In mid-September of this year, Saudi security forces detained at least twenty civilians including clerics, activists, academics, and businessman. This was the biggest crackdown in the Saudi kingdom since the Arab Spring in 2011.
The arrests were made briefly after an exiled opposition figure urged Saudi citizens to demonstrate against the government. This demonstration garnered very little support, and as a result, national security forces mobilized throughout the kingdom arresting dozens of dissidents.
One of these dissidents was Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, a popular cleric within Saudi Arabia with around fourteen million twitter followers. Dr. al-Ouda was someone Osama bin Laden praised in the 1990s, but Sheikh al-Ouda was very well known for criticizing the attacks on September 11, 2001, where fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi nationals.
One of the other detainees was Awad al-Qarni, a Saudi preacher who was banned from tweeting on Twitter in March because of close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and his provocation for swaying public opinion, as well as political order within the kingdom.
The only thing these detainees have in common is their opposition against Mohammad bin Salman becoming the next heir to the throne in Riyadh. They have openly been opposed to MBS’s policies on Qatar, Yemen, as well as bin Salman’s social and economic reforms which include the privatization of state assets and the reduction of subsidies.
Government officials in Saudi Arabia believed that the crackdown was necessary because they wanted to disrupt a foreign intelligence network from developing links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Houthi rebels in Yemen. In truth, the crackdown was a consolidation of power ahead of King Salman’s abdication and the ascendance of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the throne.
King Salman is eighty-one years old, and although the state of King Salman’s health is confidential. It is widely believed that the current King has suffered from pre-dementia, which is a brain disorder that can result in memory loss, a lack of exercising judgment, and carrying out tasks.
Despite the King’s condition, King Salman has had a busy year. Thus far, he has traveled to Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Japan, and just recently, Russia. He also attended the Arab Summit in Amman, and hosted President Trump, as well as other Muslim leaders in Riyadh. So, despite his conditions, King Salman has still proven himself capable of governing for some time to come.
Yet, King Salman has a demanding position, which is why he transferred power to his son Mohammad bin Salman, who is widely popular within the royal family. Today, bin Salman is the de facto, day to day ruler of Saudi Arabia who oversees the diplomatic, economic, and defense agendas for the government.
Mohammad bin Salman marks the end of the lineage of kings who are direct descendants of the founder and first king of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, but he will need to establish his own legacy. Amongst MBS’s many agendas, the Saudi 2030 vision is a signature plan for decreasing the kingdom’s reliance on oil that introduces social, as well as economic reforms. Some of these reforms include bringing more women into the workforce, increasing non-oil exports, increasing foreign direct investment, moving up on global competitiveness, and lowering unemployment. It remains unclear how these revisions will be put into action, but it sounds like any type of reform in Saudi Arabia can drive the kingdom into the 21st century.
Furthermore, economic reform in Saudi Arabia will have to come from a social overhaul. The recent announcement of Saudi women being able to drive motor vehicles was a landmark achievement that can kickstart social reform in Saudi Arabia.
In addition to social and economic change, bin Salman’s signature foreign policy adventure, the War in Yemen, has no end in sight. Fighting between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels has resulted in a stalemate, and the war has brought massive starvation and tragedy for the Yemeni people. Even with the outbreak of cholera, around seven million people are at risk of being contaminated by this epidemic.
MBS has also been behind the Saudi rivalry with Qatar, which has strained the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into hostile camps. He also refined many of the government agencies and centralized the intelligence agencies under his control.
Much of bin Salman’s political and economic reforms have come at the expense of many powerful princes and the religious establishment. Even though MBS has had a significant influence on the domestic and foreign affairs on Saudi Arabia, his policies have been met with mixed opinions. As such, there is significant opposition to bin Salman at a time where the kingdom is in the midst of political and economic uncertainty.
In this context, although there is no factual evidence in the effectiveness Salman’s policies, the recent crackdown has fueled speculation that a greater change is underway.
Some Saudi analysts have concluded that the crackdown has reinforced the Crown Prince’s authority before his father retires and abdicates power to him.
Historically, the sons of the Saudi kings have lost all their power and influence after the death of their fathers. For instance, the sons of the previous monarch King Abdullah lost much of their positions and were assigned to lower functions after their father passed away.
The current monarch King Salman, could seek to avoid this from happening to his son. So far, there is no evidence for this development, but it would be in the interest of King Salman to abdicate and install his son as the new king while he is still alive to guarantee that his offspring will not be marginalized.
King Salman’s abdication will also not be unprecedented. At gunpoint in 1964, King Saud gave up the throne after a decade-long struggle with his brother Faisal. Although no such scenario exists today, peaceful exits of monarchs have transpired in neighboring countries. For example, in 2013, the former King of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad abdicated and installed his son Tamim in his place.
These precedents illustrate that an abdication of power is a feasible option for the Saudis. For now, however, regardless of the anticipation, the transfer of power is unlikely to take place after King Salman’s visit to Washington which is set for early next year. Afterwards, Salman could retire or abdicate his power over to Mohammad bin Salman. In the meantime, as MBS pursues his ambitious goals, more crackdowns could follow.