the Arab Spring’s grass roots effort seven years ago. The Prince is dismantling institutional power structures of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attempting to reform its society, government, markets, security forces and even religious establishment. All this while pursuing an aggressive foreign policy that appears to be leading to war with Iran. Unlike the Arab Spring though this is no outgrowth of pluralism. Rather each move consolidates power to the heir-apparent. Perhaps leading to a more modern, less corrupt society – but also one ruled by what appears to be an absolute monarch.
A thinking-man’s Prince.
Full Context in the Back:
The following is a collection of InfoMullet FB posts made as the latest crisis developed, both to inform and provide additional context. They are organized in reverse chronological order and new updates will be added to the top. For those familiar with the day-by-day and seeking deeper context, the most recent entry provides the most information. For those just tuning in – jump down to November 4th to see how it developed day-by-day. Where questions asked on the FB page led to answers that may be helpful, those have been included in abbreviated form. For the most current updates check in on our Facebook Page as there are numerous developments on a daily-basis.
November 11th, 10pm EST 2017
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Two solid pieces of reporting fill in more detail about the fall of former Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri and give insights into what precipitated his forced resignation. According to sources the Saudi Kingdom had expected, Saad – son of the former Lebanese Prime Minister who was assassinated at the start of the Cedar Revolution, to confront Hezbollah more aggressively. But that wasn’t happening. And just days before his forced resignation Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with top Saudi intelligence officials and the Gulf Minister of Affairs in charge of Lebanon, Thamer al-Sabhan:
“What happened in those meetings, I believe, is that (Hariri) revealed his position on how to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon: that confrontation would destabilize the country. I think they didn’t like what they heard,” said one of the sources, who was briefed on the meetings.
The source said Hariri told Sabhan not to “hold us responsible for something that is beyond my control or that of Lebanon.” But Hariri underestimated the Saudi position on Hezbollah, the source said.
“For the Saudis it is an existential battle. It’s black and white. We in Lebanon are used to gray,” the source said.” (28)
After that, the fall was swift. A few days later Hariri, now back in Lebanon from his meeting with Sabhan, was having lunch with a French envoy in Beirut when he received a phone call. He apparently “received a call and his demeanour changed. He excused himself and left for the airport, without his aides.” (31) Like so many software gaming-industry employees summoned by HR, Hariri dutifully went having no idea he was about to be unceremoniously dumped:
“Before departing, he told his officials they would resume their discussions on Monday. He told his media team he would see them at the weekend in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, where he was due to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum.
Hariri went to his Riyadh home. His family made their fortune in Saudi Arabia and have long had properties there. The source close to Hariri said the Lebanese leader received a call from a Saudi protocol official on Saturday morning, who asked him to attend a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He waited for about four hours before being presented with his resignation speech to read on television, the source said.” (28)
To add sibling-rivalry to injury, the Kingdom wanted him replaced by his own brother Bahaa Hariri. The eldest of the two, Bahaa was passed over when he and Saad’s father was killed by Hezbollah. A billionaire real-estate mogul with deep ties to Saudi Arabia, Bahaa is reported to take a harderline against Hezbollah. And he’s already in the Kingdom apparently interviewing for a job. The Washington Post reports that Bahaa’s top advisor was actually meeting with key leaders of the ethnic Druze in Lebanon about future strategy in Lebanon – 10 days prior to the detention and forced resignation of his brother. The Post also reports that other Hariri family members have been asked to “visit” Saudi Arabia to pay their allegiance to Bahaa, but most have refused.(32)
Syria is Iran’s route to the sea.
Understanding why Saudi Arabia may be acting now to confront Hezbollah more directly requires a brief trip in the way-back-machine to the 2nd Presidential Debate of 2012. Although former Governor Romney’s current concerns are closer to home in his own party, he may take some cold-comfort in having a much sharper head for foreign affairs in that debate than anyone gave him credit for. First, President Obama mocked him after Romney named Russia as the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States.(29) Then, in what many called a “gaffe” at the time then candidate Romney said “Syria is Iran’s route to the sea.”(30) The commentariat twitterpated itself over that line with many posting helpful graphics that there is in fact a sea directly south of Iran. But Romeny was correct – Iran doesn’t need to go south (it’s a rocky hilly coast anyways). It needs access to the west, into the Mediterranean, where it can project strategic depth into Europe and dominate the shorelines of Lebanon, Palestine, Jerusalem working with its new allies in Turkey. All while bypassing the the heavily-controlled Suez Canal to provide heavy weaponry to Hezbollah. And one Syrian civil-war-sized delay later, they are close to realizing that strategic goal.
