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Feature Article

A Royal Purge: Public Relations or Private Scores?

The spectacular arrests of high-profile members of the royal family on November 4 rivetted the world's attention on Saudi Arabia and it's young crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Under the guise of an anti-corruption drive, any opposition to Muhammad from within the royal family has been effectively shut down; at the same time, the purge solidifies his support from the broader public.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Following the announcement on November 4 that an "anti-corruption" body had been formed, with Muhammad (commonly known as MbS) at its head, events seemed to move quickly, although the crackdown had clearly been in the works for weeks, if not longer. The Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel was pressed into action as an ad-hoc luxury prison for princes, business titans and former ministers, and sensational pictures of its "inmates" sleeping on the Ritz' carpeted ballroom made the media rounds (it later emerged that those on the floor were guards, while those under arrest occupied the hotel's suites). Among the royal detainees were Mit'ab bin Abdallah, Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), his brother Turki, former mayor of the capital, and al-Walid bin Talal, one of the world's richest men and perhaps the best-known Saudi internationally. Others detained included Khalid al-Tuwayjiri, once the gatekeeper of the late King Abdallah's court, and Adil Fakieh, Minister of the Economy and the chief architect of Vision 2030, the brainchild of MbS.

This added even more drama to an already volatile situation - a long-range missile launched from Yemen had been shot down the night before near the international airport, and Lebanon's Prime Minister Sa'd al-Hariri, in Riyadh, was just then announcing his resignation, prompting allegations that he was acting under Saudi orders. Shortly after, Mansur bin Muqrin, son of the crown prince lately ousted by MbS, was killed in a helicopter crash near the border with Yemen. No explanation was ever given for the crash, but speculation swirled that his death was part of the crackdown. Rumors of a shootout and the death of Abd al-Aziz bin Fahd, an outspoken prince lately critical of government decisions, had also to be officially denied (though his whereabouts are still unknown). Clearly, the events of early November were significant. Explanations for the motives of the crown prince ranged from the conspiratorial - a cash grab by MbS himself, or the purging of potential rivals, to the more benign - that MbS was in fact taking steps to reign in rampant corruption, as long promised. Whatever the shades of truth behind it, however, his actions were met with widespread approval across all sections of Saudi society, and praised by the Kingdom's American ally.

The most significant arrest was surely that of Mit'ab bin Abdallah, the head of SANG, which draws its members from the tribes and is intended to protect the royal family from internal challenges. Abdallah, forced to rely on his tribal connections as a power base, had been instrumental in building the Guard into the formidable army it is today. American-equipped and trained by the Vinnell corporation, SANG was in effect a rival power center to the Defense Ministry. While Abdallah lived (he headed the Guard from 1962 until turning it over to son Mit'ab formally in 2010), it acted as a check on the al-Sudayri branch of the family, represented by brothers Sultan and Salman, and now the king's son Muhammad, who have all held the position of defense minister, and considered the portfolio part of their personal fiefdom. Tensions ran high at times, with the potential for a civil war of sorts always bubbling under the surface, but the competing centers served as a balance to the ambitions of any one family branch. With Mit'ab gone (strangely, with no resistance coming from SANG), the Salman branch has eliminated the possibility of any challenge from that quarter. Mit'ab was also thought to be one of the only credible rivals to MbS, given his experience, relative seniority, and high regard within the family. He was not known to have much of a power base beyond his appointment, but circumstances had made him the only viable centre of gravity for any emergent resistance which might have arisen around dissenting princes. Whether this process was underway organically or not, MbS has shut down the possibility of Mit'ab ever becoming a threat.

Related articles: The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?
The Islamist Crackdown: Impending Autocracy Or Crumbling Support?
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Past Feature Articles
The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?

Despite an implicit admission that achieving the targets of Vision 2030 will be difficult, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is ploughing ahead with reforms. At the same time, any criticism of royal rule is being firmly rebuffed. Dealing with immediate threats to royal rule, however, may leave Muhammad exposed to challenge on another front.

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?

Changing Family Dynamics: End of an Interlude?

As traditional assumptions about the place of consensus, seniority and compromise in domestic family politics are cast aside in the face of new realities, any discussion of succession must take into account the evolving dynamics. The more recent history of the Al Saud, in fact, and the impression drawn of of stability, practicality, and quiet competence, may, in the larger scheme, prove more the exception than the rule.

Succession Shock - The Trump Effect?

The King has replaced Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif with his own son, Muhammad, the deputy crown prince and defense minister, in a move which, though not entirely unexpected, represents a seismic shift in the succession dynamic. Now, the position of deputy crown prince remains vacant - will Salman abdicate in favor of his son, and who will be next in line?

The End of Consensus: Uncharted Terrain?

The rapid promotion of King Salman's son, Muhammad, highlights a fundamental contrast between the king and his predecessor. In the matter of succession, owing to his position within the royal family and a different outlook resulting from that advantage, Salman can afford to downplay the role of consensus and effect a radical break from the past.