International and domestic crises dominated Saudi Arabia over the weekend. On Saturday, a wide variety of powerful Saudi princes and officials were arrested in the name of a new drive against corruption. The same day, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in a live television broadcast from Riyadh, and an alleged Houthi missile struck Riyadh from Yemen, provoking Saudi Arabia to close the border of its already embargoed neighbor and warn of war with Iran.
Pro-government analysts and officials have focused on the question of corruption and framed the arrests as evidence of the crown prince and king’s dedication to reform. Most independent analysts instead emphasized the rapid consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who seems to be systematically removing potential challengers to his power before his succession to the throne.
While the full scope and ultimate outcome of the weekend’s arrests remain unclear, the new developments should be understood in the context of interaction between Mohammed bin Salman’s short window for domestic power consolidation and Saudi Arabia’s unsettled regional position. Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic political ambitions and foreign policy moves have unfolded in a deeply uncertain environment, with both domestic power and regional order in an unprecedented state of flux.
The Yemeni missile attack, Hariri’s resignation, and the Saudi arrests would ordinarily be viewed as events of primarily local significance. In today’s context, however, they have sparked fears of a dangerous and unpredictable regional escalation against Iran. Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, Gulf regimes such as Saudi Arabia have lived in existential fear of the sudden eruption of popular mobilization, while pursuing unusually interventionist foreign policies across the region. The extended Saudi power transition at home and its erratic pattern of failed foreign policy interventions must be understood within this wider regional context.
Though seemingly unprecedented, the weekend’s developments follow the pattern Mohammed bin Salman has used since the beginning of his rapid ascent to power in 2015. In both domestic and foreign affairs, he has consistently undertaken sudden and wide-ranging campaigns for unclear reasons which shatter prevailing norms. At home, this audacious political strategy has proven relatively successful — at least in the short term. Abroad, foreign policy gambits such as the intervention in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar have rapidly degenerated into damaging quagmires. This combination of domestic success and foreign policy failure helps makes sense of this weekend’s blizzard of activity and may help preview what comes next.
Corruption or consolidation?
The Saudi government and sympathetic commentators have framed the arrests as an aggressive new move against corruption. Corruption is a massive popular Saudi concern, and positioning Mohammed bin Salman in opposition to corruption would be politically astute. But there is little reason to believe that corruption is the true cause of the crackdown and not simply its justification. The arrests look like a classic purge, removing prominent challengers and neutering competing power centers in a way designed to also intimidate any less well-known potential opponents. The benefits of securing the immediate transition of power may outweigh the risk of generating dangerous opposition in the long term.
Breaking established norms and rules has been a consistent part of Mohammed bin Salman’s political strategy. The move against a wide variety of rival princes and power centers was sudden, massive and designed to shock. The speed and scope of these moves also seems tied to the need for Mohammed bin Salman to lock down his succession to the throne before his father’s death. Such a strategy has allowed him to consolidate power remarkably quickly, while generating large and growing potential opposition down the road.
The arrests targeted multiple types of potential challengers at the same time. Some represented obvious political threats, such as Mutaib bin Abdullah, the former king’s son and head of the National Guard, which posed the primary military check on Mohammed bin Salman’s ambition. Others did not, such as the eye-opening arrest of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the wealthiest and best connected men in the world and a leading player in international Arab and Saudi media. Still others occupied key positions in the government crucial to implementing Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform plans. Striking all of these untouchables at once seems designed to pose a massive shock to the system and forestall any single organized response.
The targeting of these high-level figures follows a wave of arrests of potential Islamist dissidents, the removal of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and a general atmosphere of increasing repression. Permitting women to drive and curbing the powers of the religious police may be partial and limited steps, but they had typically been portrayed as red lines that could not be crossed without risking instability. Even partial enactment of the grand economic and social reforms presented in his Vision 2030 would upend traditional patterns of political economy. He seems to be pushing the creation of a personalized system of rule without the checks and balances that have typically characterized the Saudi system of governance.
The international dimension
Mohammed bin Salman’s foreign policy gambits have been similarly ambitious in their speed and scope, but they have produced decidedly less successful results. Where Saudi state institutions are strong enough to mitigate the effects of provocative policies, international politics are less forgiving and have fewer safety nets. Virtually every major foreign policy initiative Mohammed bin Salman has championed has proved disastrous, often producing precisely the negative results that the move had been designed to prevent.
The two most obvious examples are the campaigns against Yemen and Qatar. The intervention in Yemen has been an unmitigated disaster. Whatever the justification for the initial intervention following the advances by the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, it has long since been clear that the military intervention had failed. The Saudi-UAE coalition has continued a relentless blockade and bombing campaign without any meaningful political horizon or evident theory of victory. The humanitarian impact has been catastrophic. The weekend’s reported missile attack on Riyadh demonstrates that the costs of this stalemate cannot be contained within a shattered Yemen.
The Qatar campaign has been similarly disastrous, effectively destroying the Gulf Cooperation Council in a quixotic effort to impose Saudi-UAE leadership. Despite the promise of rapid Qatari capitulation, the conflict quickly settled into an entrenched stalemate that has paralyzed the GCC and escalated the toxic polarization of regional politics. This quagmire exposed Saudi Arabia’s weakness and its inability to play the role of regional hegemon to which it aspired. Even in partnership with the UAE, Saudi Arabia managed to bring only Bahrain and Egypt into its anti-Qatar coalition, while the rest of the region struggled to avoid taking sides.
This pattern raises real concerns about the regional component of the weekend’s activities: Hariri’s announcement of his resignation from Riyadh, and the escalation of Yemen’s war following a missile targeting Riyadh. Ordinarily, each could be considered primarily local developments, a reshuffling of Lebanon’s political deck and another ratcheting upward of Yemen’s two-year-old war.
Mohammed Bin Salman’s domestic power grabs have often been accompanied by major foreign policy moves. Many regional observers therefore fear that Hariri’s resignation, announced in Riyadh with a sharply anti-Iranian speech, could trigger a political crisis intended to end with a military campaign against Hezbollah. Such a move would fit the pattern of bold foreign policy initiatives launched in the expectation of a rapid, politically popular victory. It would also very likely follow the pattern of such initiatives rapidly collapsing into a bloody, destabilizing quagmire.