“Iran now all but controls a land corridor that runs from Tehran to Tartous in Syria, on the Mediterranean coast, giving it access to a seaport a long way to its west, and far from the heavily patrolled waters of the Arabian Gulf. The route passes through the centre of Iraq, and Syria, skirting the Lebanese border and what were some of the most active areas of the Syrian civil war, which have been returned to regime control. “They are two months from finishing this,” said a senior regional intelligence official. “This changes things. It gives them an open supply line to move whatever they want. And it gives them strategic depth. It is a big deal.” (31)
And who benefits most from Iran’s new strategic depth and reach?
The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has taken an active interest in the Saudi war in Yemen, which has pitched the kingdom’s US-armed military against Houthis, who are at least partly backed by Iran. Riyadh believes that Hezbollah members have been instrumental in arming and training the Houthis, and claims that a ballistic missile that was shot down over Riyadh airport on the night that Hariri quit, was helped on its way by Hezbollah members.
The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has taken an active interest in the Saudi war in Yemen, which has pitched the kingdom’s US-armed military against Houthis, who are at least partly backed by Iran. Riyadh believes that Hezbollah members have been instrumental in arming and training the Houthis, and claims that a ballistic missile that was shot down over Riyadh airport on the night that Hariri quit, was helped on its way by Hezbollah members.” (31)
Hawks in the Kingdom have viewed Shia Iran for years as a boa-constrictor attempting to encircle the Suuni Arab heartlands in the Gulf (see map in yesterday’s post below). First it wraps around you and then it squeezes. When Hariri refused to confront Hezbollah, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have seen their perhaps last opportunity to thwart Iran through proxies fading away. A Lebanon in turmoil is a Lebanon that occupies Hezbollah closer to home, rather than having them expand abroad.
These pieces now provide a more complete picture as to the rushed nature of the sacking of Hariri, and why Saudi Arabia has taken this urgent interest in stirring Lebanon.
November 10th, 1pm EST 2017
The scale of the continuing crackdown in Saudi Arabia became clearer via a press release by the Attorney General of the Kingdom. Although eleven prominent arrests were made known last Saturday – the full scope is about twenty-times that. Saud al-Mojeb said in a statement:
“that 208 people had been called in for questioning since Saturday evening, and that seven were released without charge, leaving 201 people still in detention…Critics and observers say the purge that has targeted top princes, officials, military officers, and businessmen is a power grab by the crown prince to sideline potential rivals and critics. “(11)
Alongside the arrests and detentions have come freezing of bank accounts and assets, nearly 1700 in all right now. (12)
Al-Jazeera* is reporting that the situation for Saudi royals has gotten so bad, that rivals are seeking advantage. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, largely believed to be backed by Iran, have offered asylum and safe-haven to persecuted royals. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi stated in a press release:
“”To our fellow Al Saud royals, to anyone in the ruling family, to any employee or person who feels targeted by the regime – we’re ready to welcome you with open arms to reside with us as our oppressed brothers,” (13)
It’s worth keeping in mind few would argue there isn’t widespread corruption and ossification in the Kingdom. After decades of stagnation, repression of civil liberties and becoming better known for a radicalized version of Salafist-Islam as its chief export rather than oil – Saudi Arabia was primed for change. Using this local-social-currency Bin Salman has depicted himself as a reformer in the same vein as Peter the Great, willing to drag his country into the 21st Century through sheer force of will and ruthless reaction to dissent.
Consider his approach to the religious establishment of Whabbist clerics, long a bedrock foundation of the First Estate in the Ancien Régime. The alliance between the royal House of Saud and the priests is over 300 years old and set the form for what would become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But that religious establishment has long taken a conservative view of Islam, increasingly radicalized after the crucible of 1979-1981, specifically for Saudi Arabia the seizure of the Grand Mosque by radicals who inspired the likes of Osama bin Laden. This radicalization was tolerated by the former King Abdullah – a grand bargain that ensured the religious establishment kept the “street” in line behind royal authority in exchange for a free hand in how Whabbists would order Saudi society through legal law enforcement powers.
