Saudi Arabia’s King Salman transformed the political landscape of the Persian Gulf by appointing his son, Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, as Crown Prince. In the months that followed his appointment, Mohammed bin Salman announced his support for sweeping socioeconomic and political reforms in Saudi Arabia in order to moderate the country’s Wahhabi ideology, make Saudi Arabia a more appealing destination for international investment, and lay the groundwork for a prosperous post-oil future.
Despite these bold pronouncements, the direction of Saudi Arabia’s reform agenda has been dictated by Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to consolidate power and eliminate challenges to his authority. Mohammed bin Salman views the political aspirations of members of the Al Saud family, who are disgruntled with his rapid rise to power, as the most significant threat to his authority. To confront this perceived threat, Mohammed bin Salman’s reform agenda has focused on detaching the levers of economic and political power in Saudi Arabia from the Al Saud family, and building a new coalition of moderate Muslims, private sector elites, and anti-Shiite Saudi nationalists to entrench his personal hold on power.
As the Al Saud family has historically relied on close alignments with influential Wahhabi clerics to maintain its ideological legitimacy, Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to breach the alignment between these religious leaders and the Saudi state. In October 2017, Mohammed bin Salman challenged Wahhabism’s traditional role as Saudi Arabia’s guiding ideology, by arguing that alarm over the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque and Iranian Revolution, pushed Saudi Arabia to embrace a stricter-than-necessary interpretation of the Sharia law. As the threats posed by Sunni militants have declined and Iran has failed to spread its revolutionary ideology beyond its borders, Mohammed bin Salman argued that Saudi Arabia can moderate its Wahhabi ideology with little risk of backlash.
By implementing legislation such as allowing women to drive and ending the long-time ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to gain the confidence of the next generation of Saudi elites, and marginalize the influence of conservative clerics, like Sheikh Salman al-Ouda and Sheikh Awad al-Qarni, who were temporarily detained in September 2017. As 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 30, Mohammed bin Salman believes that his reforms will give him considerable popular legitimacy and will allow him to crack down on Wahhabi ideologues aligned with other Al Saud factions.
In addition to gradually eroding the influence of Wahhabism over daily life in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman has taken steps to detach the Saudi economy from rival Al Saud clans through a highly publicized anti-corruption campaign and intensified privatization efforts. In late November, he authorized the detention of 500 Saudi royal family members and business elites in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel.
Mohammed bin Salman justified this highly controversial decision by claiming that $800 billion in assets were illegally held by Saudi elites and that coercive measures were necessary to end Saudi Arabia’s culture of corruption. In the weeks that followed these arrests, Mohammed bin Salman praised the effectiveness of his anti-corruption efforts by arguing that 95% of Saudi elites confronted with evidence of illegal activities were willing to return their illicitly-earned revenues back to the state.
Even though many Western analysts and policymakers have praised Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to curb corruption, a closer examination of Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption campaign reveals that its primary aim is to consolidate the crown prince’s power base. The arrests of Waleed al-Ibrahim, the chairman of the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the owner of the Rotana Group, are closely tied to Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to gain control over Saudi Arabia’s media outlets.
These crackdowns are not restricted to the media sphere. Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdowns on the Binladin construction group and Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a leading investor in Riyadh’s public transit systems, underscore his desire to gain control over the construction and real estate industries in Saudi Arabia. As conspicuous consumption and nepotism continue to be hallmarks of Mohammed bin Salman’s governance style, it is clear that Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption campaign is at least partially aimed at eroding the power of challengers within the Al Saud family and their allies.
While Saudi Arabia’s privatization efforts have been triggered by the growing unsustainability of government welfare programs, and Riyadh’s desire to attract greater international investment, the uneven nature of the privatization process is closely linked to Mohammed bin Salman’s power consolidation ambitions.
Although Saudi Arabia has recently announced its decision to delay the Aramco IPO until 2019, the eventual dispersion of the oil giant’s assets to domestic and international investors will provide an opportunity for a new class of Saudi oligarchs to gain prominence. This class of oligarchs will be indebted to Mohammed bin Salman for their prosperity and the coercive apparatus the crown prince possesses will ensure the loyalty of these oligarchs to his government.
Another critical plank of Mohammed bin Salman’s power consolidation efforts is his promotion of hardline anti-Shiite nationalism. By promoting an aggressive strain of anti-Iranian nationalism and rallying Saudi citizens around the threat Iran poses to regional stability, Mohammed bin Salman is fueling Saudi nationalism to ensure that the public remains loyal to the Saudi state, even if Saudi Arabia distances itself from its Wahhabi ideology or scales back government welfare benefits.
In this context of heightened sectarianism, Mohammed bin Salman’s use of force against pro-Iran Houthi rebels in Yemen, and diplomatic isolation of Qatar over Doha’s conciliatory rhetoric towards Iran have gained considerable popular support, as they are viewed by large sections of the Saudi public to be the actions of a strong leader. As the United States has been unwilling to chastise Saudi Arabia for the destabilizing consequences of these actions, Saudi Arabia is likely to continue to intervene on behalf of pro-Sunni causes across the Middle East for a long time to come.
Even though Mohammed bin Salman’s new political coalition has shown signs of durable cohesion in recent months, his strategy of separating the Saudi state from the Al Saud family and Wahhabism is undercut by serious potential weaknesses. Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to control the conduct of those Wahhabi clerics who wish to promote alternative messages or defy official policy towards militant groups remains unclear.
Double standards in Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption campaign could also deter international investment in its private sector, ensuring that the Al Saud family’s control over the Saudi economy lasts longer than expected. These risks ensure that Mohammed bin Salman’s path towards personalized power consolidation will not be linear but will instead be gradual and fraught with serious challenges.
Even though Saudi Arabia appears to be on the precipice of radical change, a closer look at the reform process reveals that Mohammed bin Salman is principally concerned with the personalization of his power, and the destruction of rival Al Saud clans. Only time will tell if Mohammed bin Salman will be able to forge a new political coalition, or if reactionary forces within the Al Saud family and clerical establishment derail his quest for personal power consolidation.
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