Despite much of the hype surrounding Saudi Arabia’s move forward on human rights (in particular women’s rights) and the Khashoggi affair being behind the capricious crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom appears heading towards darker days.
The recent news dominating Middle Eastern media of the purge orchestrated by Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in Riyadh, which involved the arrest of two key senior figures, is disturbing. And no one will be watching this more closely than Donald Trump.
While western media and its experts (who are usually based in DC heading up think tanks funded by Riyadh) place much emphasis on the 84 year old king and his so-called failing health, the truth of what is really behind the arrests of Prince Ahmed and Mohammed bin Nayef is that they are considered the only remaining top two dynasty figures who oppose MbS. They are therefore seen as a threat which had to be dealt with head on.
The arrests don’t bode well for Saudi Arabia’s plan to reach out for investment to modernise the country’s infrastructure with MbS’s vision in 2030.
Nonetheless, their arrest is troubling. Not only does it reaffirm the paranoia and fragility of the Crown Prince’s rule, it also shows that no lessons have been learnt from the Khashoggi affair about how the world sees the ultra conservative kingdom. The arrests don’t bode well for Saudi Arabia’s plan to reach out for investment to modernise the country’s infrastructure with MbS’s vision in 2030 – a bold plan costing close to half a trillion dollars – looking increasingly like a project sinking in the sand.
And the timing of the arrests is also important. In the midst of a poorly-judged price war on oil with non-OPEC countries (read Russia), Saudi Arabia is planning more output, which it is feared will drive the price of crude oil down lower than 30 dollars, with some markets experts even predicting 20 dollars a barrel before the end of the year.
The 20 dollars a barrel scenario is unlikely but low oil prices should be worrying to both MbS and Donald Trump. With the US Presidential elections about to kick off, the last thing Trump needs is a crisis in Saudi Arabia, which could see it vulnerable to either more attacks by Iran, or more hit-n-miss policy making by MbS. Both conjectures could weaken his hold on the country even further.
Some analysts rightly point out that these times signify the end of the ruling elite’s lineage to the throne and that the inherited power – and spoils – shared among royals like Prince Ahmed and Mohammed bin Nayef (the nephew of MbS and former crown prince) are over. Furthermore, no longer shall we see an elderly brother hand the throne to another elderly brother as King MbS will ensure this system is ended, even though the Allegiance Council of elders who agree on such matters will remain.
And therein lies one of the problems. The council itself previously backed MbS coming to power and the end of the previous system, allowing a grandson to take the throne. But Prince Ahmed sits on that council, along with bin Nayef who is also known to be a critic of MbS.
Both of these figures oppose MbS on a number of policy decisions he has made, specifically on the war in Yemen and the Qatar blockade.
Indeed, while bin Nayef remained under a sort of house arrest and closely monitored by security officials, Prince Ahmed drew attention from MbS over his outspoken comments of the Crown Prince in London. Both of these figures oppose MbS on a number of policy decisions he has made, specifically on the war in Yemen and the Qatar blockade – both disastrous strategies led by MbS.
The reports this week that they were part of a coup to remove MbS are not news to Saudi watchers. From as far back as the palace coup in 2017, which installed the young Crown Prince, MbS has suspected that they are both behind attempts to remove him. Indeed, some analysts go as far as to say that a big part of Khashoggi’s arrest and bungled assassination in Istanbul, was MbS’ insecurity.
The Crown Prince wanted his closest aides to extract information from the former journalist over whether bin Nayef was plotting a coup against him. Sources close to MbS have confided to me that there was a belief at the time that the nephew of MbS was not only part of a plot to have him removed but that Khashoggi was also part of it and was certainly privy to it.
So, what’s changed? Simply that MbS is facing some very hard times ahead and that the King has considered the evidence against the conspirators – now three royals – and signed off their arrest warrants. The message is very clear from King Salman to any dissidents in their midst: if we can arrest these three, then no one is off limits.
King Salman’s support to MbS is now absolute. But many will see it as an act of desperation from a young Crown Prince whose leadership qualities are questionable, given the erroneous decisions on Yemen, Qatar, and Khashoggi – not to mention Aramco’s delayed IPO. With news of a possible fourth arrest, naturally, many will speculate that King Salman is close to abdicating due to poor health and this purge is his last decision to get his house in order, before he steps down.
The move is a continuation of a crackdown which ensures that MbS has no one questioning either his accession or his power, when the moment comes for the king to hand him the throne.
From a Saudi perspective, to some extent, it’s also about tidying up the courtyard before the G20 meeting at the end of the year in Riyadh. But by and large, the move is a continuation of a crackdown which ensures that MbS has no one questioning either his accession or his power, when the moment comes for the king to hand him the throne. And it seems that this might be sooner rather than later, given that King Salman supports the move.
It is more than likely such arrests will continue as part of the crackdown although worryingly for the West and in particular the US, will be the notion that MbS will soon be entirely isolated on his throne when it comes to decision-making in an economy which cannot sustain itself with all-time-low oil prices. And more so, that MbS went ahead with the arrests on the basis that the two princes were in talks with US figures about a coup which would remove him.
Could that have come from Trump himself, given that the crown prince has made it clear to aides that he is worried that the US president won’t get re-elected? Given the tough times ahead and no good scenarios post US elections with regards to relations with Riyadh, we shouldn’t be surprised that MbS is looking for new partners in the region.
Russia was certainly a contender following an initiative to reach out to Putin after the Khashoggi affair didn’t get the required support which the Crown Prince had hoped for, from Trump, which would have been a complete whitewash Don’t be surprised in the coming weeks for pundits to even speculate that the arrests and the “scorched earth” price war with Russia over oil supply, is in fact about helping get Trump out of office as a new low on oil prices will strain their relationship to the breaking point.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.