The Future Has Arrived for Mohammed bin Salman

 In U.S.
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.

With his father’s support and the passing of the old guard, MbS cemented control over defense, economic, and oil policy, by creating the Committee of Economic and Development Affairs, and restructuring the governance of Aramco, the national oil giant. It is this concentration of authority that has struck many observers of Saudi Arabia, who note that the kingdom long operated through a system of checks and balances that prevented any one figure from exercising truly autocratic power. And yet, that equilibrium developed more by accident than by design, due to the embedded strength of the institutional fiefdoms whose interests had to be balanced before any major decision could be taken. With the old guard out of the picture, there were far fewer constraints on MbS.

To a significant degree, then, the crown prince’s moves over the weekend were merely the latest, most aggressive step in his ambitious project. The moves against some of the highest-profile Saudis in public (and royal family) affairs send a clear signal that MbS intends to write new rules of the game in the kingdom he is set to rule for decades to come.

The Crown Prince is attempting to remake the Saudi Arabia his grandfather created, casting himself as the twenty-first century equivalent to the man whose 51-year reign he may one day emulate. A pair of government reshuffles in April and June 2017 brought many of the “third and fourth” generation of al Saud princes—the grandsons and great-grandsons of King Abdulaziz—into positions of responsibility. They moved the kingdom decisively away from the path to gerontocracy.

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