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Saudi Arabian Politics Takes on Machiavellian Nuance

13 Nov 2017
By Dr Ben Rich
The skyline of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has arrested more than 200 people in a supposed crackdown on corruption. However, many suspect a more insidious motive that puts Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the centre of an authoritarian purge.

The detaining of dozens of royals, government officials and military officers initiated by the Saudi palace last week, as part of a state-claimed ‘anti-corruption probe’, is the latest in a wider trend of power consolidation around the upper echelons of the monarchy. This has resulted in a growing crackdown against potential sources of opposition against King Salman and his regent son as they seek to overhaul the country’s backwards economy and civil-state relations.

Not only have these moves been bold individually, but they have also collectively demonstrated the Salman administration is far more comfortable engaging in high-stakes brinkmanship than its predecessors. The source of this newly audacious character is the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman whose ascent to power has been rapid and, apart from reforming the economy and waging a disastrous war on Yemen, much of his effort has focused on bolstering the unilateral power of the crown.

Eliminating rivals

Last week’s arrests targeted numerous high and influential figures inside the kingdom, many of whom could potentially challenge or weaken Mohammad’s initiatives and his personal station. Key among those detained was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the son of the previous monarch and head of the Saudi National Guard (SANG). The SANG is widely considered the most elite security force in the kingdom and exists in parallel to the regular army, with over 100,000 troops and a wide array of cutting edge equipment.

As son of the last king, Mutaib had also expected to maintain an influential position in the new administration. This expectation, combined with the prince’s pedigree and his powerful security fiefdom, has clearly registered him as a serious threat to Mohammad. A similar logic seems to have been applied to his brother, Prince Turki, the former governor of Riyadh.

Another major figure picked up in the sweep was Alwaleed bin Talal, the son of one of the kingdom’s most outspoken liberal reformist princes. Ranked #45 on the Forbes list of billionaires, Talal is by far the most independently wealthy Saudi, with current personal holdings in the order of USD$16 billion (AUD$20.9 billion).

Rather than mobilise and court the potential resources offered by these elites, Mohammad and his father have opted to remove them as potential impediments to the plans of the crown, both in terms of national reform and in internal family succession. Whether these individuals actually posed a serious threat to the throne or Mohammad himself remains debatable. As the London School of Economics’ professor Madawi al-Rasheed observed, the regime’s reactions towards even the hint of dissent has been both hypersensitive and paranoid.

Regardless of the reality of the threat, the effect of this latest purge has been a major break in precedent from the traditional consensus rule of the Saudi throne, in which some 1,200 elites exert important influence on royal decision-making. Instead, what appears to be occurring is a reorientation towards unilateral rule-making by the king and his regent, with little toleration for elite dissent or advice to the contrary.

While this is not the first elite-level purge to have occurred inside the kingdom, it is certainly the most overt and far reaching. Given that Mohammad will ascend the throne within a few years and that this will be the first intergenerational transfer of power since the kingdom’s founder passed the crown to his son in 1953, such a move to proactively eliminate potential rivals and replace them with forces more amenable to his will, follows a clear Machiavellian logic.

Removing Wahhabi impediments

The unprecedented elimination of challenges to central rule has not been solely restricted to the nation’s elite, but has also been arrayed against some of the core institutions of the Saudi state—specifically the ultra-orthodox Islamic movement known in the West as Wahhabism.

The Saudi authority has relied on the support of the movement since the mid-18th century and this relationship has carried across three distinct dynasties of rule. In exchange for religious legitimation of its actions, the state has traditionally patronised the movement, providing them with funds and social station and ensuring their religious beliefs are enforced as the norm in the public sphere.

However, the relationship itself has presented something of a conundrum to the Saudi ruling class, as core to the Wahhabi doctrine is the rejection of innovation and transformation, both physical and spiritual. This has meant that policies aimed at national modernisation and reform are often decried by many in the movement as heretical and have led to open confrontation between the state and its core religious constituents.

While the religious elites possess no formal political power, they do retain considerable influence over adherents to the Wahhabi doctrine, a population estimated to make up around 23 per cent of the total Saudi population. This has historically forced Saudi leaders to delicately balance necessary and dislocative economic reforms with the sensibilities of a core support base often openly hostile to these same forces.

The current Saudi administration, however, appears to have completely jettisoned any pretence of accommodating the concerns of the Wahhabi movement within its broader agenda. In September, the regime arrested more than a dozen popular clerics who had shown a willingness to call out the regime on behaviour they saw as hypocritical or un-Islamic. At an economic conference in October, the crown prince announced that the kingdom would “return to a moderate Islam open to all religions”. Historical revisionism aside (the Saudi state was specifically built on the tenets of Wahhabism), this declaration marks a dramatic shift, breaking with the balancing acts of previous rulers and undoubtedly incensing many in the formal religious establishment.

Both the elite purge this last week combined with the crackdown on various upper levels of the Wahhabi movement show a Saudi regime forging a bold, new path in uncharted political and social terrain. Such upsets are high stakes and will undoubtedly lead to unintended push-backs that will be difficult to predict. Saudi domestic politics has rapidly transitioned from a dull, predictable science to an exhilarating and nuanced art. Despite the newfound complexity and uncertainty, the essential message being broadcast from the upper buttresses of the palace remains a relatively simple one: you are either with us as we move forward, or you are dead wood to be cleared.

Dr Ben Rich is a lecturer in international relations and security studies at Curtin University. His research on focuses on Saudi affairs, military policy and power politics in the Persian Gulf, as well as a range of topics relating to terrorism and insurgency

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.