The new and massive wave of arrests of princes in Saudi Arabia, which has been widely covered by Western media, should mark a turning point in the process of power transfer in the House of Al Saud. Regardless of the accuracy of the news, which is still subject to speculations, confirmations and denials, it is necessary to pay attention to the current political structure of Saudi Arabia and the logic of power relations under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who came to power in 2017 after ousting Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef and the sweeping crackdown on officials and princes. Today, more than any other time, power has become centralized and personalized in Saudi Arabia.
The following note outlines three scenarios for the current developments in Saudi Arabia.
Scenario One: Coup d’état
Charges of ‘coup d’état’ and ‘great treason’ were the keywords for the arrest of two main figures in Al-Saud dynasty that Muhammad bin Salman has been facing since his father came to power in 2015. He has described Muhammad bin Nayef and Ahmad bin Abdulaziz two fierce rivals in the process of his ascension to the throne. More importantly, is the popularity and authority of the two men in the House of Saud and among the people that always threatened Bin Salman, because he is not so popular and competent.
Another issue that makes the coup attempt more realistic is the position of Bin Nayef and Ahmad Bin Abdulaziz and their strong network of connections with the princes and intelligence and security agencies in Saudi Arabia. Ahmad Bin Abdulaziz was Nayef’s deputy and his Sudairi brother in the Ministry of Interior for decades, and after Nayef’s death, he was the Interior Minister for nearly two years under King Abdullah. Muhammad bin Nayef also served as the Interior Minister after Ahmad’s dismissal and held the post under King Salman. Nayef’s role in suppressing al-Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia and his strong ties to the Al-Sheikh family, as well as his popularity in the United States, made him a major figure to become the king.
Furthermore, at present, Saud bin Nayef, the brother of Muhammad, the emir of the oil-rich Shiite province of Sharqiya, and his son, Abdulaziz, is Saudi Arabia’s interior minister. Nawaf bin Nayef’s half-brother Muhammad bin Nayef was also named in the arrests. From this perspective, if we assume that Ahmad bin Abdulaziz and his nephews were planning a coup, they had the potential and could challenge Bin Salman as the future crown prince and king, but given the house arrest of Bin Nayef since June 2017, and observation of no sign of action from Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, Bin Nayef’s charge of the coup has been merely a keyword to eliminate fierce rivals.
Scenario 2: Arrest under the King’s Supervision
The second scenario is based on the point that the wave of arrests has taken place under the king’s supervision and the verdicts have been issued by King Salman: Especially since all the dismissals and appointments since 2015 have been carried out by the king with the logic of bringing his son to power as the future king. The strength of this scenario is that King Salman has persuaded Saudi princes by several tools such as repression, appeasement, relative consensus and buying loyalty that the Saudi gerontocracy structure needs mobility by a young prince from the House of Sudairi who simultaneously maintains the territorial integrity, the survival of the kingdom and power preservation. There is a strong connection in the Saudi house.
Scenario 3: King’s Resignation or Death
And the third scenario, which is somewhat less likely, argues that the wave of arrests has taken place with the king’s death or his resignation. According to the scenario, Bin Salman has arrested Ahmad and Muhammad to make sure there will be no disruption in the process of Saudi princes’ loyalty to him as the new king; But King Salman’s appearance on news networks a day later partially marginalized this scenario. Meantime because of the fragile transition of power to Bin Salman after the death of his father, this process would likely take place in favour of Muhammad during King Salman’s lifetime with the support of the Americans so that the succession challenges at the House of Saud would take place with the least costs although this process again is new in the charter of King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia.