WASHINGTON ― Saudi Arabia in free fall would make the other crises in the Middle East look puny.
The hugely wealthy kingdom is key to U.S. efforts to combat America’s most urgent threats. It has stockpiled thousands of ready-to-launch missiles, tens of thousands of bombs, uncounted reserves of small arms, hundreds of tanks and fighter jets and some of the most aggressive spyware available in the world.
Through Saudi Arabia’s supply lines to Asia and its sway over the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, it wields vast power over the oil production that fuels global trade.
And its population of nearly 30 million is largely young and often vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, as striking levels of volunteering and fundraising for the self-described Islamic State and al Qaeda have shown.
Despite the risks, Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old Saudi king-to-be, has spent close to three years pushing the kingdom to change in unprecedented ways — to forcefully intervene abroad, as it has to brutal effect in neighboring Yemen, to open up its state-dominated economy to entrepreneurs and foreign capital, and above all, to embrace rule by one near-omnipotent leader.
The crown prince is likely to see at least some success. But officials and experts monitoring the kingdom are increasingly worried about his methods. If Mohammed bin Salman pushes too hard, he could shatter his society ― and unleash a nightmare.
Since Nov. 4, the prince has accelerated his campaign. His new anti-corruption agency has arrested hundreds of prominent Saudis ― including royal family members like recently released Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the previous king and former head of the powerful National Guard, and noted billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal ― as well as dozens of military officers and private businessmen like construction magnate Bakr Binladin.
At least 17 detainees have needed medical attention because of abuse, according to The New York Times, and Saudi authorities say they seek to confiscate much of the wealth these figures accumulated — securing hundreds of billions of dollars to fund Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda.
The prince is aware of international anxiety about Saudi stability. In interviews with important Westerners like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, he suggests that he shares that concern. Mohammed bin Salman’s argument is that collapse would be likely ― even inevitable ― without his plans. He cites goals reformist Saudis and outsiders have long said Riyadh must adopt: ending endemic corruption, encouraging Saudis to be less dependent on the state with his Vision 2030 economic strategy, and discouraging ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.
“Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So this is what we are trying to do here. And we hope we get support from everyone,” the prince told The Guardian in October.
But he’s also fundamentally changing the methods his country has relied on to avert catastrophe.
[Mohammed bin Salman] has consolidated power in a way unknown to the kingdom since the age of his grandfather in the 1930s and ’40s.
“The [Saudi] system itself is in many ways built around trying to ensure stability,” Derek Chollet, who has served in top positions at the White House, Pentagon and State Department since the 1990s, told HuffPost.
Consider the last time Saudi Arabia had a hostile army on its borders. It didn’t announce a response for six days.
“You had King Fahd, but you had Crown Prince Abdullah, the head of the National Guard; Prince Sultan, the head of the defense ministry; Prince Nayef, head of the interior ministry; and Prince Saud Al-Faisal at the foreign ministry,” said F. Gregory Gause, an expert on the Persian Gulf at Texas A&M University.
“These were all senior members of the family. They all had a voice in what went on,” Gause continued, adding, “the king had to, if not get a consensus, at least consult around with various people. So if we look at 1990, which is relatively well-documented from the American side, we know that the Saudis for days didn’t acknowledge that the Iraqis had invaded Kuwait because they hadn’t come to a decision on how to handle it.”
That consensus-based system — which King Salman, the crown prince’s father, once described to American interviewer Karen Elliott House as Saudi Arabia’s answer to democracy — dominated the kingdom’s politics for decades.
Saudi Arabians do not choose representatives who can truly influence the policies of their king. Saudi courts have little judicial independence. And the regime’s domestic critics have never wielded real power. Sons of the founder of the modern Saudi state, including King Salman, have ruled in succession since 1953, and various brothers, sons and cousins have developed independent power centers by running various aspects of the sprawling government. The chief checks and balances on any rulers of the kingdom were traditionally within the top tier of the thousands-strong royal family.
With last month’s arrests, Mohammed bin Salman signaled that the old system is dead. The prince had already slashed the power of the kingdom’s religious establishment, the one institution in the country that can claim as central a role in Saudi history as the royal family, and jailed more than 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists. Now high-ranking sources in the kingdom say they are afraid of growing surveillance.