That bargain seems to be dead under the Crown Prince. In a pivotal speech which has given the strongest argument for his reforms MBS said:
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it…We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.” (25)
These are no idle words. The Crown Prince put teeth into his pronouncements when he “stripped the religious police of their arrest powers” and ordered the clerics to preach of tolerance of other religions. Hard-liners were jailed, some preemptively, to send a clear signal to the rest to fall in line. (21) With the religious establishment weakened Prince Mohammed began reshaping society in his image of a modern Saudi Arabia.
Jawahir, Take the Wheel
For example, women have long-been barred from driving vehicles. This doesn’t just impose cost – in real expenses to hire drivers or opportunity costs of being unable to travel freely, but is also complicated further by taboos of women being alone with unrelated males. These taboos were traditionally enforced by religious police. With their power removed however, MBS declared women would be allowed to drive. A cleric named Saad al-Hijri tried to test the Prince with his own version of ‘new-math’, asserting women only started with half-a-brain, and lost half of that when they went to market – so who would let a woman drive with only a quarter of a brain? This kind of nonsensical preaching had not only been common, but tolerated, under the Ancien Regime of King Abdullah. It’s not hard to imagine Saad’s surprise when he was suspended from being able to preach. The banning was accompanied by an unmistakable warning that “Any others who used religious platforms to preach such views would also be banned.” (22)
Although the reversal of the driving ban and allowing women to wear bikinis has received more attention in the west, the true thunderbolt of reform came only a few days later. The ruling religious body, known as the Shura Council voted to approve allowing women to become muftis (certified Islamic scholars) and begin issuing fatwas – or legal interpretations of religious texts and directives. Women had been banned from these positions for 45 years – which would be like banning women from the fields of law, politics and court positions in the US. Allowing women to become muftis not only opens these career fields, adds new voices to religious interpretations, but creates more respect for women in general as these are considered some of the most respected positions. In the US it is roughly similar, and just as controversial, as allowing women to not only serve in combat, but elite previously all-male units. And lest anyone doubt who was ultimately in charge, the Shura Council voted that these women muftis would be appointed by royal decree. (23)
Birds of a Feather
The United States, for now, seems to be giving tacit approval the Crown Prince’s actions. Secretary of State Tillerson talked with the Crown Prince this evening and simply stated through a spokesperson that the United States wishes Saudi Arabia “to pursue the prosecution of top officials and members of the royal family in a “fair and transparent manner.” (15) Trump and King Salman are reported to have a strong relationship while their scions; MBS and Kushner are developing a bromance. There is at least one account by a Saudi insider who alleges that President Trumps and sons-in-law frequent tete-a-tete’s with Saudi royalty were facilitated by a nearly $1 billion-dollar all-cash bribe. (26) The anonymous commentator, who goes by the tweet de plume of Mujtahidd has been active since the Arab Spring in reporting on Saudi corruption and has over 2million followers. (27)
Not pictured – giant bags o’ alleged cash.
Even if it’s standing somewhat to the side as a government, the US is still heavily involved in the Salman Spring in other ways. Consulting firms have swept into a wave of contracts values at over $1.2B in 2016 and only growing this year offered by the Kingdom. (16) These consulting contracts may have been the canary in the coal-mine as over a year ago a McKinsey official noted:
“I wouldn’t underestimate the historical significance of this transition…Because of the demographic pressure and the ticking clock on oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s change is being accelerated. A transition in the economic model that had been expected to take 10 or 20 years is now expected to happen in just 3 to 5 years.” (16)
The McKinsey-squid is so influential, much of the 2030 Vision Plan is reported to be either a lift or close-copy to a McKinsey report issues in 2015. (17) has become so prominent in certain parts of the Saudi government they are essentially writing and helping implement policy. However, the WSJ reports that this is not a one-way transaction, with the firm hiring children of prominent Saudi government officials. (18) Economic development of a less-billable form is also on the menu, with a recent investment conference attracting international businesses and money managers, all based on the Crown Prince’s 2030 Vision. (19)
It may be that the rush to change may be driven by necessities other than political, that MBS is trying to consolidate his power before ascending to the throne of his father. A more worrisome financial motive is that Saudi Arabia may be on the verge of bankruptcy. The country relies on oil for 90% of its exports, a commodity whose price has remained depressed for years. A loss of incoming revenue with an already generous structure of social benefits and royal pilfering may have created an outlook bleak enough to force the Crown to act. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund predicted Saudi Arabia could be bankrupt by 2020. (23)
In this context the purge of royals isn’t just about corruption – but asset seizure. Bin Salman’s arrest of now hundreds of royal family members via corruption charges has allowed the government to seizing assets totaling nearly a trillion dollars.
