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Prince Mohammed’s Latest Gamble

Can the latest Saudi crackdown disarm ever more widespread opposition within the royal family and the military to the reform path and the Yemen war?



  • The Saudi royal family’s inner workings are as usually secretive as those of the Kremlin at the time of the Soviet Union.
  • Prince Mohammed seems keen to extend his iron grip on the country to the ruling family, the military and the national guard.
  • Prince Mohammed has so far delivered on very limited, although international headline-grabbing social changes.
  • Prince Mohammed has yet to deliver on the creation of jobs – the key in a country that has high unemployment and under-employment.

It is no accident that the sweeping crackdown on national guard and military commanders coincided with Houthi rebels signaling with a missile firing that the Saudi capital of Riyadh was within their range.

The firing suggested that Saudi Arabia’s strategy in the 2.5-year long Yemen war, based on an air campaign rather than the commitment of Saudi ground troops, has so far failed to achieve its declared goal of ensuring the kingdom’s security.

Wake-up call from Yemen

Now, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has responded with dismissals and/or detention of eleven princes, senior government officials, top military officers, as well as an unidentified number of prominent businessmen largely linked to different factions within the ruling family.

This latest crackdown follows the disappearance and alleged kidnapping of three of four known dissident members of the Saudi ruling family who had gone into exile in Europe.

Among the four was Prince Turki bin Bandar, a former senior police officer responsible for policing the ruling family, and Prince Sultan bin Turki, the husband of a late daughter of King Abdullah.

It also follows a wave of earlier arrests of scores of Islamic scholars, judges and intellectuals, whose views run the gamut from ultra-conservative to liberal.

Among those arrested were scholars Salman al-Odah, Aaidh al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari, poet Ziyad bin Naheet and economist Essam al-Zamil, some of whom have more than 17 million followers on Twitter.

Silencing opposition

The detentions were designed to silence alleged support in the kingdom for an end to the almost four-month old Gulf crisis that has pitted Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar, mounting criticism of the conduct of the Yemen war and Prince Mohammed’s reforms.

Among those dismissed and/or detained in the latest wave were National Guard head Prince Meteb bin Abdullah, economy minister and former Jeddah mayor Adel bin Mohammad Fakeih and navy commander Abdullah al-Sultan.

It reportedly also includes businessmen such as multi-billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz, a major shareholder in some of the world’s best-known blue chips and media mogul, who is widely seen as a liberal.

Another businessman is Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of King Fahd and — together with Abdulaziz bin Fahd, the late king’s son — owner of the Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) that operates the Al Arabiya television network.

The move against the tribally-rooted guard is so significant because it is a military unit that was founded, alongside the military, to protect the ruling family rather than the country. It was long seen as a stronghold of King Abdullah and his closest associates.

The most recent crackdown clearly breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family whose secretive inner workings are equivalent to those of the Kremlin at the time of the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, the dismissals and detentions suggest that Prince Mohammed rather than forging alliances is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military and the national guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war.

Rewriting the kingdom’s social contract

It raises questions about the reform process that increasingly is based on a unilateral rather than a consensual rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract.

Beyond grandiose plans, Prince Mohammed has yet to deliver on the economic aspects of his reform plans articulated in his Vision 2030.

Prince Mohammed has so far delivered on very limited, although international headline-grabbing social changes. These include lifting the ban on women’s driving and access to sports stadia.

To succeed with needed economic reforms and address the grievances among the country’s young people, he has yet to deliver on the creation of jobs. That is key in a country that has high un employment and under-employment and whose population has been weaned on cradle-to-grave welfare.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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