Royal Flush: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince must tread carefully after defense ministry overhaul

One push too many could easily turn the House of Saud into a House of Cards

By Sarah Tenney
The Citadel

It is very difficult for outsiders to draw firm conclusions about the recent re-shuffle of Saudi Arabia’s military establishment. A thorough analysis would require first-hand knowledge of palace politics and the kingdom’s opaque decision-making processes. However, even from a thousand miles, one can see the need for caution. Saudi Arabia is currently at a critical juncture, and the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud will need to use care not to burn too many bridges or make too many enemies.

Against the backdrop of continuing conflict in the region and economic and social turmoil at home, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud sidestepped 70 years of tradition when he pushed out former Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef Al Saud for his favorite son. The ‘palace coup’ itself is likely to have lingering effects on Saudi Arabia’s approach of consensus-based collective rule, in which the monarch works with other family members and senior clerics to govern the country.

Since his appointment, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud has been dubbed “Mr. Everything” by Western observers, owing to the maverick way he and his father have been pursuing a sweeping agenda of reforms. The cited reason for the military replacements, including the chief of staff, as well as the heads of ground forces, air defenses, and strategic missile forces, is to improve efficiency by enhancing the military’s structure, organization, and governance. However, it must be viewed in the context of the larger reform agenda. It must also be viewed in light of the numerous times senior military officials in the Middle East have overthrown their governments.

While few would argue against the vision behind Saudi 2030, which embodies aggressive economic reforms to boost non-oil revenue, stimulate the private sector, improve efficiency and modernize the country, the path to date has entailed stepping on many toes. Thus far, the implementation has comprised a top-down reorganization of the kingdom’s political, economic and military apparatus—replacing many former officials and the spheres of influence that go with them.

The recent crackdown on corruption resulted in the arrest of about 200 senior officials, including at least 11 members of the royal family. Even though those accused were held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and most were released after paying hefty “fines,” they may not be pleased with the process. Could the same be said for the senior military leaders recently relieved of their posts?

Some of the crown prince’s reforms are popular, particularly with young Saudis and women. For example, in the government reorganization, many senior posts have gone to a new generation of leaders and at least one woman. The king and bin Salman have promised to allow women to drive, own businesses, and join the military. They have also moved to promote new entertainment options. Thus, many see the Crown Prince, who will be the first of his generation to rule, as their country’s “hope and change” for the future—at least for now. It remains to be seen how they will respond when taxes and the prices of consumer goods rise in the budget-balancing days ahead.

More important, like other autocracies, Saudi Arabia’s rulers do not rely on popular opinion, but on a small “winning coalition,” supported by an intricate hierarchy of patronage and political largesse. In the case of the kingdom, this incorporates a delicate web of tribes, cliques, and coalitions primarily within the royal family and among the more senior (and more conservative) clerics.

Thus, the Crown Prince would be wise to tread carefully as the standard-bearer for a newer, more vibrant, modernized Saudi Arabia. One push too many could easily turn the House of Saud into a House of Cards.

Sarah Tenney is an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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