What the royal Saudi purge means: prelude to reform or power consolidation?


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been considered a bulwark of stability in the Persian Gulf region. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s extraordinary weekend roundup against alleged corruption shook investors across the globe, The Washington Post reports.

It’s a truly astonishing level of power consolidation for a monarchy where, traditionally, decision-making authority was shared among the various different members of the family, VOX adds.

“In effect, [MBS] and his father are the most powerful kings Saudi Arabia has ever seen,” Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel told Foreign Policy’s David Kenner after the arrests.

Others said there was bad blood between Prince Alwaleed and the crown prince, the Times adds. A former United States ambassador, Chas W. Freeman Jr., said it could be that Prince Alwaleed “has been strongly identified with civil society, which is by its very nature a counter to concentration of power.”

Underpinning the cultural reforms is Prince Mohammed’s pledge last month to “return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam”, in effect a commitment to break the founding alliance between clerics who adhere to the rigid teachings of 17th century preacher Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab and the kingdom’s modern rulers, The Guardian adds:

The crown prince said a hardline interpretation of Islam had taken root in Saudi Arabia after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. “We didn’t know how to deal with it,” Prince Mohammed told the Guardian. “And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”

The public widely praised moves to shake off the state’s entrenched Salafist ideology, notes Saudi activist Hala Al-Dosari, (left), a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University:

Yet the limited economic, social, and religious reforms MBS announced drew attention away from the recent arrests and even justified them as part of planned educational reforms to reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over Saudi academics. And it is difficult to envision achieving this moderate Islam when reformers such as Abdullah al-Malki are imprisoned while state-affiliated religious scholars endorse strict and contradicting opinions on their official websites and when novels are still being confiscated and censored for “indecency.”

“The monarchy has traditionally maintained its unchecked power over public opinion by supporting the religious institution and censoring media and education,” Dosari writes for Carnegie’s Sada journal. “However, given mounting economic and political constraints it is not surprising that the state is now targeting advocates of reform, regardless of their political or religious affiliations, to ensure it maintains control of public opinion.”

This steady seizure of power has given rise to resistance within and outside the royal family, and Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation to crown prince was not unanimously supported when the top royal princes met to approve it, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams writes for the New York Times.

“In the Saudi system, power has been passed among the sons of the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, known as Ibn Saud, since his death in 1953. That made the king more primus inter pares than absolute monarch. One king was removed by his brothers (Saud, in 1964), and the system has permitted fiefs,” adds Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group “Crown Prince Mohammed is putting an end to all that, taking some of those posts himself and removing others from the seemingly permanent control of any one branch of the family.”

In pushing his reforms the crown prince is making a demographic bet, argues Dr. Herb London, president of the London Center for Policy Research.

“The kingdom’s large population of young people cares more about entertainment and economic opportunities than religious dogma,” he notes. “Serious measures to stamp out the rigidities of Islamic fundamentalism that permeate the nation could have salutary effects on trade and financial transactions.”

Dr HA Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the sharp change in rhetoric did not necessarily mean that the leadership was disavowing Wahhabism.

“A change of philosophical levels, where the Saudi religious establishment is no longer Wahhabi? That would be a monumental shift, and I’m not sure MBS [Prince Mohammed] is all that interested in taking that up.

“If we were to expect a non-conservative religious approach to take root in Saudi, I think we’re daydreaming,” he said. “But the question is how much such a society can genuinely revert to a more normative religious outlook – especially over a short period of time. The approach thus far seems to be about restraining the more radical impulses, rather than getting into the root of where that comes from. 1979 is crucial in understanding how the Saudi state was restricting or loosening the amount of space the religious establishment had – not in terms of the religious basis of that establishment.”

If successful, MbS’s revolutionary program to transform Saudi society would unambiguously serve U.S. interests, argues John Hannah, senior counselor at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). It’s no exaggeration to say that Saudi Arabia, however inadvertently, has historically played a greater role in fueling the rise of radical jihadism than any other country in the world, he writes for The Hill:

MbS has made clear that he’s committed to ending all that, transforming the kingdom from being a fundamental part of the problem to an essential part of the solution. There’s perhaps no more important blow that could be struck in the war on terrorism than to have Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the site of its two holiest mosques, move from being the fountainhead of the extremist ideology that we’ve been fighting since 9/11 to being its slayer.

But Mohammed bin Salman is playing a high-stakes game and there are grave risks, says F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. “The biggest risk here is to Prince Mohammad’s Vision 2030,” he tells NPR, a far-reaching reform plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and diversify the economy.

“If some of the leading figures of the Saudi private sector can be detained in this way, it introduces enormous uncertainty into the investment environment,” says Gause. “Capitalists do not like uncertainty.”

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