Saudi Arabia: Night of the long knives

With his purge, the crown prince will head off internal criticism and send a message to opponents while earning himself plaudits

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at an investment conference in Riyadh. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at an investment conference in Riyadh. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

 

These are tumultuous days in Saudi Arabia, where the consolidation of power around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is upending a system that has prevailed since the modern dynasty was founded in 1932. Prince Mohammed – the 32-year-old son of the ailing King Salman, who ascended to the throne in 2015 – has risen from obscurity to amass huge power at the head of the sprawling royal family. He was appointed defence minister in 2015, and a palace coup in June ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as interior minister and heir to the throne.

But it turns out that those moves were a mere prelude to a much wider purge. On Saturday, following the creation of an anti-corruption committee chaired by the crown prince, dozens of royals, ministers and businessmen were detained in an unprecedented crackdown. Among those rounded up were the flamboyant billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an investor in high-profile western companies, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, head of the elite Saudi National Guard and once mentioned as a possible future king.

The latter’s removal means the young crown prince now controls the kingdom’s internal security and military institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family. A royal decree said the crackdown came in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to illicitly accrue money.”

The prince’s ideas are cheered by many Saudis, but the abrupt, top-down changes face resistance at senior levels in a conservative system

Corruption may be the official explanation, but in reality the crackdown appears to be a tactical move by the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, to strengthen his own position by weakening alternative power blocs. His 81-year-old father remains nominally in charge, but MBS has in the past year become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies.

He has been central to Riyadh’s recent aggressive foreign forays – notably in Yemen, where the royals say they are fighting Iran-aligned militants, and in the dispute with Qatar, which Riyadh accuses of backing terrorists.

At home, the crown prince has advanced a tentative social liberalisation agenda; in September, Riyadh announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted. He has also been promoting public entertainment and foreign tourism.

Such ideas are cheered by many Saudis, but the abrupt, top-down changes face resistance at senior levels in a conservative system whose austere interpretation of Islam is central to the ruling elite’s self-image. With his purge, the crown prince will head off internal criticism and send a message to opponents while earning himself plaudits from a public that longs to see the era of elite indulgence come to an end.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.