The Saudi game of thrones: Crown Prince Mohammed’s power grab

The 32-year-old is determined to shake up the deeply conservative kingdom.

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Since his father ascended the throne in Saudi Arabia in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he is widely known), has been in a hurry to shake up the deeply conservative kingdom. The 32-year-old crown prince has promised women the right to drive, curbed the influence of the religious police, detained hard-line clerics and moved to wean the economy off oil.

But the extent of his ambition and power only became apparent on 4 November. Just hours after the infirm King Salman launched a new anti-corruption commission headed by his son, news channels announced the arrest of dozens of members of the kingdom’s political and business elite, including 11 royals. Among those held at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the flamboyant billionaire whose past and present investments include Twitter, Apple and News Corp.

Saudi national television described the events as “Black Saturday for corruption and the corrupt”, a message that plays to the two-thirds of the 31 million Saudis aged under 30. High-level graft is endemic, inequality is vast – Prince Mohammed himself bought a €500m yacht last year – and austerity policies implemented after the oil price collapse have created discontent.

The crown prince’s dramatic purge went beyond corruption, however. As part of a simultaneous cabinet reshuffle, he removed Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the Sandhurst-trained head of the country’s powerful national guard. Prince Mohammed now controls all three arms of the security services – the military, the national guard and internal security – which have traditionally been divided among different branches of the House of Saud. Already the country’s de facto ruler, the crown prince has consolidated power to an extent few previous leaders have.

“Is he becoming a despot or does he genuinely realise that if the kingdom does not turn now it is going to hit an iceberg?” said Michael Stephens, Middle East research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “It’s only in five or ten years that we’ll be able to look back and say: this is the man who saved the country.”

Born in 1985 to King Salman’s third wife, Prince Mohammed was long considered a favoured son. After studying law at King Saud University he worked in the private sector before being appointed special adviser to his father, who was governor of Riyadh province at the time. In January 2015, Salman became king aged 79 following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah. Next in line to the throne was Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister and crown prince – but he had a rival in his young cousin, Prince Mohammed.

MBS had a reputation for hard work but also brashness. He was appointed as defence minister, and quickly assumed wider responsibilities. He insisted that the country needed major economic and social reforms to prosper in the 21st century, and announced plans to diversify the economy by breaking up state monopolies, encouraging private enterprise and creating jobs. Most significantly, MBS promoted a deal to sell a 5 per cent stake in the state oil company Saudi Aramco next year. This will create the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund.

At the same time, the millennial prince, who is married with three children, has loosened Saudi Arabia’s strict moral codes and diminished the role of conservative clerics in shaping policy. For too long the kingdom has exported Wahhabism, its hardline version of Islam, which has fuelled intolerance and inspired terror groups such as al-Qaeda. At an investment conference in October, Prince Mohammed said the country needed a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world”.

MBS is seeking to expand Saudi Arabia’s global influence, visiting the US, China and Russia – and to counter the ambitions of Iran. In 2015, after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels forced Yemen’s president into exile, MBS agreed that Saudi Arabia should lead a military intervention by Sunni states. Riyadh has since been accused of bombing civilians and creating a humanitarian crisis. Yemen’s rebels, meanwhile, fired a ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, for which Prince Mohammed blamed the influence of Iran.

His status as heir apparent was confirmed in June when he was appointed crown prince in place of his cousin. Some experts believe he will soon take over from his 81-year-old father. “It [the arrests] seems to be the final piece in securing MBS’s succession and allowing the king to abdicate,” said Victoria Mackay, of political consultancy VLM Advisory.

The religious establishment is uneasy at the social changes and there is a precedent for violence: in 1979, insurgents who accused the House of Saud of not being Islamic enough seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. And other royals have much to lose in the corruption crackdown. “Different branches of the family could launch a counter-coup,” I was told by a Middle East expert who knows Saudi Arabia well. “This is a dangerous time.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship