Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has won the first round of what could prove to be an unprecedented power grab that comes to haunt him. The prince’s frontal assault on significant segments of the kingdom’s elite; assertions of unrest in the military and the national guard, and a flood of rumours, including allegations that a prominent member of the ruling family, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, died under mysterious circumstances suggest however that the struggle may be far from over.
There is little doubt that Prince Mohammed is in firm control for now. However, there is also little doubt that many in the kingdom’s elite are licking their wounds and that the crown prince believes that bold action, crackdowns and repression is his best way of ensuring that he retains increasingly absolute power.
Criticism and potential opposition ranges from those that feel shut out of the corridors of power to those who see their vested interests threatened by Prince Mohammed’s reforms and actions and/or are critical of the war in Yemen, his putting limits on ultra-conservative social codes, and his power-hungry, autocratic style.
As a result, the rumours about Prince Abdul Aziz, even if they may well prove to be incorrect, take on added significance. Prince Abdul Aziz is a son of late King Fahd, a major shareholder in Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) that operates the Al Arabiya television network, whose other major shareholder, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the king, was among those detained this weekend.
Prince Abdul Aziz was known to be a supporter of the former crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was forced out of office earlier this year after rumours were floated that he had a drug addiction. Prince Mohammed is believed to have been under house arrest since.
Prince Abdul Aziz was also a partner in Saudi Oger, the troubled company of the family of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned this weekend in a seemingly Saudi-engineered move to destabilize Lebanon and confront Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia.
Prince Abdul Aziz has an alleged track record of going to the extreme in confronting his opponents. In an unprecedented move, Prince Turki bin Sultan, another member of the ruling family, filed a court case in Geneva in 2015 accusing Prince Abdul Aziz of orchestrating his abduction, sedation and forcible repatriation from Switzerland in 2003. A reformist, Prince Turki said he was kidnapped after he had accused the defence and interior ministries of corruption and planned to organize a seminar to detail the misconduct.
Sifting through the rumours and assessing the balance of power in Saudi Arabia amounts to the equivalent of Kremlinology, the phrase used at the time of the Soviet Union to try to decipher the inner workings of the Kremlin.
Nonetheless, what is confirmed as fact as well as the rumours appear to bolster suggestions that Prince Mohammed’s crackdown and power grab targeted among others factions of the ruling family related to late kings Abdullah and Fahd as well as the family of the powerful late interior minister and crown prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s father.
What is certainly also true is that Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s crackdown on corruption strikes a popular cord among many in the kingdom who have long resented the awarding of often inflated mega contracts to members of the family as well as alleged land grabs by princes. Countering corruption beyond targeting potential critics and opponents has however a darker side in a country in which until the late 1950s members of the ruling families could access public funds for private use.
This week’s publication by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of the Paradise Papers, exposing the secret dealings and offshore interests of the global elite, potentially puts another member of ruling family in Prince Mohammed’s firing line.
Former deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, known as the father of Saudi missiles for his secret procurement in the late 1980s of Chinese missiles for the kingdom, and command alongside US General Norman Schwarzkopf of the US-led alliance that forced Iraq in 1991 to retreat from its occupation of Kuwait, was the only Saudi whose offshore dealings were revealed by the massive leak of documents of the Bermudan branch of offshore law firm Appleby.
The documents showed that Prince Khalid was a beneficiary of two trusts and registered at least eight companies in Bermuda between 1989 and 2014, some of which were used to own yachts and aircraft.
Several of those dismissed or detained in Prince Mohammed’s most recent crackdown were last year named in a similar leak known as the Panama Papers because they came from a law firm in the country.
They include former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, whose oil-services company PetroSaudi was linked to Malaysia’s multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal; Prince Turki bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a former military commander and head of the kingdom’s meteorological and environmental authority; former deputy defense minister Prince Fahad bin Abdullah bin Mohammed; and former Saudi Telecom chief Saoud al-Daweesh.
The Panama Papers identified tens of Saudi nationals, including several members of the Bin Salman branch of the ruling family. The leaks included wealthy persons from across the globe with offshore assets, a legal practice that implies no wrongdoing.
The military and the national guard, a 100,000-man praetorian guard that was the long-standing preserve of King Abdullah and his closest associates, have remained silent in the wake of this weekend’s arrest of guard commander Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a son of King Abdullah, and dismissal of navy commander Vice Admiral Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Sultan, believed to be a son the late former defense minister and crown prince, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The changes in command nonetheless have reverberated through the ranks. “Things may well quiet down but many in the guard and the navy don’t like the way things were managed,” said a well-placed source.
The source’s assessment was echoed by former CIA official and Saudi expert Bruce Riedel. Following a tweet by US President Donald J. Trump in support of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown, Mr. Riedel noted that “the Trump administration has tied the United States to the impetuous young crown prince of Saudi Arabia and seems to be quite oblivious to the dangers. But they are growing every day.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.