The Saudi Crown Prince Is Gambling Everything on Three Major Experiments

A perceived failure on any of these undertakings could produce a crisis of legitimacy.

Mohammed bin Salman waves in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed bin Salman waves in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Reuters)

Call it shock and awe. Call it a purge. Call it a clean sweep. However it’s characterized, the mass arrest of some of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent royals, administrators, and tycoons last weekend has completely upended both the structure of the Saudi elite and the country’s way of doing business. It’s not exactly the Night of the Long Knives, as the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in which the detainees are being held is hardly a nightmarish gulag. But it is the latest installment in an astonishingly rapid series of upheavals whereby all power is being concentrated in the hands of elderly King Salman and his 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS.

If MbS is behaving like any of his predecessors it is King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, who founded the modern Saudi state in 1932. He is essentially positioning himself as a new Abdel Aziz who will create a new Saudi Arabia for a new era and a new economy. Clearly, he intends to do that by wiping the slate clean and beginning with an overwhelmingly strong hand that brooks no opposition. The purges are being carried out under the rubric of anti-corruption, in a populist spirit and with what appears to be a strong constituency of public support, especially among the youth. The prince is simultaneously implementing his Vision 2030, which includes an emphasis on local tourism and entertainment, and social changes deemed necessary for both modernization and economic diversification, particularly regarding women’s rights like the right to drive.

What MbS is attempting is a political high wire act, without a net, of the tallest order. He is promoting the very top, meaning himself and his father, of Saudi society, along with its bottom and center, and sweeping aside much of the existing upper echelons not under his direct control. It’s bold and ambitious; it’s also an extremely risky and high-stakes gamble. Surely no other contemporary political figure better embodies Georges Danton’s dictum, “de l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace” (“Audacity, more audacity, and always audacity”). However, this means that MbS is now personally associated with the success and failure of three major experiments in Saudi governments and society, the perceived collapse of any of which could lead to an extremely dangerous crisis of legitimacy.

The first register is the consolidation of political power. To all appearances, last weekend’s arrests pretty well conclude that chapter: There are no more viable, independent power centers in the country, or at least none that are not on existential notice. However, it’s possible the crown prince and his father have overreached and that there will be a backlash because they have jettisoned decades of carefully calibrated power-sharing within the royal family and other elements of the power structure. Moreover, it’s unclear what will become of the detainees. Are they to be stripped of their wealth? Exiled? Detained indefinitely? Released with a slap on the wrist, only potentially to plot against the new regime? MbS must have a plan, but it’s extremely unclear what it might be. Finally, the breadth and scope of the crackdown could, conceivably, have been linked to intimations of a possible coup. There’s no evidence of this, but the conspiratorially-minded note that this weekend the son of the ousted Prince Muqrin died in a helicopter crash near the border with Yemen. But most likely this was a coincidence, not an elimination, and the amalgamation of power in the hands of MbS will, in the short run at least, be successfully consolidated.

The second part of the project, economic and social reform, is a taller order, but still doable. Saudi Arabia has the resources to manage the increasingly necessary transition away from oil-dependence, particularly if its government begins to treat its population as human capital resource rather than a group of dependents. MbS has certainly shown a determination to lead this transition from the top down, and a due appreciation of the social changes, particularly with regard to the role of women, that will be necessary for a globally competitive post-petroleum economy. His attempt to forge an alliance with the general public, especially the youth, so far appears relatively successful and could be a key basis for long-term success. There is evidence of an emerging new dynamism in parts of Saudi society.

It is the third front that is likely to be most challenging: the assertion and defense of Saudi interests throughout the Middle East, particularly with regard to an ever-more-powerful Iran. It’s instructive that last weekend also saw a Yemeni Houthi missile, possibly supplied by their Iranian backers, launched at Riyadh’s international airport and the Saudi-inspired resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri. Both Yemen and Lebanon are key proxy battlegrounds between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Yemen intervention, which has been heavily associated with MbS, who was serving as defense minister when it was launched, appears to have become a politically damaging and militarily unproductive quagmire. There are reports that MbS is looking for a way out, but the missile attack has been characterized by Saudi officials as an Iranian “act of war” against the Kingdom.

The Hariri resignation is likely tied to significant gains made by Iran and its key ally, Lebanese Hezbollah, in securing, along with their Iraqi allies and clients, key areas in northern and western Iraq (in the aftermath of the Kurdish independence referendum and the battle against ISIS) and in eastern Syria. Iran and its allies therefore appear to be on the brink of realizing their long-cherished goal of creating a “land bridge” leading from Tehran to Beirut and the Mediterranean. These developments are a potential strategic game-changer in the Middle East, and the Saudi response, apparently, is to go after Iran and Hezbollah in their central and original locus of power in the Arab world: Lebanon. With the removal of Hariri, who is perceived in Riyadh as having been too accommodating to Hezbollah, the prospect of an all-out political war to destabilize Hezbollah’s dominance of the Lebanese state seems set.

Some critics regard all of Saudi Arabia’s bold new foreign policy initiatives, particularly as directed by MbS, as a series of spectacular failures, including the campaign to pressure Qatar into changing its foreign policy and abandoning its support for Islamist groups. However, while the Yemen war has not gone well, the outcome remains to be determined. The Qatar project was always discussed as a long-term one rather than with any expectation of a quick resolution and there’s still every reason to suspect that, in the medium-term, Doha will find no alternative but to seek a resolution largely on Riyadh’s terms. The campaign to roll back Iranian influence in the Arab world is much more complicated, and depends on many factors beyond Riyadh’s control, not least of them the role of the United States. It is on this front that MbS appears most vulnerable to a widespread conclusion that he has consolidated power without achieving the minimum necessary results. At the very least, a sense that Saudi Arabia is putting up a spirited defense of its interests in the face of creeping Iranian hegemony would be required to avoid the perception of failure.

By positioning himself as an all-powerful incoming monarch, albeit with a populist touch and a de-facto alliance with the youth and the middle class, MbS is gambling everything on relative success on all three registers: political power, socioeconomic reform, and foreign policy. While most Saudis seem to understand the pressing need for radical change, and many may currently support MbS’s measures, the danger is that a perceived significant failure on any of these fronts could produce a crisis of legitimacy in an environment of such personalized authority. It could lead many to ask whether they were better off with the old system of relative decentralization, personal fiefdoms, and even corruption. It’s in almost everyone’s interest that MbS’s reform and modernization programs succeed, but, perhaps more than any other contemporary political leader, he has put all his chips on the table at once. MbS—and therefore almost certainly Saudi Arabia as a whole—will either win or lose spectacularly.