What Saudi Arabia’s purge means for the Middle East
International and domestic crises dominated Saudi Arabia over the weekend. On Saturday, a wide variety of powerful Saudi princes and officials were arrested in the name of a new drive against corruption. The same day, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in a live television broadcast from Riyadh, and an alleged Houthi missile struck Riyadh from Yemen, provoking Saudi Arabia to close the border of its already embargoed neighbor and warn of war with Iran.
Pro-government analysts and officials have focused on the question of corruption and framed the arrests as evidence of the crown prince and king’s dedication to reform. Most independent analysts instead emphasized the rapid consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who seems to be systematically removing potential challengers to his power before his succession to the throne.
While the full scope and ultimate outcome of the weekend’s arrests remain unclear, the new developments should be understood in the context of interaction between Mohammed bin Salman’s short window for domestic power consolidation and Saudi Arabia’s unsettled regional position. Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic political ambitions and foreign policy moves have unfolded in a deeply uncertain environment, with both domestic power and regional order in an unprecedented state of flux.
The Yemeni missile attack, Hariri’s resignation, and the Saudi arrests would ordinarily be viewed as events of primarily local significance. In today’s context, however, they have sparked fears of a dangerous and unpredictable regional escalation against Iran. Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, Gulf regimes such as Saudi Arabia have lived in existential fear of the sudden eruption of popular mobilization, while pursuing unusually interventionist foreign policies across the region. The extended Saudi power transition at home and its erratic pattern of failed foreign policy interventions must be understood within this wider regional context.
Though seemingly unprecedented, the weekend’s developments follow the pattern Mohammed bin Salman has used since the beginning of his rapid ascent to power in 2015. In both domestic and foreign affairs, he has consistently undertaken sudden and wide-ranging campaigns for unclear reasons which shatter prevailing norms. At home, this audacious political strategy has proven relatively successful — at least in the short term. Abroad, foreign policy gambits such as the intervention in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar have rapidly degenerated into damaging quagmires. This combination of domestic success and foreign policy failure helps makes sense of this weekend’s blizzard of activity and may help preview what comes next.
Corruption or consolidation?
The Saudi government and sympathetic commentators have framed the arrests as an aggressive new move against corruption. Corruption is a massive popular Saudi concern, and positioning Mohammed bin Salman in opposition to corruption would be politically astute. But there is little reason to believe that corruption is the true cause of the crackdown and not simply its justification. The arrests look like a classic purge, removing prominent challengers and neutering competing power centers in a way designed to also intimidate any less well-known potential opponents. The benefits of securing the immediate transition of power may outweigh the risk of generating dangerous opposition in the long term.
Breaking established norms and rules has been a consistent part of Mohammed bin Salman’s political strategy. The move against a wide variety of rival princes and power centers was sudden, massive and designed to shock. The speed and scope of these moves also seems tied to the need for Mohammed bin Salman to lock down his succession to the throne before his father’s death. Such a strategy has allowed him to consolidate power remarkably quickly, while generating large and growing potential opposition down the road.
The arrests targeted multiple types of potential challengers at the same time. Some represented obvious political threats, such as Mutaib bin Abdullah, the former king’s son and head of the National Guard, which posed the primary military check on Mohammed bin Salman’s ambition. Others did not, such as the eye-opening arrest of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the wealthiest and best connected men in the world and a leading player in international Arab and Saudi media. Still others occupied key positions in the government crucial to implementing Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform plans. Striking all of these untouchables at once seems designed to pose a massive shock to the system and forestall any single organized response.