Saudi Arabia's political stability was traditionally underpinned by a consensus of princes within the House of Saud, but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with King Salman's tacit backing, is steadily changing the system to centralize authority on himself. The latest arrests of senior princes are yet another power play designed to ensure that no internal royal rivals can viably challenge Crown Prince Mohammed. But as Saudi Arabia faces a near-term future of low oil prices and coronavirus-related economic impacts, the crown prince increasingly will need to worry about challenges to his rule beyond the royal palaces.
In a series of arrests of high-profile princes, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has once more shown he will brook no royal challengers. Four senior princes — Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a former crown prince; his brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef; Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the 78-year-old brother of King Salman; and Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, Prince Ahmed's son and former head of army intelligence — were arrested over the weekend by Saudi security forces. Dozens of other lower-level officials were detained as well. Some news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, have reported that some princes may soon be released.
An Ever-Tighter Grip
The crackdown was the most prominent one since November 2017 when dozens of high-level princes and business leaders were arrested during a purported anti-corruption operation and held for a prolonged period in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Like the Ritz episode, the latest crackdowns appeared likely aimed at consolidating royal power on Crown Prince Mohammed himself by signaling that even top royals are not immune to the crown prince's security forces.
The arrests could not have been possible without Crown Prince Mohammed's control of the internal security forces as well as the backing of his father, King Salman, the only true check on the crown prince's power. Once more, events have proven that Crown Prince Mohammed is increasingly the center of political gravity in Saudi Arabia, able to purge opponents, override royal considerations and maintain the all-important backing of the king himself. The consensus-based model championed by former Saudi kings appears dead, supplanted by a model in which Crown Prince Mohammed and his supporters drive all of Saudi Arabia's primary decisions.
The Incomplete Rationale
It's not clear why the arrests happened now. Rumors emerged of a coup attempt, but already there are reports hinting that the arrested princes may be publicly rehabilitated, suggesting that a viable coup was not in the offing or else the consequences would be more severe for the alleged offenders. Rumors of King Salman's failing health also appear unfounded, at least for the moment thanks to images of the 84-year-old king published by the royal court over the weekend.
What is clearer is that Crown Prince Mohammed increasingly needs the Saudi political system to consolidate around him to implement his policy visions as arguments for pushback against the crown prince will soon be strengthened by a darkening economic outlook. Now that he has shown he has the power to arrest even his most prominent critics, most royals will keep such pushback in the shadows and disrupt serious attempts to organize opposition to the prince.
The consensus-based model championed by former Saudi kings appears dead, supplanted by a model in which Crown Prince Mohammed and his supporters drive all of Saudi Arabia's primary decisions.
But royal opinion may increasingly be of secondary concern to Crown Prince Mohammed and his vision for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom's energy policy now seems to be shifting toward driving down oil prices in a bid to restore some of its market share; the policy will bring down oil prices and, at least for the time being, dry up funds needed for Saudi Arabia's state spending and the economy that still relies on Riyadh's largesse (especially with projected demand decreases due to poor economic growth amid the COVID-19 outbreak). Additionally, Saudi Arabia is also increasingly engaging in economically disruptive lockdown tactics, including closing schools, enacting travel bans and carrying out quarantines, as Riyadh tries to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
As a consequence, it is Saudi citizens who will increasingly grumble against Riyadh's policies as they face the pinch of a sluggish economy. Saudi Arabia may be more tepid in using the typical spigots of public spending to offset such criticism as oil prices drag on the budget and as Riyadh seeks a new spending balance. The economic disruptions of COVID-19 will only add to the dissent, though Saudi citizens are unlikely to push back against COVID-19 policies in and of themselves. As the decade begins the long road to 2030 and fulfilling his vision of overhauling Saudi Arabia's economy, Crown Prince Mohammed has managed to gain control of the palace; now, the most viable opposition to his policies will increasingly emerge among the Saudi public.