The arrest of senior princes by Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has set off a wave of speculation as to why they were suddenly removed.
No complete stranger to debate, Prince Mohammed (typically called MBS) has shown a ruthless ambition to require his way to the really leading of the political tree, silencing rivals and opponents from across the spectrum considering that his meteoric increase started in 2015.
The regrettable topics of MBS’s ambition this time were other members of the Saud family – most notably among his uncles, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, a former interior minister; and a cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (referred to as MBN), a previous crown prince and interior minister – who were apprehended for questioning and placed under examination for treason, although no charges have actually been made.
Neither male possessed much power any longer: MBN had been unceremoniously disposed from office in 2017 as King Salman cleared the method for MBS – his kid – to take the throne; and Prince Ahmad had preferred to spend his money and time in London prior to going back to the kingdom late last year.
The question many ask is why MBS decided to once again pursue his competitors, particularly considered that they were already compromised and mainly incapable of challenging his grip on power.
Just he will understand the genuine response, and in a nation as opaque as Saudi Arabia it will be difficult to get the full fact from official Saudi sources.
But one thing is for specific – the young crown prince knew that there would be no fantastic expense to him, either domestically or globally.
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Having survived the wave of international opprobrium that followed the murder of Saudi Reporter Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, MBS had little to fear.
The Trump White House backed MBS to the hilt; Britain and France were slightly important, yet continue to work with Riyadh; and Russia and China were never ever going to care.
Therefore MBS has actually been able to do more or less as he pleases, securing power by ruthlessly isolating sectors of Saudi public life that stood in his way – be they clerics, competing loved ones, businessmen or domestic pressure groups – and one by one crushing them with the full blast of the state.
It is Totalitarian Politics 101, but in a 21 st-Century design. Princes have been positioned in comfortable environments, such as in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in 2017, and MBS has bewared to appear modest, as he did throughout MBN’s defenestration in the very same year, kneeling and kissing his cousin’s hand in obvious supplication
That MBS’s rise has actually come at the expense of MBN is not without a sense of irony. Until early 2017, Western policy makers were primarily in the camp of MBN, who was relied on and liked by security firms throughout the world, and was seen by all who fulfilled him as a competent and worthy future king.
But as competent as MBN was in managing the kingdom’s national security portfolios, he was unprepared for, and was unable to match, MBS’s ambition and guile.
Power plays inside the Saudi royal household constantly set tongues wagging, and rumours was plentiful that King Salman was close to death, or that MBS noticed a palace coup was in the offing and moved rapidly to snuff it out.
There was no reality to either of these claims, which ignored the even more apparent answer: it was a message from both Salman and MBS to the remainder of the family to enter line, an act of discipline that will protect loyalty and remind everybody who in charge is.
And make no mistake, MBS is unquestionably the one in charge of Saudi Arabia.
Michael Stephens is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Provider Institute think-tank, concentrating on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter.
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