Modern Saudi Arabia has traditionally been ruled by an hereditary dictatorship, or family dictatorship, that was based on an absolute monarchy. Power passed among thousands of members of the various branches of the al-Saud progeny, according to a code book evolving from understandings reached among those branches
King Salman, who ascended the throne eleven months ago at the age of 82, has relegated that code to history. He is in the process of establishing a single-family dictatorship. The Salman branch is taking over the line of succession and is in the process of imposing its will on the other branches of the royal family.
That process was kicked off in June, when King Salman ordered Prince Muhammad bin Nayef to be stripped of his title as crown prince, placed under house arrest at his villa in Jeddah, far from the capital Riyadh, and anointed his son, Muhammed bin Salman (Mbs), aged 32, as crown prince instead. Not satisfied with a formal title, Muhammed was also awarded the most powerful jobs in the realm as First Deputy Prime Minister, President of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, and Minister of Defense. Muhammed had now collected all the trappings of national strongman. He then ran with the ball. His wholesale roundup of hundreds of elite figures including a dozen princes on Nov. 4, billed as a declaration of war on corruption in high places, was in fact a cynical move with three objects:
- To take down the Salman clan’s main opponents and all those standing out against its sovereign rule.
- To lay hands on the fabulous wealth represented by the detained princes and other notables, in order to enrich the royal treasury and fund the Salman family’s dynastic ambitions.
- To start opening up plum job opportunities for a young, new class of family loyalists.
The official figures released shortly after these detentions by Attorney General Sheikh Saud Al-Mujib, a member of the anti-corruption commission, were telling. Altogether 159 people remain in detention; 320 were summoned for questioning, and the bank accounts of 376 Saudi citizens were impounded.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is reckoned to be the 24th richest man in the world – and whose net worth is estimated at $28 billion – was told he would be released from detention in exchange for relinquishing his entire fortune and settling for house arrest for the rest of his life. He must also pledge never to give interviews to any media outlets by any means, even by phone.
King Salman’s net worth in 2016 before he ascended the throne was estimated at $17billion. It may be taken for granted that the two royals – one on the throne and one behind bars – used the same methods to amass their fortunes and derived them from the same sources.
The rich Saudi notables who failed to draw the right conclusions from the former crown prince’s ouster, found themselves on Nov. 4 sleeping on mattresses in the Carlton Ritz lobby.
A more indirect clue to the Salman ambitions surfaced in an unexpected quarter last week, when it was revealed that the record-breaking $450m paid for the last known Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece in private hands was handed over by a Saudi prince no one had ever heard of, Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. Some US media speculated that he was acting on behalf of he crown prince. (The painting later turned out to have reached the Abu Dhabi Louvre.)
The most intriguing aspect of this episode is the surfacing of a prince from an obscure branch of the royal family, which had been thrown out long ago from the brilliant circle of top-ranking royals in power, members of royal branches from which kings and successors to the throne had been drawn.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources noticed that the crown prince has recently been cultivating the Farhan al-Saud branch in his pursuit of second and third generation princes of the House of Saud, who never got a look-in to the magic circle running the monarchy. MbS has evidently gone out of this circle to build a new power base and is looking for henchmen in the obscure branches of the royal family. This process may need time to produce results; it may equally raise up new enemies against the Salman clan and its pretensions to absolute rule.