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Saudi Arabia: Royal round-up

In consolidating his hold on power, Crown Prince Mohammed will have alienated dozens of senior princes

Saudis faced a blizzard of official announcements in the late hours of Saturday night—sackings, arrests and new appointments—affecting dozens of very senior figures in the kingdom. The only certainty they could see through the storm was the fact that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had tightened his grip on the reins of power. In terms of Saudi politics and the succession, by far the most important development was the sacking of Prince Miteb, son of late King Abdullah, from his powerful position as head of the National Guard.

This force of some 100,000 men, backed by another 25,000 tribal volunteers, operates separately from the other Saudi armed forces. Or rather it did. Now, all military and intelligence units will be under the command of the crown prince. Miteb, once regarded as a potential challenger for the crown, has met the same fate as the other potential candidate, former crown prince, Mohammed bin Naif: kicked unceremoniously into obscurity.

The many other unprecedented changes, announced on a day that will go down in Saudi history, were as significant as they were surprising. Eleven princes and four government ministers were arrested on corruption charges, joining dozens of other former ministers and businessmen taken into custody at the same time. Billionaire tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was on the list, as was economy and planning minister Adel Faqih who was thought to be a confidant of the crown prince and closely involved in the reform process.

None of the changes appeared to affect the energy sector, where Khalid al-Falih remains in his post as energy minister. But Saudi Arabia’s oil sector and oil policy are already effectively in the hands of crown prince Mohammed through his chairmanship of both Saudi Aramco’s ruling council and the kingdom’s supreme economic council.

Oil prices firmed in early trading on 6 November, with Brent rising about 0.5% to $62.35 a barrel. But political risk in the world’s largest oil exporter has risen sharply in a matter of days. The arrests on 4 November followed by about an hour news that Saudi military defences had shot down over Riyadh airport a missile fired from Yemen. Saudi Arabia and US President Donald Trump were quick to say that the missile was an Iranian-supplied one. 

The drive against corruption will be welcome by most Saudis, particularly the younger generation who applaud Muhammed bin Salman’s fresh and no-nonsense approach to decision making. But it won’t appease critics of the ruling family’s ostentatious displays of wealth at a time of growing austerity in the kingdom. Also, many more senior members of Al Saud than before, along with their families and supporters, will be angry at finding themselves targeted by the young crown prince and removed from lucrative circles of power.

In short, Mohammed bin Salman has taken the kingdom further down a road that promises economic reform and a gradual weaning off the dependence on oil. An increasingly presidential style of leadership from the crown prince is part of the package. But expressing opposition to his way of doing things is most definitely not.

In these latest, and for Saudis very shocking, moves Mohammed bin Salman has anchored himself more firmly than ever in power—ahead of the day when he becomes king. But he’s also alienated those who preferred the now-discarded consensual form of leadership and those forced out of the leadership race. Saudi Arabia faces a new, uncharted era.

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