Whether it’s earnest intent, ambition, or financial reality – Prince Mohammed’s moves have garnered local popularity among the younger generations for targeting corruption. By making his power-grab about “reform”, the Crown Prince has successfully seized the local social currency of a generational divide present in a country. With the majority of Saudi’s now under the age of 30, and Bin Salman himself only 32, the Régime looked more Ancien than ever.
This seems to be working as according to the Atlantic:
“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 2030project, 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.” (14)
But this reform comes with a tradeoff price. The changes are not based on the rule of law, consent of the governed through ratification or any other balance to ensure that the support the Crown Prince enjoys is truly a mandate for this level of change. Rather this is reform-by-fiat and detention, conveniently enough of those who would be contenders to the Crown Prince. And increasingly the levers of power thus relieved from the old-guard are finding their ways into the Crown Prince himself:
“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.” (14)
And all this is on the internal front. Ever since he assumed the position as Minister of Defense and engineered the invasion of Yemen, the now-Crown Prince has embraced a muscular aggressive foreign policy aimed at countering Iranian expansion. With the decline, or at least perceived decline, of the ISIS threat in the Middle East it appears that what was a Cold War may become much warmer between Iran and the Kingdom. Both countries are using regional proxies – just as the US and USSR fought one another through arms-length engagements, trying to out maneuver one another for influence. The graphic below depicts the reach and extent of this maneuvering over the entire Middle East:
A cold war becoming hotter. (20)
Taken as a whole Crown Prince bin Salman has single handled relaunched what began as the Arab Spring. The goals and ideals appear similar on the surface: breaking the deep-states monopoly on power held by the gerontocracy. Modernizing economic, social and religious spheres of life. Except instead of coming from disaffected youths and street-level action, this is emerging from the top. And even as he breaks the deep-state of corruption and royal power – it does not appear that Prince bin Salman is intending to distribute this power more widely or along egalitarian principles. Accompanied by wide ranging detentions of clerics, intellectual dissidents and royals it’s not clear if at some point the jailing’s will stop.
The InfoMullet viewed the failure of the world, especially countries like the United States, to support the Arab Spring and see it survive as a strategic catastrophe of generational proportions equal if not greater than the mess of the invasion of Iraq. What could’ve reshaped the political landscape of the middle east and undercut the allure of trans-national grievance farmers like Al-Queda instead transformed into the slow-motion atrocity of the Syrian Civil War. Into that void entered the insidious voices of Salafi-takfiri radicalism whispering versions of ‘the west has abandoned you to the dictators – and only we can bring change at the barrel of a gun or trigger of a bomb.’ The world is now more dangerous than it was before the Arab Spring, with ISIS vastly exceeding Al-Queda in terms of threat, both now in kind of a “soda” wars, the Coca-Cola and Pepsi of salafi-takfirism.
Saudi Arabia is no Arab Spring. But it is a Salman Spring. And maybe – if we’re lucky and he doesn’t spark a counter-revolution backlash, get drug into a colossal war with Iran or like all visionary despots abandon vision in favor of despotism over time, maybe Crown Prince Salman has given the world a second chance. The InfoMullet remains cynically-optimistic of the prospects.
November 9th, 1pm EST 2017
Saudi Arabia has ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon and is barring travel there. This is a few days after GCC partner Bahrain did the same thing (see first link).
As part of the growing crisis with Lebanon the political party of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned while in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, has demanded his safe return. This is fueling speculation that Hariri is being held against his will in Saudi Arabia. Although most of this speculation is coming from media-sources affiliated with Hariri’s rivals in Hezbollah – today even his own political party is asking for his safe return. Pretty soon it’s going to be Habeas Hariri time for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (8)(9) (10)
November 7th, 2017 6:19am EST
I’m avoiding most social media after the shooting but am still monitoring the Saudi crisis which escalated further over the last 24hours. The Saudi’s are blaming Iran for the Houthi missile that was launched from Yemen at Riyadh Sunday. And they’re saying that’s an act of war. They’re also saying Hezbollah, from within Lebanon, is pursuing aggressive acts which is also a declaration of war. The Crown Prince is beginning to act like Oprah “that’s an act of war and that’s an act of war and an act of war for you in the back!”
