The End of Saudi-Style Stability

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Nov. 8, 2017

For decades, Saudi Arabia was a stable and reliable economic and strategic partner of the United States. That country no longer exists.

The Saudi Arabia that preferred caution to confrontation in international affairs, that emphasized stability at home and that kept royal family disputes private, has been disassembled by the ambitious young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has seized control of all instruments of policy and power in the kingdom.

With a flurry of arrests of princes and business tycoons over the weekend, the crown prince jettisoned the longstanding practice among Saudi rulers of seeking consensus, or at least acquiescence, from all branches of the family and from the country’s business elite. Can the consensus of the family and the business leadership that they forged survive?

If the Saudis are looking at their own history, they should be worried.

After the 1953 death of the country’s founding king, Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, Saudi Arabia was crippled for a decade by a power struggle between his successor, the profligate King Saud, and Crown Prince Faisal, a leader respected for probity and self-discipline.

The arrests over the weekend, and the dismissals of senior cabinet officers, were presented as a crackdown on corruption, and accepted as such by the docile Saudi news media. But their effect is to consolidate the crown prince’s grip on the country and to warn any potential opponents to stay silent.

It is richly ironic for a ruling clan that has benefited from corruption for decades to now declare it unacceptable. And it is difficult to believe that was the true motivation for the ouster of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of King Abdullah and commander of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong elite force that is the cornerstone of the country’s domestic security. Until the weekend, the Bedouin-rooted National Guard was the only component of Saudi Arabia’s security forces that Prince Mohammed did not control, and thus represented a potential rival power center. That threat has now been neutralized.

The National Guard has been trained by American military contractors since the 1970s. The regular armed forces — which Prince Mohammed also controls as defense minister — are also largely American-trained and equipped. In the short term, there seems to be no reason to think that the turmoil in Riyadh will jeopardize the kingdom’s partnership with the United States on military and strategic issues. President Trump was immediately supportive, writing on Twitter that the anti-corruption campaign was overdue and that “They know exactly what they are doing.” But the purge is unlikely to encourage the foreign economic investment upon which the crown prince has staked the kingdom’s economic future.

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