The Cable

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Cracks the Whip

In a series of dramatic moves, Mohammed bin Salman aimed to cement his hold on power at home and raise pressure on Iran abroad.

Then-Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gestures during a press conference in Riyadh, on April 25, 2016.(Fayez Nureldine /AFP/Getty Images)
Then-Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gestures during a press conference in Riyadh, on April 25, 2016.(Fayez Nureldine /AFP/Getty Images)

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidated his control over Saudi Arabia’s political system and foreign policy over the weekend in a series of orchestrated moves that included ordering the arrests of prominent officials and businessmen.

The first step came on midday Saturday, when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation in a speech delivered from Riyadh. Hariri, a longtime client of Saudi Arabia, warned about assassination plots targeting him and said that Iran’s hands in the region “will be cut off.” Hariri, whose family owns a massive Saudi construction firm, had presided over a national unity government that included Hezbollah, Iran’s foremost ally in the country.

“The Saudis are all-in in this business of rolling back Iranian influence,” said Randa Slim, the director of the Track II Dialogues Initiative at the Middle East Institute. “Their approach [in Lebanon] is going to be head-on confrontation by whatever means they have — political and financial.”

Saudi officials had recently made clear they sought to confront Iran and its allies across the Arab world. In May, Mohammed bin Salman ruled out any dialogue with Iran, saying that Saudi Arabia “will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran.” Saudi State Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan seemed to echo that stance last week, when he said that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah “should be toppled” from power, promising “astonishing” developments in the days to come.

The next day, the minister posted on Twitter that he had concluded “a long and fruitful meeting” with Hariri.

Hariri’s move has thrown Lebanese politics into flux. President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, said that he would not accept the resignation until Hariri returns to the country. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, said that Hariri’s decision had been “imposed” by Saudi Arabia, and that his party had not sought the prime minister’s exit. “Why was Hariri not allowed to return to Lebanon to announce the resignation from here?” he asked.

Nasrallah’s comments were meant to link Hariri’s departure to the arrest of dozens of Saudi princes and influential military officers, politicians, and businessmen in a purported anti-corruption sweep. The wave of arrests cemented Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s control over the kingdom’s security institutions and threatened to bring down some of its most prominent businessmen.

There was no evidence that Hariri, who also holds Saudi citizenship, was caught up in the arrests, and on Sunday evening he posted a photograph of himself meeting with the new Saudi ambassador to Lebanon.

The most politically powerful figure to lose his job over the weekend was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of former King Abdullah and a former candidate for the throne himself, who was removed from his post as head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard by royal decree. Prince Miteb was the last member of Abdullah’s branch of the family to maintain a top government post, and his removal gives Crown Prince Mohammed an opportunity to extend his control to all of the country’s security branches.

The new anti-corruption committee headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, meanwhile, targeted business figures with well-established relationships both inside and outside the kingdom. They include billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the chairman of Kingdom Holding Co. and major investor in companies such as Twitter and Citigroup, and Bakr bin Ladin, the chairman of the construction conglomerate Saudi Binladin Group.

The arrested figures are reportedly being held in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel.

Mohammed bin Salman “is trying to make people understand that this is no longer business as usual, because if it remains business as usual, there is no way that he will ever be able to succeed with Vision 2030,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, referring to the crown prince’s reform agenda, which includes diversifying the country’s economy and reforming the public sector. “And I think there’s a real realization that, for him to succeed, he has to crack the whip.”

In doing so, however, the crown prince is consolidating his own power to a degree that Saudi Arabia has not seen in generations. Recent Saudi monarchs, Haykel said, had tried to build consensus among all the branches of the royal family — and in doing so, had created an unwieldy system that was at times incapable of making decisions.

Mohammed bin Salman is returning Saudi Arabia to the consolidated power dynamics of Ibn Saud, the first Saudi king, according to Haykel.

The difference, however, is that the current crown prince “has a full, modern state — with all its instruments of power and coercion and efficiency — at his disposal, which the first king didn’t have,” he said. “In effect, he and his father are the most powerful kings Saudi Arabia has ever seen.”

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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