A political earthquake is rocking Saudi Arabia's pillars of princely power

A political earthquake is rocking Saudi Arabia's pillars of princely power
Comment: King Salman and his son have cut off the head of the princely system, but its body remains entrenched in key governmental agencies, writes Robert Springborg.
6 min read
07 Nov, 2017
Mohamed bin Salman (L) replaced Muhammed bin Nayef as crown prince in June [AFP]
Saudi Arabia's political earthquake has shaken the foundations of the country's power structure. 

A system based on the division of power between the lineages of the sons of Abd al Aziz Ibn Saud has been replaced - at least temporarily - by one based on the lineage of King Salman and within it, of his young son Muhammad.

Other Gulf monarchies, including in Qatar and Oman, have witnessed intra-family power struggles that resulted in the replacement of the sovereign by his son. But none has ever witnessed what amounts to a coup d'etat against not only the king, but against the entire monarchical system within which he exercised his powers.

So Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's purge of his uncles and cousins is more akin to republican coups mounted in Egypt in 1952, Iraq in 1958, or Libya in 1969.

The two key questions to be asked are (i) can the crown prince consolidate his power, and (ii) what will be the long-term consequences of the political earthquake?

The effectiveness demonstrated thus far by King Salman and his son in grabbing all the country's reins of power suggests real political skill. They undercut Prince Muhammad bin Nayef's base in the Ministry of Interior, one he had inherited from his father, and then utilised that base to neutralise other princes.

Since each key ministry has been the preserve of a princely lineage, this raises the question of how Salman and his son won the loyalty of those recruited into the Interior Ministry originally by Prince Nayef. It also begs the question of whether or not residual loyalties to the Nayef lineage remain within that key ministry and, by analogy, whether similar loyalties to the Sultan lineage remain in the Ministry of Defence, to the Abdullah lineage in the National Guard, and so on.

Presumably, Salman and his son will move with alacrity to purge each of these bases of princely power - but this will be no small task

It seems logical to conclude, since these patronage-based loyalties have been built up over decades, many of them remain strong. Presumably, Salman and his son will move with alacrity to purge each of these bases of princely power - but this will be no small task. They have cut the head off the princely system, but its body remains entrenched in key governmental agencies.

Whether a new opposition head can mobilise that body remains to be seen.

While the effectiveness of their coup management is impressive, if leaving some doubt about further consolidation, the historical record of monarchical "revolutions" should give pause to the crown prince and his father. They have not just decapitated the princely system, they have sought to profoundly reform the "state religion", or belief system upon which governmental legitimacy has rested for decades.

The key beliefs are in Wahhabi Islam, in the legitimate role of the al-Saud and al-Sheikh families in representing, interpreting and projecting that version of Salafism, and in the obligation of government to pass down some portion of oil wealth to the citizenry.

The new political religion that the Salman lineage is proposing to legitimate their rule is one of thorough change, in which Wahhabism and its advocates are rendered more marginal to the system and presumably daily lives of its subjects, and princely wealth and patronage steadily replaced by a more liberal, egalitarian, open economy based on accomplishment rather than inheritance.

Previous historic examples of attempts by monarchs to supplant the religion that legitimates the monarchy they inherited do not augur well for this new Saudi effort.

Mark Twain recounted the story of the young king of Hawaii who decided to foreswear the traditional religion of his island kingdom, thus throwing away his source of legitimacy and ultimately his crown. A more venerable historical example is that of Amenhotep III, the pharaoh who rejected the traditional religion of Egypt in favour of deification of the sun, thereby undermining the vital priestly support base which subsequently turned against and then overthrew the regime he had established.

It is only kings who have accepted the transformation to constitutional monarchy who have survived such profound reforms, creating new bases of political support in the citizenry by surrendering power to them. There is no indication that the Salman lineage is seeking to create a Saudi constitutional monarchy. They are seeking to create an authoritarian system legitimated by a new national belief system, more akin to Nasserism, or the Baathism of Saddam or Hafez al-Assad, than to the Saudi Wahhabism of Abd al-Aziz and his other sons.

Read more:Saudi succession reshuffle: A threat to the house of cards

This is inherently a risky undertaking. It takes time to convince beneficiaries of intimated changes that they are real, rather than just public relations to cover the consolidation of personal power.

In the meantime, those threatened with the loss of their powers and privileges will do everything possible to thwart the changes. In this case the other princely lineages no doubt continue to have significant support within their previous domains. Whether they could build a coalition across those domains is one key question.

The other key question is the consequence of the coup, both for domestic and foreign policy. In a word, it is chaos.

The already fraught challenge of shifting from oil-based rentierism to a more productive economy, as envisioned in the 2030 plan, has been made many times more difficult.

Instability is the most important enemy of investment and growth. That instability is bound to cast a deep shadow over the proposed 2030 transformations for a very considerable period.

As for foreign policy, the princely coup calls into question whether or not the country can sustain the aggressive efforts to project national power launched by Muhammad bin Salman. Lebanon has now been added to the list of such theatres, which already include Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and even Egypt.

As challenges to Saudi involvement in each of these theatres increase - in part because political actors within them will now seek to test the new ruler - the chances of successful outcomes that contribute to regime consolidation in Riyadh will decline.

In sum, this political earthquake has shaken the Saudi political system, breaking apart its main structures and calling into serious question whether or not viable replacements can ever be erected. 

Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff