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
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.