The prince has consolidated power in a way unknown to the kingdom since the the age of his grandfather in the 1930s and ’40s. Experts say his goal is to show the only way to thrive in Saudi Arabia is to be loyal to his agenda and to him personally. But it’s unclear what comes next, and why there should be any confidence that it will work.
“If you think you can change Saudi society without the religious types enthusiastically behind you, without the rich people supporting you and by marginalizing this huge network of regime support that the ruling family represented, that’s a risky path,” Gause, the Texas A&M professor, told HuffPost.
The Saudi government’s response to those doubts is firm: We know what we’re doing.
“The pace of change has changed due to the young and dynamic leadership in addition to the young and educated population,” Fatimah Baeshen, the spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told HuffPost in a recent email.
“Vision 2030 set long-term aims and also creates a platform for everyone to contribute, both of which ensure the country’s sustainability,” she added. “There is a symbiotic relationship between public sentiment and ongoing public discourse which informs policy development. This helps set the pace and ensures stability.”
Mohammed bin Salman can rely on significant support.
His anti-corruption rhetoric resonates with millions of Saudis who feel that the elite have fleeced state oil revenues, as well as with businesspeople around the world who are frustrated with unaccountable Saudi partners. “It would be a mistake to dismiss all authoritarian efforts to clean up government as little more than ‘political theater,’” analysts Andrew Leber and Christopher Carothers wrote of the crackdown in Saudi Arabia, suggesting it might lead to long-lasting and positive reforms.
The prince’s decision to allow Saudi women to drive and to defang the kingdom’s long-feared religious police will likely also pay dividends. “He gets lots of people because of these cards, [like the] social liberalism card,” said Hala Aldosari, a Saudi rights activist and current fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “For Saudis, this is a gain, even if it means this is a gain being made for political reasons, to present himself as the visionary leader more appropriate for relations with the West.”
Mohammed bin Salman’s approach of strategically reducing global oil supplies (and even Saudi market share) to keep prices high recently helped boost Saudi foreign reserves for the first time in months, and there are high expectations for the anticipated payouts to the treasury, courtesy of his anti-corruption drive and the income Riyadh can gain from publicly listing part of its state-owned oil company. The same month as the crackdown, Saudi Arabia’s non-oil private sector grew at its quickest pace in two years, a recent economic survey showed.
But blunders are inevitable. The question is how big they’ll be.
One possibility is that the prince won’t be able to pull off most of the change he’s gunning for, will decide that it’s impossible, and will fall into old, self-destructive Saudi habits. There are already signs he will have to slow-roll attempted cuts to public benefits.
To Aldosari, a former government consultant, Mohammed bin Salman’s challenges to the old system don’t even seem as sweeping as many have suggested. “It’s not a change of structure, it’s a change of approach: how to distribute power,” she told HuffPost.
She envisages the prince setting up his own new (if smaller) club of inevitably corrupt elites to replace the old guard, and believes he’ll ultimately be seen as more personally linked to Saudi government policy than previous kings ― and therefore, more likely to be blamed when things go wrong.
Saudis have blasted Mohamad bin Salman’s response to recent floods in Jeddah, the kingdom’s second-largest city, noting that he’d promised accountability measures that would force corrupt officials to actually spend government money on infrastructure to prevent such flooding.
His anti-corruption credentials have also suffered because of The Wall Street Journal’s revelation that he spent close to half a billion dollars on a Leonardo da Vinci painting in October. It remains unclear how much money he and his branch of the royal family have made over the years.
If Mohammed bin Salman chooses to mostly follow the path of previous kings, simply modifying it to accommodate his desire to have more personal control, the system could become even more repressive, Aldosari said, with the human rights community losing one potential check on the king’s prerogative. In the past, she explained, royals with influence sometimes intervened on activists’ behalf, as Prince Alwaleed did when he urged lighter prison sentences for women arrested for challenging the driving restrictions.
Wealthy Saudis have long been willing to fund men with guns ― including extremists. It’s not hard to imagine some turning to that tactic again.
