On March 7, 2020, Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS, as he is commonly referred to) detained and arrested former head of army intelligence Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, along with Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the younger brother of King Salman, purportedly in response to a potential coup attempt. The arrests come just months after Crown Prince bin Salman arrested Mohammad bin Nayef, the former interior minister and the man in Saudi Arabia who worked most closely with the United States on counter-terrorism issues after the 9/11 attacks. To make sense of what is happening in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Aaron Stein, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program Director, spoke with Michael Stephens, an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London about Saudi politics.
Aaron Stein: Mike, thanks for doing this. I have to admit up front, I am not an expert on Saudi politics. I know you are. So let’s start with a basic question. What happened?
Michael Stephens: In classic Saudi fashion, an announcement was made late on Friday night, which is always an indicator that something serious has happened. Three princes, including former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN), former Interior Minister Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, and Prince Nawaf bin Nayef were arrested supposedly on charges of Treason, although no charges have yet been brought. MbN’s, brother Governor of Eastern Province Prince Saud bin Nayef, was also invited in for questioning as was his son, the current Interior Minister. It has not been a good weekend for the sons of Prince Nayef, the once all-powerful Interior Minister who held office for 38 years.
It is a brazen move that will send messages throughout the Al Saud family that discontent and disloyalty will not be tolerated. I read it as a disciplinary measure designed to enforce order and to make sure that internal grumbling stops. MbS has a track record of such power plays, so while this is quite a story, it is not exactly out of character and fits entirely within his previous patterns of behavior since becoming Crown Prince in 2017.
Stein: There have been all sorts of rumors floating around social media about why the Crown Prince moved when he did, ranging from King Salman dying to the reports about a coup in the making. What is your take?
Stephens: For as long as I can remember, rumors and gossip have been a factor of life in Gulf politics, and particularly in Saudi where palace intrigues and power plays between rival princes get tongues wagging. The truth is nobody actually knows because the Royal Court hasn’t released any information, and nor will they. There is a rule when dealing with Saudi that many would do well to heed: “Those who know don’t speak.”
The Saudi King is alive and well, and there was no coup attempt, and so it does appear like this was a move by MbS to shore up his position. Slowly but surely, he has ensured that rival princes are stripped of power, and, like any good autocrat, he knows when the time is right to strike.
Many have been asking, “Why has this happened now?” I don’t really feel the answer to this is all that important, and we will never really know outside of speculation. The things to focus on are the wider questions as to why MbS is in a place where he feels that he can return to some of his unsavory old behaviors. International attention is concerned with other issues like the coronavirus, a slowing global economy, and the Democratic Party primaries in the United States; very few people will be looking at what has happened in Riyadh and seeing it as anything more than complex internal politics.
Perhaps more crucially, even if countries are focusing on Riyadh’s Game of Thrones, there is little that they can do about it, except to react and assess whether their interests are affected. Such has always been the way with autocratic rulers in the Middle East—people look on with bemusement, but do nothing.
Stein: Finally, where is Saudi headed? No one can give me a clear answer. Hope you can fill in the blanks.
Stephens: Well I think it is 100% certain MbS will become King, there is no one left to stand in his way, and there hasn’t been since late 2017.
But MbS really has his work cut out for him. Saudi has a myriad of challenges to face at the moment: the economy is in bad shape, and with Russia choosing to take on U.S. shale in a price war, the Saudis can not rely on higher oil prices to help balance their books. The grandiose Vision 2030 that MbS has invested so much time and energy in promoting is not performing even close to expectations. The economy is not diversifying away from hydrocarbon-driven wealth, and time is beginning to run out. MbS should be applauded for the energy he has brought to trying to solve this problem, and the societal changes that have occurred in the country since he became CP have been remarkable, but the execution and delivery of the macroeconomics underpinning Vision 2030 have been very poor.
In terms of foreign policy and security, I think it’s well known that the Gulf Region is experiencing an extremely delicate period; years of heated Saudi and Iranian rhetoric have produced a highly unstable dynamic in which the two countries have tried and failed to overcome the other’s influence in regional states, most notably in Yemen. The Saudi-led war in Yemen is an abject failure that has dragged on for years and which needs to be brought to an end. It is difficult to underestimate just how much the Yemen war has hobbled Saudi’s ability to project power across the region, serving to strip the country of resources and manpower, while also cementing the impression among other regional states that Saudi is a paper tiger.
It is commonplace to hear speculation about the House of Saud and its stability, but I don’t think the regime is in any real trouble domestically. Not because of the oft-repeated phrase that “young people like MbS,” but because Saudis by and large support their monarchy and believe in the institution. Saudis don’t do regime change, it’s not in their political and social DNA, and they look to the leadership to provide a sense of security and order. Having said that, the problems are building, and MbS will really need to tackle two issues urgently: youth unemployment and housing. The government has invested huge amounts of money in trying to tackle both, but is slowly but surely failing at the task. I honestly don’t know where Saudi is headed in the long term. I don’t suspect it’s to a good place, but, for now, they have the resources necessary to ensure stability. For the medium term, I think MbS and the country at large will be ok.
Stein: Thank you for doing this.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.