Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made a series of bold moves in which he consolidated power within his family, his country’s national-security services, and the business community, while also threatening to open a new front in the kingdom’s regional proxy war with Iran — and President Donald Trump seems cool with it.
The shocker came on Sunday, when bin Salman — who has been feted by editors across the American and British media as a bold, liberalizing reformer despite all evidence to the contrary — had himself appointed to lead an anti-corruption commission. Within hours he had rounded up and jailed — or more precisely, Ritz-Carlton-ed — a number of other prominent princes, businessmen, and foreign ministers on politically motivated (but likely plausible) charges of corruption.
The headliner of the group is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is best known as a flamboyant billionaire investor with large holdings in companies like Apple and Citigroup, as well as for his Twitter spats with Trump. Alwaleed’s arrest, along with those of other business elites, shook markets and sent a message to the Saudi business community (and global investors) that he now had the power to detain these people at his pleasure. The big fish, however, was not Alwaleed but rather Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a son of the late King Abdullah who was removed as head of the national guard just hours before his arrest. Customarily, the kingdom’s army, internal security services, and national guard are partitioned among the branches of the Saudi family to preserve the balance of power among rivals. Now, for the first time, they are under the control of one man: the crown prince.
Of course, a Saudi anti-corruption committee is absurd on its face, because corruption is fundamental to the Saudi way of governing and doing business and everyone in the royal family is in a strict sense “corrupt” — unless we’re meant to believe bin Salman earned his own half-billion-dollar yacht legitimately. The kangaroo-court nature of the committee was made even clearer when it gave itself the power to disregard the law and issued arrest warrants within hours of its formation. This is not a victory against corruption, but rather a power move in Saudi palace intrigue, one with troubling implications. Just as the lifting of the ban on women driving had little to do with improving the lot of Saudi women, this decision only used “fighting corruption” as a means to an end. Of course, that did not stop bin Salman from winning multiple blandishments in the Western press for it.
Why he moved at this precise moment is not quite clear: Bin Salman likely either saw some threat looming that he needed to head off, or an opportunity to cement his authority and cut off possible rivals to his claim to the throne. As the favorite son and de facto regent of his father, the elderly, Alzheimers-suffering King Salman bin Abdulaziz, bin Salman was already in a position of strength, but he’s alienated a lot of his relatives to get to where he is, which means he has a good number of people to intimidate before they make trouble.
Hence the instant anti-corruption commission. The power he’s given himself here is considerable, though, and will be used to illiberal ends no matter how much his supporters insist he’s a reformer. Impossible as it sounds, Saudi Arabia is actually getting more authoritarian, in meaningful ways. The separation of control over the security forces was meant to keep any one individual or branch within the family from growing too powerful; bin Salman now has more power than any member of his family was really ever meant to have. He’s also breaking the mold of Saudi patronage politics, the consequences of which are unpredictable.
News of the arrests overshadowed what would in itself have otherwise been huge news: Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri resigned after one year in office in a televised address from Saudi Arabia, citing fears for his life. In a scripted-sounding speech, Hariri blamed Iran and Hezbollah for making threats on his life and forcing him to resign, but the news seemed to come out of nowhere as did his stridently anti-Iran tone, the absence of which had sort of been part of his shtick. The going interpretation is that Hariri was forced to blow up his feeble unity government by his Saudi paymasters, perhaps to reopen Lebanon as a front in their regional proxy war with Iran as part of bin Salman’s hegemonic foreign policy.
In what could have been a response to the news of Hariri’s resignation, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile a few hours later that allegedly was shot down by Saudi air-defense missiles near Riyadh airport. The missile sent a message that Iran’s proxies in Yemen could hit close to home for bin Salman if he overreached in confronting the ones in Lebanon.
So in sum, bin Salman is setting himself up to wield unprecedented levels of power even by the high standards of Saudi kings, abruptly upsetting a delicate balance of power with a long legacy, scaring the global business community, and threatening to reopen one of the Middle East’s bloodiest wounds, all at the same time. Fortunately for us, he’s our friend.
In fact, bin Salman may have received a visit recently from his friend Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who made an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia last week. That relationship was cultivated by their mutual friend Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S., who is a major Saudi and Emirati influence-peddler in Washington and has pushed for hard-line policies against regional rivals Iran and Qatar.
Partly through this family connection and partly through his own ability to flatter and fool Western leaders, bin Salman has become the preferred prince of the Trump administration. Trump has said nothing about the Saudi purge, and the subject reportedly did not come up in a phone conversation with King Salman on Sunday, in which he said he supported the “modernization” drive led by bin Salman. Trump has been pushing for the Saudi state oil company Aramco to hold its IPO on the New York Stock Exchange and said this was also a main topic of that conversation.
This is about what we can expect given Trump’s relationship with bin Salman, his stated policy of not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, and the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia generally. However, our entanglement with bin Salman has already led us into complicity in a disastrous war in Yemen and is now on its way to dragging us into a Lebanese debacle as well. A president supposedly concerned with shrinking America’s global role should be running from this man, not embracing him.