An even darker future may come to pass if Mohammed bin Salman’s plans backfire dramatically. The lack of due process in the targeting of notable Saudis has already spooked the international investors he’s hoping to court and the powerful figures at home who are now exploring ways to protect their assets because they think they might be next. There’s a chance the decisive boom in non-oil Saudi business he’s waiting for just won’t come ― and the country will be left with shrunken government reserves from his surrendering of Saudi market share in the oil trade, as well as a population angry about failed promises and slashed benefits.
Unlike previous Saudi monarchs, Mohammed bin Salman also won’t be able to rely on a system historically proven to manage dissent when he is king. He’s scared off potential challengers for now, but experts believe anger might linger, particularly in agencies like the interior ministry that have long been controlled by branches of the royal family that he has sidelined. That resentment could fuel private scheming to thwart the king-to-be, perhaps after he loses his father’s protection and lays his own claim to the throne. It could even inspire direct assaults, like the assassination attempt that claimed King Faisal’s life in 1975, or the violent takeover of the holy complex in Mecca in 1979 by ultraconservative militants.
Wealthy Saudis have long been willing to fund men with guns ― including extremists, as in the cases of al Qaeda and ISIS, which have both pledged to overthrow the Saudi regime. It’s not hard to imagine some turning to that tactic again, perhaps even boosting internal pockets of resistance like the persecuted Shiite community in the oil-rich Eastern Province.
A Saudi civil war would be a brutal affair ― one directly implicating and endangering the West, given how much American and European weaponry is in the kingdom and how Middle East security vacuums have proven to shelter militants planning attacks thousands of miles away.
Internal fissures could also lead Mohammed bin Salman to wreak havoc beyond the kingdom’s borders. His efforts against regional rival Iran have already brought millions to the brink of famine in Yemen and proven “haphazard, unsettling and counterproductive,” according to International Institute for Strategic Studies analyst Emile Hokayem. The bitterness he’s inspired among traditionally Saudi-friendly Sunni Muslims in Lebanon by forcing the televised humiliation of their leader ― in Saudi Arabia, no less ― is a potent example.
But using foreign interventions to stoke Saudi nationalism is one of the prince’s favored tactics to shore up support, Aldosari told HuffPost. The kingdom may embark on more messy, internationally condemned adventures abroad ― and it’s unclear how they will end. Well-connected former CIA official Bruce Riedel recently told a Washington audience that the prince’s foreign policy has failed to account for any way out of the crises he has created so far.
The widely held view among observers of the region, including some fierce critics of the kingdom and the prince, is that it would be best for the kingdom and the world if Mohammed bin Salman’s big gamble were to work out.
The expectation of relative stability has been part of the foundation of U.S.-Saudi relations, analysts Michael Stephens and Thomas Juneau wrote in 2016. Chollet, the former U.S. official now at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told HuffPost he recalled anxiety among Obama aides in 2011 and 2012 when then-King Abdullah’s health began to falter and it appeared that the Saudi succession might become problematic. He counts himself as one of many in Washington rooting for Mohammed bin Salman to succeed, but unsure if he can.
When Riyadh errs, Chollet said, Washington has some leverage to spur better judgment, but sometimes not enough. And under President Donald Trump, who has loudly praised Mohammed bin Salman’s purges and whose son-in-law Jared Kushner is enamored with the prince, even limited cautioning seems unlikely. A U.S. official working on the region recently described the White House as unwilling to hear criticism of Mohammed bin Salman’s choices, and said the only prospect of a change is if the famously fickle U.S. president one day simply changes his mind on his own.
“In many ways, [Trump and the Saudi royals] feel very familiar to one another,” Chollet said, joking, “They have the same interior decorator.”
Some seasoned Saudi watchers say the young king-in-waiting is adjusting course. Official Washington was very pleased with a report last month from Washington Post grandee David Ignatius that suggested Mohammed bin Salman seeks calm resolutions to his November surprises ― the corruption arrests and the Lebanese prime minister’s since-reversed resignation announcement ― by settling with detainees out of court and reiterating Saudi support for the U.S.-backed national army of Lebanon.
But there’s still anxiety in the air.
“Regime stability is an enduring concern,” Chollet said. “Instability in Saudi Arabia does not stay in Saudi Arabia.”