Will Saudi Crown Prince’s Palace Revolution Gain Him Money and Power?

Has Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MbS) ramped up his power with the arrest of 500 high-ranking opponents on Nov. 4, including 11 princes, four sitting ministers, a couple of generals and clerics, several business leaders and hundreds of former officials?

And what happens to them next after they are processed by the new Supreme Committee for Fighting Corruption in Public Finance, set up under his personal lead?

Media reports in the Middle East and the West have focused on the fabulously rich detainees’ corrupt practices and illicit methods of self-enrichment. None of these allegations have been verified. And no wonder.

Self-enrichment at the expense of the public exchequer is common practice for the privileged classes in the oil-rich kingdom, from the monarch down to the thousands of princes and other notables. In major international transactions, especially the mammoth arms deals contracted by the kingdom, payoffs to the princes and their relatives involved are routine.

The Crown Prince’s clean sweep of his opponents was therefore not conducted for a clean-up of financial misbehavior in the royal house. It was a palace revolution to maximize his grip on power, a step up from his controversial reform program.

A fatal helicopter crash near the Yemen border on Sunday, Nov. 5 brought the name of a senior opposition leader into focus. Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, deputy governor of Asir province, was among the seven Saudi officials killed in the accident. The group was fleeing arrest, after Mansour’s father, Prince Muqrin al-Saud, was detained. A former head of intelligence and King Abdullah’s Crown Prince, Muqrin and his son were sworn opponents of King Salman and MsB. There were rumors that the helicopter was shot down until it turned out that the disaster was caused by a technical malfunction.

Some hours after that mishap, it was rumored that a second prince had died in mysterious circumstances: Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, the youngest son of the late King Fahd, was reported killed in a gun battle with Saudi security forces while resisting arrest.

In the feverish climate sweeping Riyadh this week, his older brother, Prince Turki bin Mohamed bin Fahd, was claimed to have fled the country. There was unconfirmed speculation that he was heading for political asylum in Tehran. If this is confirmed, it would further fuel the high tension already prevailing between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It appeared on Thursday, that Saudi aviation authorities had been ordered not to let any of the kingdom’s many princes fly out of the country.

Prince Muhammad has meanwhile entered into negotiations with the detainees, which give us a pointer to his second prime objective – a large infusion of cash to fund his stalled reform program. Discussions appear to be turning on the sums each will be required to deposit in the state coffer to buy his release and immunity from prosecution.

Confined in the Carlton Ritz-Riyadh, some of them are apparently being made uncomfortable enough to be willing to surrender large parts of their fortunes for their freedom, including major holdings in foreign companies.

The sum total of wealth locked with its owners inside the walls of the five-star hotel is estimated by International financial experts as $80-120 billion. The financial giant Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal alone is believed to be worth $17 billion in global assets.

But the Crown Prince, while cashing in on his venture, aimed above all to suppress the opposition to his meteoric rise to almost unlimited power while still only 32. This has swelled since King Salman elevated him to Crown Prince in June, over the head of Muhammed bin Nayef. The more powers the king vested in his favorite son, and the more ambitious the reforms he proposed, the more vocal the storm of criticism.

The young Crown Prince now controls the defense ministry and weapons procurement. Through a proxy, he holds the Ministry of Interior, including the domestic security and secret services. The king appointed him Chief of the Royal Court and senior financial adviser. And he has also trodden on sensitive toes in the conservative religious establishment by permitting women to drive cars.

The spreading dissent in the royal family came to a head at a recent meeting of the Allegiance Council of 34 senior princes, an organ of state established by the late King Abdullah a decade ago for representatives of the different branches of the sprawling progeny of the House of Saud to clear high-level appointments in the kingdom.

King Salman and his son tried to pacify the dissenters with compromise offers, but failed to win them round. The Crown Prince, fearing a coup d’etat, accused Prince Miteb bin Abdullah of using his command of the National Guard to lead the unrest. Miteb was sacked from his leadership of the second most powerful force in the land after the army, one step before the long list detentions. He paid the price for his prior claim of the position of heir to the throne by virtue of his seniority over MsB. They were already at odds when the Crown Prince used his authority as defense minister to enhance his control of the National Guard at Miteb’s expense.

With 500 dissidents out of the way, will MsB consolidate his position in the royal house as the highest authority in the realm? First, he must build a strong new power base. His best bet is to enlist and hand out favors to members of the royal family’s branches, who were shouldered out of the central institutions of government by stronger rivals. The purge has opened up attractive positions for willing loyalists. The king and his son have now freed their hands for choosing the next crown prince and so determine the next heir to the throne to follow MsB, after he succeeds his father.

They have also won Washington’s approval. President Donald Trump phoned the king Saturday, as soon as the mass detentions were announced. On Tuesday, he tweeted: “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.”

Among the most recent American visitors to Riyadh were his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a contemporary in age of the Crown Prince, as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But after slashing deep into the most powerful level of the royal house, the Crown Prince must expect a painful backlash. His palace revolution may have been more or less bloodless thus far. But there is enough bad blood in the royal family to galvanize more opponents to mount a challenge to the king and his son.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email