Muhammad bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been called bold, brash, and even an anti-corruption crusader in the press this week. But his arrest of hundreds of potential rivals, including 11 royal princes and many influential Saudi businessmen, can only be described as a pre-emptive coup.
If this was his aim, however, his firing of one prince—the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard—may have been his fatal mistake.
The son of the eighty-one year old King Salman, Muhammad bin Salman, known as MbS, has amassed more power in the last two years than any member of the House of Saud, including its kings. The young prince, who before his father came to power held no position of significance, is now the heir to the throne, minister of defense, chairman of the newly launched “anti-corruption” committee, and, by royal decree, the man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s primary source of wealth, Saudi Aramco.
The concentration of power in the hands of a man who was a junior prince is without precedent in the history of the House of Saud. The House of Saud, which has governed Saudi Arabia as its personal fiefdom since the Kingdom’s creation in 1932, has long depended on consensus and a somewhat equitable distribution of the country’s wealth—which is regarded as the property of the House of Saud not that of the people of Saudi Arabia—to maintain relatively peaceful relations within the family. For years, there was so much money washing around that it was in no one’s interest to not play by the unwritten rules that govern the dynamics of what is the world’s wealthiest extended family.
MbS has turned the notion of rule by consensus on its head. The prince has rapidly consolidated power in the Kingdom and as last weekend’s purge demonstrates, is intent on destroying any and all rivals before they have time to act against him. While dozens of leading businessmen and princes have been arrested, two men stood out in terms of their potential to threaten Muhammad bin Salman’s ascension to the throne: Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in a helicopter crash near Yemen this week, and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who has been removed as head of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard.
The late Prince Mansour bin Muqrin was viewed by many within the House of Saud as a level-headed reform minded young prince who was already beginning to demonstrate some skill in his position as deputy governor for Saudi Arabia’s increasingly restive southern province of ‘Asir. Prince Muqrin’s father, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, was crown prince from January to April 2015 when he was ousted by Muhammad bin Salman’s father, King Salman. Prince Muqrin was killed on Sunday along with seven other ranking officials when their helicopter crashed in ‘Asir. No cause for the crash has been given by the Saudi government.
Of far more concern to stability within the House of Saud is the removal of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from his position as head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah is the son of late King Abdullah. He has commanded the Saudi National Guard since 2010 when he took over the position from his father. The National Guard is Saudi Arabia’s premier fighting force. It rivals the well-equipped but poorly led Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF). Saudi Arabia has what are essentially two distinct armies: the National Guard which is dedicated to protecting the House of Saud and the Royal Saudi Land Forces which acts as a more conventional fighting force. The National Guard has long been the preserve of the Shammar branch of the House of Saud. The late King Abdullah commanded the National Guard for five decades. The National Guard is unique in that it draws on Saudi Arabia’s tribal roots and in doing so acts as a vital link between the royals and the tribal support that they counted on during their rise to power in the 1920s. While the House of Saud’s dependence on tribal support is diminished, it should not be discounted altogether.
Muhammad bin Salman’s dismissal of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from his position could prove to be a serious miscalculation. MbS is already unpopular with large parts of the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) for his disastrous and impetuous war in Yemen. The Saudi led war in Yemen has proceeded from failure to failure and has put tremendous pressure on the inadequately trained and led RSLF. The National Guard has largely been spared deployment to Saudi Arabia’s dangerous and porous border with Yemen. This is largely due to Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah’s efforts to thwart MbS’ war in Yemen, which is regarded by many within the House of Saud as reckless, dangerous, and deeply immoral.
Dissatisfaction with what many of the old guard regard as an upstart prince could easily manifest itself among the tribal leaders that make up the corps of the National Guard where there is considerable loyalty to the Shammar branch of the al-Saud family. The National Guard is a potent force within Saudi Arabia and is but one of many potential pools of discontent. Muhammad bin Salman’s betrayal of decades of rule by consensus and consultation in favor of determined autocracy has undoubtedly made enemies of hundreds, if not thousands, of wealthy and influential princes and businessmen. These princes and businessmen are unlikely to wait for their invitation to the Ritz Carlton.
Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including: The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.