Inside Saudi Crown Prince’s power grab in the House of Saud
November 7, 2017. Financial Post.
As part of a sweeping ‘anti-corruption’ drive, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman appears to have been busy plotting to eliminate his rivals.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been busy.
Since his sudden rise to power in April 2015, he has spearheaded a full-scale war with Yemen, blockaded tiny Qatar, pledged to list a portion of crown jewel Saudi Aramco on international markets, propped up the global oil market by leading the OPEC-and-friends strategy to maintain oil output, and embarked on a grand plan to transform the economy in just over a decade — the so-called Saudi Vision 2030.
And MBS, as he’s popularly known, has also been busy plotting to eliminate his rivals.
In June, his father King Salman Bin Abulaziz Alsaud dismissed Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef to make way for his 32-year-old son to be next in line. While the 81-year-old king remains the figure head, MBS is widely seen as the one calling the shots and now heads some of the country’s most vital positions such as defence, the all-powerful Council for Economic and Development Affairs, and Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil exporter.
The latest purge of 11 powerful princes, four sitting ministers and at least 38 former ministers as part of a sweeping “anti-corruption” drive on Saturday is seen as an effort by the Crown Prince to break away from 40 years of inertia, according to Robert Lacey, the British historian who wrote Inside The Kingdom, a must-read book on the country.
“It is an incredible revolution,” Lacey said in an interview, noting at the moment he is taking the prince’s actions on “face value.”
During the sweeping arrests, the Saudi authorities also seized sizable lands and assets from ministers and princes. “If we hear that those lands end up in the pocket of MBS and his cronies, then we would come to a different judgement,” Lacey said.
But the big risk here is of a backlash against MBS from the elites that undermine his authority and increase the risk premium on Saudi assets, Jason Tuvey, an analyst at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients. “The fact that the crown prince was able to arrest so many royals reinforces our view that his control over the security services is extensive and his rivals have failed to protect themselves.”
Oil prices hit a two-year high to US$57.13 per barrel, partly because of the political earthquake shaking up one of the world’s most influential oil exporters, and after Saudi authorities intercepted a missile fired toward the capital city of Riyadh from Yemen, which Saudis immediately blamed on Iran.
While the arrest of high-profile billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin AbdulAziz Al Saud made the headlines, of particular note was the arrest of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, son of the late King Abdullah — once considered to be a future king — who headed the powerful National Guard. Economy Minister Adel Faqih was also replaced by his deputy, Mohammed al-Tuwaijri.
Saudi Twitter accounts released several other names of those arrested, including Alwalid al-Ibrahim, a Saudi businessman with ties to the royal family who runs the Arabic satellite group MBC; Amr al-Dabbagh, the former head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority; Ibrahim Assaf, a former finance minister, and Bakr Binladin, head of the Saudi Binladin Group, a major business conglomerate and a half-brother of Osama Bin Ladin.
While MBS’s moves to fundamentally remake the state have won praise from local business leaders, his disruptive approach has alienated important elements in the royal family and clerical establishment, says Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.
“MBS supporters maintain that the arrest of princes was entirely about eradicating corruption, but it seemingly serves a broader consolidation plan,’ Croft said in a note. “Whether this represents a start to or preempts a ‘Game of Thrones’ remains to be seen.”
MBS has emerged as a divisive figure in Saudi Arabia, but as a change agent he is a welcome break from the geriatric leaders that have controlled the lives of a nation that has half the population under the age of 25.
MBS is also being seen as the new wave of global leaders that are — for better and for worse — shaking up established structures. Donald Trump in the United States, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping have all displayed authoritative streaks and leveraged their own cult of personality to pursue populist policies.
Just like Trump’s familiar refrain of “draining the swamp” on Capitol Hill, Saudi Arabia announced Saturday that it’s new “super committee” aims to “create a new era of financial transparency” to crack down on corruption.
By targeting high-profile Saudis, the crown prince is tapping into the resentment of citizens, who watch with envy the higher living standards and freedoms enjoyed by their counterparts in the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. Ordinary Saudis are also feeling the brunt of a severe economic downturn due to lower crude prices, that has forced the government to channel nearly US$250 billion — or roughly a third — of its international reserves into the economy.
But retooling the economy means taking apart deeply entrenched structures. Since its establishment in 1932, the conservative country has functioned as a loose coalition between dissenting brothers and princes sharing the spoils. The line of succession has moved from the founder King Saud bin Abdulaziz Ibn Saud — who reportedly fathered as many as 115 children — to his sons King Faisal, King Khalid, King Fahd, King Abdullah and now King Salman.
But the new king broke that model by removing his brother Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz from the post of Crown Prince in 2015, and later Prince Nayef, to install his son — in a move that rattled the old Saudi establishment.
The removal of Mutaib on Saturday, who was a clear favourite of King Abdullah and was seen as his preferred choice to be the first of the founder’s grandsons to inherit the throne, underscores how the king is purging away possible rivals to his son.
“Mohammed bin Salman is not only ending the consensus-based culture that has long slowed decision-making in the kingdom, but he is also limiting the powers of the ruling family,” according to Ayham Kamel, analyst with Eurasia Group.
MBS has inserted uncertainty in the kingdom but it’s a strategy fraught with risks.
“While the purge will most likely succeed, the scope and depth of the changes undoubtedly increases the short-term risk of a destabilizing conflict among the kingdom’s competing power centres in the kingdom,” said Kamel, noting that family members opposed to the young prince will now be incentivised to organize before they too are arrested.
“Family tensions have been rising, with royals attempting to convince the king to moderate his son’s consolidation drive. An alliance between conservative clerics and members of the ruling family to spread unrest and undermine the crown prince should not be ruled out,” said Kamel.
The prince must also now deliver on his promise to retool the economy. This includes the public listing of Saudi Aramco, arguably the world’s most valuable company with a US$2-trillion market cap, according to the kingdom’s own estimate.
“We expect no immediate changes in oil policy. MBS seems strongly committed to anchoring the OPEC agreement deep into 2018 and moving ahead with the Aramco sale,” Croft said.
Indeed, the key takeaway for Canadian and international oil investors is that as the Prince rattles cages elsewhere, he will be keen to stabilize oil prices at least until he can ensure a smooth public listing of Aramco next year.
“The political preference is to list in an international stock exchange, but regulatory concerns could complicate the effort,” Kamel said. “Absent a private placement, an international listing would take place between late 2018 and early 2019.”