Recent events in the Middle East confirm the observation that very little in the Middle East is easily understood. A day after Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a palace purge by arresting several of his fellow royals, a high ranking prince mysteriously died in a helicopter crash. State media did not reveal the cause of the crash, albeit any suggestion of motive would be entirely speculative.
There are conditions that have been established. Dozens of princes, ministers and a billionaire tycoon were arrested as Bin Salman, age 32, attempts to consolidate his power. It would appear as if the Crown Prince wants to eliminate any trace of dissent prior to the formal transfer of power from his 81 year old father who is suffering from a terminal illness.
One of those detained by authorities is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an investor who owns a major stake in Twitter, Citigroup and News America. He has also contributed to Middle East Studies programs from Columbia to Yale and points in between. His arrest suggests no one is beyond the reach of the Crown Prince.
Over the last two years Bin Salman has taken over most of the key economic and security posts and is unquestionably the most important figure in government. The Crown Prince is also deputy prime minister (the king is prime minister) and minister of defense. Clearly this seizure of power has given rise to the resistance inside and outside the royal family. In the Saudi system, power has been passed among the sons of the founder of the modern Saudi Kingdom, Idn Saud. Crown Prince Mohammed is putting an end to all of that as political power is migrating to his branch of the family, including all military authority.
The question that emerges from these actions remains unclear. One theory is predicated on a failed coup attempt which Bin Salman discovered and crushed. Another theory contends that the Crown Prince prefers to act now while his father is king and can lend legitimacy to his son’s acts. Yet another view is the Crown Prince, having announced ambitious social and economic changes wants to act quickly to avoid blowback.
There is no doubt the Crown Prince is devoted to a liberalized role for religion and the rights of women. He has proposed that women are allowed to drive and mix with men in sports stadiums. He is selling off a part of the Kingdom’s key asset – the Aramco Oil Company – and has stood up to Wahhabi clerics opposed to his program. But he has also made it clear that he will not tolerate political opposition from commoners or members of the royal family. In his case , it is “my way or the highway.”
Dozens of hard line clerics have spoken out and been detained; while others were designated to speak publicly about respect for other religions, a topic once anathema to the kingdom’s religious superstructure. Most clerics oppose Bin Salman, if recent reports can be relied on, but preserving the alliance with the monarchy is what matters most. They have much more to lose by protesting than biting their tongues.
In pushing these reforms the Crown Prince is making a demographic bet. The Kingdom’s large youth population cares more about entertainment and economic opportunities than religious dogma. Serious measures to stamp out the rigidities of Salafism that permeate the Islamic nation could have salutary effects on trade and financial transactions.
Yet one cannot overlook events in 1979 when extremists accused the royal family of being insufficiently Islamic and seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca shocking the Muslim world and compromising the position of the royal family. That explains why tension resides over the Riyadh sky. It is a tension borne of rapid change and coping with uncertainty. However, the Crown Prince is resourceful and clever; whether he has the stamina to maintain his revolutionary stance remains to be seen.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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