Though, to be clear, Saudi Arabia has not formally declared an act of war on either Lebanon or Iran, nor has Lebanon or Iran declared war on Saudi Arabia. (Despite some reporting to the contrary, it’s phrasing.)
It’s not clear what MBS’s end-game is unless he wants to turn the cold war going on for years now between Saudi Arabia and Iran “hot”. They’re already fighting via proxies in Yemen, and a Saudi push into Lebanon could open a new proxy front.
The GCC under Saudi has been modernizing all its kit, and Iran is stretched across the region now with conflicts in Syria and Iraq occupying significant portions of the QODS. So, if MBS wants justification for a war with Iran this would be one way to get it. But it’s not entirely clear if that’s his true end-goal or he’s just using these foreign-policy disputes to paper over his internal challenges as he has frequently used Yemen. (4) (5)
Also, some great additional context on the consolidation of power in Saudi Arabia by the Crown Prince which was punctuated Saturday by arresting nearly a dozen highly-ranked and wealthy royal family members. Many of them also held positions of authority over key internal security and armed forces.
I could be mistaken but it looks like MBS is trying to turn the monarchy of Saudi Arabia absolutist prior to his succession to the throne after his father (who currently holds it.) This would be a very sharp departure from the familial monarchy of the past which was much more consensus driven and with positions of power distributed as checks and balances within the al Saud royal family. (6)
Reader question: “I wonder how much of this is typical Arab rhetorical bluster and how much it is actual actions of troop movements and counter-strikes being prepared.”
“Typical Arab rhetorical bluster…”
I’m not even sure how to respond to this. Is Arab bluster like Caucasian bluster? Redneck bluster? 🙂
If there ever was a point where the governments of the region were known for talk, not walk, that’s pretty much died off post Iraq-invasion and Arab Spring period. Look around the leadership of most Arab states these days and except for Jordan most have either attacked a neighbor, been attacked, had a civil war, got drug into a civil war, or are conventionally fighting with someone else. I’m still amazed at others who call for a “Reformation” in Islam like there was in Christianity. They miss the point that the schism A) Happened 1400 years ago in Islam, about 800 years before the Christian Reformation. And B) the Reformation was brutal for Europe. A 100-150-year period of warfare that drew in nearly every country and turned neighbors against including some of the worst massacres, genocides and famines and famines that wiped out significant percentages of the population. Why anyone would pick a thing like that and say “this, we need more of this” is mind boggling.
Reader question: “What’s your take on the death Prince Mansour bin Muqrin’s by helicopter crash? Are these of interest?”
I find “death-by-helicopter” unlikely. It’s sexy from a Hollywood standpoint but impractical. When you consider what the Kingdom has done, which amounts to extraordinary rendition from foreign countries using elaborate schemes, extra-legal detention and all manner of shenanigans already well documented – then going to the length of a fake-helicopter crash would need a truly compelling reason above and beyond “it makes a good plot.” And why did he need to die relative to the hundreds of others of individuals who are now jailed or under house arrest?
Sometimes a helicopter crash is just a helicopter crash. Actually most times a helicopter crash is just a helicopter crash. Those things are finicky birds at best.
Reader Question: “What’s your assessment of coverage such as Al-Monitor?” (7)
Al-Monitor’s take is pretty good. I turned down a chance to work with SANG and they are an odd bird. Not at all what we think of when we think of “national guard”, more like an “army to protect the King from the tribes”. Although Alwaleel bin Talal is getting more press coverage, largely due to some bedschel-test failing conspiracy theories tying this whole thing to the Clintons, Muteib Bin Abdullah and others are far more important on the list. These are the Princes, and businessmen, who control the levers of power in the Kingdom: security forces, royal courts, current and former mayors of major cities like Riyahd and Jeddeh, current and former leaders of major media companies, – as well as the investing conglomerates. (The head of Saudi BinLaden Group, half-brother to Osama, was even arrested.)
