MBS purges in Saudi Arabia are nothing but a power grab

Tallha Abdulrazaq

The arrests of Muhammad bin Nayef and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz demonstrate the extent to which the crown prince is willing to go to keep his grip on power.

As last week closed off, Saudi Arabia’s controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, began another round of royal purges and detentions. According to the Wall Street Journal, royal guards descended upon three senior Saudi princes and arrested them early last Friday morning, as well as rounding up some 20 others in what is being described as an action designed to deter a “coup attempt” against the unruly crown prince and his aged father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Amongst those arrested were former interior minister and ex-crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his brother Nawaf bin Nayef, and King Salman’s younger brother Ahmed bin Abdulaziz.

 While some analysts have been busy with the usual attempts at delving into MBS’ mind to ascertain a reason for the latest purge, the motivation of it is actually quite simple – the unbridled pursuit of power.

A pattern of power grabbing: While many monarchies run on a system of hereditary government, whereby the eldest child of the reigning monarch inherits the reins of power upon their royal parent’s death, the Saudi Arabian system has historically been quite different.

Modern Saudi Arabia’s founding father, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, fathered dozens of children including 45 sons from about two dozen different women, notoriously marrying and divorcing repeatedly in order to increase his progeny and to secure his vision for the future of his kingdom. Rather than power transitioning to his eldest son and from there onto his eldest male grandchild, the Saudi Arabian system has been one of power-sharing between the sons of Abdulaziz, starting with the eldest and going through to the youngest in a chain of succession that encompassed only Abdulaziz’s children and which would be authorised by the family’s ruling council.

Saudi’s present ruler, King Salman, is the latest son of Abdulaziz to inherit the throne but rather than allowing his younger brother, 77-year-old Ahmed, to be next in line, the 84-year-old king decided to shake things up and appointed MBS as crown prince. This upset many in the Saudi royal family, and part of the motivation of rounding up princes and imprisoning them at the Ritz-Carlton hotel between 2017 and 2019 was for MBS to stamp his authority on stalwarts of the royal family. It was something of a bonus that MBS also managed to shake them down for more than $100 billion to buy their freedom in a move he described as being about “anti-corruption”.

Last week’s arrests is simply a continuation of MBS’ already established track record of doing whatever he thinks is necessary to not only consolidate but also to enhance his grip on power. The crown prince knows that his father could die at any moment due to his advanced age. He is also aware that he has not exactly built up goodwill with the rest of his family after having cut in line in front of his uncle who many believe has more right to the throne.

Not only did he undermine his uncle’s position in the family, but he also used thuggish tactics to side-line other princes, notably Mohammed bin Nayef who has a solid reputation not only in Saudi Arabia, but who was also a favourite of Washington and who was awarded medals by the CIA for his counter-terrorism work. The former interior minister is not likely to forget soon that his position was stripped from him as a result of his ambitious younger cousin who, prior to King Salman’s reign, had little experience in government.

Royal intrigue and problems of succession: While Ahmed bin Abdulaziz has made it clear that he would not seek to take the throne, his open criticisms of MBS have chafed the crown prince and rubbed him up in all the wrong ways. Due to his claim to the throne as the last surviving full son of King Abdulaziz after Salman himself, Ahmed will always be perceived as a threat by MBS and with his father’s age advancing and his health worsening, MBS is keen to ensure as few players are left standing to challenge him for the throne.

However, these moves also weaken MBS, who has no experienced adult children to rely on. King Abdulaziz had a large pool of children who came of age while he was still king and who had experience leading men into battle and ruling Saudi Arabian cities and provinces. He therefore could rely on them to make effective kings after him and, because he had so many, he ensured there would be little squabbling over succession for decades to come.

MBS is not as blessed as his grandfather, neither in having children who can focus power in his branch of the family or in experience in government. Because he has been behaving like a bull in a china shop with his extended family, many of the senior Al Saud princes feel alienated from the young prince. If MBS were to have stopped short of shaking them down for hundreds of billions and imprisoning them, and perhaps used careful diplomacy and some carrots rather than just sticks, then he may have been able to have created his own support network within the family while he built his own dynasty. Instead, he will have to spend the rest of his life watching his back against vengeful princes.

MBS may counter this by drafting in legions of outsiders to take more senior positions in government. But this will further dilute the Al Saud’s grip on power as a new elite is formed who do not come from the royal family. Just like the Mamelukes turned on their masters the Abbasids, this new elite will eventually seek power for themselves, and when that happens MBS will be remembered in history as the man who was the beginning of the end for the Saudi royal family.