Thus far, last weekend’s apparent anti-corruption “purge” of Saudi princes and senior officials by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has been depicted as a power play that consolidated all authority in the young royal’s hands. But that’s not quite correct: In truth, his power grab ended on June 21, the day he was appointed crown prince.
This process only became possible with the deaths of the long-serving ministers of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, as well as King Abdullah himself in 2015. Between them, these four princes controlled their respective ministries for a combined total of 163 years, including Abdullah’s 48-year stint as commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Their passing injected a degree of fluidity into the upper tiers of a system that had stratified into princely fiefdoms over the decades.
When King Salman came to power in January 2015, he signaled that his reign would be the last of the sons of King Abdulaziz, and that his successor would come from the grandsons of the founder. While identifying “third-generation princes” as candidates for the throne had long been something of a parlor game for Western analysts, the transition appears to have unfolded far more smoothly than many predicted. The replacement of Crown Prince Moqrin in April 2015 and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in June 2017 sent rumbles of discontent stirring through parts of the royal family, but did not trigger overt pushback. Counting Sultan and Nayef, both of whom died before King Abdullah, the removal of Moqrin and Mohammed bin Nayef meant that four of the last five crown princes of Saudi Arabia failed to become king. Only Salman ascended to the throne.