The last 72 hours has seen the most startling, potentially destabilizing turn of events in recent Saudi history, on par to the 1958 ouster of King Saud by his Crown Prince, or the failed revolt of the “Black Princes” to bring the Kingdom into the orbit of Nasserism in the mid-1960s. In neither of those threats to the rule of the Al Saud were any senior members of the Royal Family ever arrested.
While the political intrigues in Riyadh will raise questions over Saudi Arabia’s political stability and add to the whirlwind of uncertainty wracking global markets, there are other forces in play well beyond what is being reported in the Western media outlets:
*** First, on Friday, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, a full brother to King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and uncle to the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was reportedly arrested after a return from abroad for a falconry outing. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the previously ousted Crown Prince and long serving Minister of the Interior, was also reportedly arrested, with both allegedly accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the ailing King Salman and to push the Crown Prince aside in the line of succession to the Saudi throne. A third senior prince, Prince Nayef bin Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, the former Head of Land Forces Intelligence and Security and son to Prince Ahmed, was also reportedly picked up for questioning. ***
*** It is our understanding, however, there was in fact no coup being planned, and that the arrests were a pre-emptive move to deter potential rivals to MbS, as the Crown Prince is referred to, in his drive to assuming the throne. It is noteworthy that the arrested former Crown Prince, bin Nayef, or MbN, still maintains very close relations with US military and intelligence officials. MbS, on the other hand, maintains more direct relations to President Trump through a close relationship with senior White House advisor Jared Kushner. The US Democratic Party is, however, relatively hostile to MbS, especially after the brutal murder of reporter Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018, and we believe that gave MbS another reason to remove rivals to his rule now, rather than wait for the outcome of US elections which may be more in doubt than they were just a few weeks ago. ***
*** Two other powerful members of the Al- Nayef branch of the Al Saud, the young and highly effective Interior Minister Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef, and his father Prince Saud bin Nayef, who is brother to MbN and is the powerful governor of the politically sensitive Eastern Province, were also reportedly brought to the Royal Court for questioning. But while the Crown Prince may have wanted to know where loyalties ultimately were, they were apparently never directly asked, and the meetings were focused instead on issues to do with internal security and border tightening, enforcing health checks, and for the governor, a planned quarantine of the Shia city of al-Qatif due to the risk of contagion from pilgrims returning from Iran. ***
Limited Evidence of Coup Attempt
For a coup to have any credibility in the Kingdom, it would require, at minimum, the support of at least the core brigade of the Saudi Arabian National Guard with barracks inside the capital. These were previously mostly drawn from the al-Shammar tribes of northwestern Saudi Arabia, whose senior officers were loyal to King Abdullan bin Abdul Aziz, whose wife was from the Shammar tribe’s bastion of Hail.
Their ranks have since been thinned through transfers, and other officers put in command, and in any case, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the former head of the National Guard has for now not been arrested or questioned.
And despite the brief flurry of publicity over his remarks in London last year that were critical of King Salman and the Crown Prince, Prince Ahmed, who was arrested, is almost 80, and has generally shied away from an active political role in the Kingdom or inside the Royal Family. Our sense is that he was brought in for a “conversation,” primarily to put a marker down to limit his unfettered access to the King, which as the King’s only living full brother, means he can normally bypass the Royal Court that is so tightly controlled by the Crown Prince.
It is also probably noteworthy that the press reporting, while perhaps mostly coming from Western rather than Saudi sources, included the accusation that the coup plotters had been “conducting contacts with foreign powers, including the Americans.” If a senior member of the Al Saud was going to attempt a coup, he certainly wouldn’t make a move without the support of the US.
But that MbN enjoyed broad support of so many US officials is not the same as actively plotting with US backing to sweep in to oust the Crown Prince, much less the King. We suspect both Princes may soon be released.
Rather than the common image of jets buzzing overhead or tanks surrounding the Royal Place, or Army colonels seizing power, a coup in the Kingdom would be more likely to take the form of a delegation of senior Princes winning an audience with the King and demanding a change in the Crown Prince on the grounds MbS has lost too much support within the Family or with the Kingdom’s crucial security ally, the United States. The lack of viable rivals to MbS makes those scenarios less likely.
All that said, there has already been plenty of evidence of the ruthlessness of MbS in consolidating his power, with mass arrests, seizing assets, repressing the media, arresting women activists, not to mention approving the murder, however “accidental,” of Saudi dissident Khashoggi in Istanbul (see SGH 10/12/18, “Saudi Arabia: The Khashoggi Murder”). There is also no doubt a grain of truth to his ambitions to secure the throne before a planned G20 meeting in Riyadh.
But short of the King passing away, forcing an abdication is a bit more complicated than may be assumed, and could run into a more muscular resistance within the 34 senior princes who vote in the Allegiance Council on the Al Saud succession. Prince Ahmed, in fact, had voted against MbS being named Crown Prince. One key factor to watch for on that count will be the role of his mother, and the King’s favored wife, who may seek her husband’s abdication to ensure her son’s ascension to the throne.
Economic and Social Challenges
The oil price collapse will obviously add to the budget pressures and has put a huge question mark on the long planned international leg to the Saudi Aramco IPO before the end of the year. Its valuations are likely to be well under the Crown Prince’s ambitions to reap some $2 trillion in revenues from the gargantuan sale.
There have also been troublesome stumbles and delays in the hugely ambitious “National Transformation Plan” built around far reaching economic reforms and an excessively rapid shift of the economy away from its dependence on crude oil sales to a more diversified economy, which would in time include more taxation.
The Kingdom’s 2020 budget is based on Brent crude prices averaging around $58 a barrel, but even that would still leave the Kingdom with a 6.4% budget deficit. If oil prices were to fall to barely half that for a sustained period, MbS may end up scrambling to tap deeply into foreign reserves, delay contractor payments, and trim the Kingdom’s generous social programs to stave off any social unrest or tensions within the Royal Family.
But on the other hand, while it is true the domestic reforms are not taking off at the pace and scale of the ambitions laid out several years ago, Saudi Arabia has already seen remarkable progress in reforms to the government bureaucracy and the efficacy within the various ministries, including in a much tighter coordination and control between the finance ministry, which is consolidating enormous power, and the other spending ministries and provinces.
And one last point, whatever the palace intrigues, bungled OPEC negotiations, the confrontation with Iran, or the ongoing war in Yemen, MbS remains wildly popular inside the Kingdom. His social reforms allowing women to drive, the opening of cinemas, more restaurants, and shopping malls, the tight controls imposed on the mutawa, or religious police, and still generous social benefits are very popular among younger Saudis, more than two thirds of whom are under age 30.