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Feature Article
2017-09-18

The Islamist Crackdown: Impending Autocracy Or Crumbling Support?

The month of September got under way with an alarming crackdown on dissent which targeted critics of the newly-installed crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. At the same time as he scales back plans for the ambitious Vision 2030, the crown prince is moving to solidify his position. But do his aggressive tactics underline how tenuous his position really is, or rather, do they expose an overconfident belief that he can navigate the treacherous waters alone?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

As part of an extensive crackdown launched by the Saudi security services in early September, nearly 30 influential Islamic scholars, preachers, and well-known intellectuals were swept up in a series of dramatic pre-dawn raids. The coordinated campaign was designed for maximum impact - the authorities, whose targets included clerics, university professors, writers, researchers, poets lawyers, economists, rights advocates, and media officials, were accompanied by film crews as they burst into private homes to carry out the arrests. The campaign, which lasted for four successive days, impacted about 27 men, all of whom had spoken out in ways which could be deemed critical of Saudi domestic and foreign policy. Among the detained were Shaykh Salman al-Ouda, who has 14 million followers on Twitter, and the influential Awad al-Qarni, another prominent cleric with over two million Twitter followers, who was taken from his home in Abha. Saudi security men have also arrested a number of other clerics including the academic scholar Ali Badahdah, Adil Banaymah, Khalid al-Shannar, Idris Abkar, and Khalid al-Mahiwush.

Saudi has not commented on the matter, although the news agency SPA has said that authorities uncovered "intelligence activities for the benefit of foreign parties" by a group of unnamed people. The official line is that the individuals were aiding and abetting Qatari interests, although the common thread seems to be implied criticism of Saudi government policy. Shaykh Salman al-Ouda, for example, had recently proposed a reconciliation between Saudi and Qatar, following signs of a softening of Saudi's stance against the Kingdom's small neighbor, which has been subject to a boycott since June. After the government unexpectedly changed its position, however, al-Ouda suddenly appeared at odds with the Saudi leadership (al-Ouda is now reported to have begun a hunger strike). In another sign of an apparent crackdown on potential government critics, the authorities have been urging people to report "subversive" social media activity via a phone app, in anticipation of demonstrations (which are illegal) planned by exiled opposition leaders.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) has moved quickly to consolidate his position since his father ascended the throne, acquiring unprecedented control over the levers of state power as he sidelines cousins and uncles who might stand in his way as rivals. The aging King Salman, who never sought the throne and always aspired to have one of his sons rule in his stead, has devolved almost all of his responsibility to Muhammad, his favored son, seemingly oblivious to the upheaval this has caused to the traditional structures of family governance. Senior royals, now shut out of power and seeing their influence over policy wane, have largely accepted their diminished status and left MbS to move forward with his plans, which include an ambitious economic agenda intended to wean the Kingdom off oil. But this has not been without controversy, as many of the royals, and much of the public, oppose the privatization of large sectors of the economy, in particular the planned sale of part of the oil giant, Saudi Aramco. Furthermore, MbS' foreign policy decisions have been seen as impetuous and ill-advised, with little to show for after billions of dollars in wasted effort. MbS, aware of the growing backlash, is responding to the pressure by drawing his wagon train into a circle.

None of the detained under the security sweep were known opposition figures or even openly critical of the state; in fact some considered themselves government allies, guilty only of mild censure. But the winds of change blow swiftly - al-Ouda's comments on Twitter reflected, only days previously, official policy. But after MbS became angered with public reports of his overtures to Doha, talk of Qatari isolation was once again the order of the day, and al-Ouda was himself isolated.

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