Saudi Arabia before this was a lot like the English monarchy before the Civil War. A very powerful King, but constrained by equally – or closely – powerful Barons each of whom has titular claim to a chunk of authority and forces. As a result, there’s a “council” affect that decision making must route through.
What MBS is doing is attempting to get it more like the French Kingdom post-reformation – absolute power vested in a single monarch. To get there however the Barons must be removed. And I don’t think his ambitions are limited just to becoming the bests King ever and turning Saudi around.
November 5th, 2017 9:29am EST
Adding to Saudi Arabia’s internal dynamics is an external crisis. Prime Minister of Lebanon resigned his post, from inside Saudi Arabia yesterday citing Iran’s increased influence on Lebanon’s Hezbollah party. In resigning he stated:
“I want to tell Iran and its followers that they are losing in their interferences in the affairs of Arab nations. Our nation will rise just as it did before, and the hands that will harm it will be cut,”
This puts Iran and Saudi Arabia on a collision course over Lebanon – another front in addition to Yemen and Iraq. Speaking of Yemen, several hours after the Lebanese Prime Minister resigned, rebel Houthis from Yemen fired a missile at Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Although the rebels, who are widely believed to now be backed by Iran, were unsuccessful in striking anything due to an intercept, pieces of the missile fell near the King Khalid International Airport.
Worth keeping an eye on as the post-ISIS landscape continues to shake out in the region. Though, and this bears reiterating for the oft-hysterical pundits, just because something happens in the Middle East does not mean World War Three is breaking out. Though I’m sure some will take this as a prompt to make those assertions again. (3)
November 4th, 2017 10:32pm EST
Additional context for last post about reform in Saudi Arabia. In a recent major speech Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salam al Saud’s said: “We will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately…Saudi was not like this before 1979. Saudi Arabia and the entire region went through a revival after 1979. All we are doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”
What’s the importance of 1979? What’s a “pre-1979” Saudi Arabia mean? See this InfoMullet history of salafi-takfirism which posits this kind of religious extremism not as a “centuries old problem” but a relatively modern, post-1979 phenomena. (2)
November 4th, 2017 10:00pm EST
Continuing crackdown on dissent by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salam al Saud in Saudi Arabia. Arrests have been going on for months, ever since the Crown Prince was elevated above all others to be put in the direct line of succession to his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Although the Kingdom is a monarchy, it’s normal succession-planning puts Fortune 500 organizations to shame. Still, when these bureaucracies have been bypassed to elevate the Crown Prince above his royal peers. This time the arrest wave was associated with an anti-corruption probe which, for all practical purposes, might be legitimate. But its acting on some incidents which stretch back to 2009. Finding corruption in the royal family of Saud when you can go back to any point in time is probably like finding sugar ants in Georgia.
There’s no common theme to the arrest. They don’t, at least as far as I can tell, fall disproportionately conservative, liberal, Whabbist, not. The overriding factor is dissent against the governing father-son monarch team.
This crackdown ties in with a ratcheting down of freedom of speech as well as the complications with Qatar, which began over longstanding issues but sparked by Qatari criticisms of the Crown Prince’s intervention in Yemen.
It’s a super-complicated situation. That I’m vastly abbreviating here. The Crown Prince recently said he was taking the Kingdom “back before 1979”, a reference to before the Grand Mosque seizure and subsequent radicalization of the Whabbists. So…that’s…good. I think. However, though some of the gender (allowing women to drive) and economic reforms (modernizing fiscal policy and government benefits) are long overdue, the Crown Prince is making them with an axe cleaver. For example, when allowances and non-salary benefits were cut for a government worker, it might account to the loss of as much as 45% net take-home in a month. Those may have been bloated benefits to begin with, but if you’ve set up your lifestyle on that that’s a big cut to absorb in one month.
Combine the speed, depth, and scope of reform and you’ve got a true Peter-the-Great style figure in MBS, with all the pros and cons that implies. In history, Peter is remembered as modernizing Russia and making it competitive again. But he’s also remembered for brutally cracking down on dissent, actions which left him exposed to revolt and insurrection from other would be claimants to his throne. (1)
- It should be noted that Al-Jazeera is hosted out of Qatar, a country with which Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in a dispute. (See foreign relations chart above.)