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Challenges of the political change in Saudi Arabia

Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia (1L) [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

Since the rise of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz to the throne, Saudi Arabia has been undergoing rapid major political changes that seem to be an attempt to rebuild the political system in the Kingdom in a manner that guarantees the stability of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's rule (after he ascends to the throne). He is the first grandchild of the founding King, Abdulaziz Al Saud.

In order to achieve this, the ruling government has made huge successive changes that all serve one purpose, i.e. focusing power and its various sources in the hands of the Crown Prince. On the political and security front, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was appointed defence minister as soon as his father sat on the throne. After that, the former Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Nayef, was removed from his position as crown prince and interior minister. Finally, Prince Mutaib bin Abdulaziz was dismissed from the National Guard leadership, in order for the three main security institutions in the Kingdom, i.e. the army, national guard and interior ministry, to be under the leadership of the young Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, without any competition from influential princes from the ruling family.

On the economic front, over 200 Saudi princes and businessman were arrested in corruption cases and more than $100 billion of their wealth has been seized, according to statements made by the Saudi attorney general. The arrested individuals own some of the most important Arabic media outlets, including Al Arabiya and Rotana television channels. Hence, this places more economic and media power in the hands of the Crown Prince.

On the religious front, dozens of influential preachers and sheikhs were arrested, while the authorities of the religious police in the country were reduced, in addition to this, there have been major cultural changes, including allowing women to drive, public celebrations of national holidays, and entertainment festivals.

Read: Is Saudi's Bin Salman tackling corruption or making money?

Therefore, the efforts to place most of the power in the hands of the Saudi Crown Prince seem to be efforts seeking something bigger, i.e. rebuilding the Saudi system, even if by abandoning the basic rules of the Saudi political system that have been relied on in the past. Such rules include distributing the security institutions and wealth amongst various branches of the ruling family to ensure that none of them monopolises power. It also includes relying on the support of the religious institution and on the policies of a rentier state, which guarantees the loyalty of the Saudi people by means of distributing oil revenues.

I should note that Mohammed Bin Salman announced plans to modernise the Saudi economy in the coming years in a manner that gives a greater role to the private sector in various fields, particularly the management of oil wealth itself, as the Crown Prince intends to float Saudi Aramco in international markets next year. This is a deal or opportunity awaited by international markets.

In order to understand the future of these major changes, whether or not they can be successful, and their implications for the stability of the Kingdom and its political system, we must take a look at their characteristics and their context. By doing so, we can say the following:

First, these changes are occurring in an almost entirely confidential manner, often abruptly, especially with regard to political and security changes. This is due to the lack of an institutional framework that would ensure a degree of transparency on one hand, and reassurance on the other. This makes the process of predicting these changes and their fate a difficult task and weakens the chances of reassuring observers at home and abroad in the long run. How can they be reassured in the face of so many major, rapid and secret changes?

Second, the successive changes, the process of refocusing power and rebuilding the Saudi political system are not being accompanied by any attempts for political openness or building a state of institutions. Instead, they are mostly leading towards the opposite direction, as they eliminate the limited pluralism and diversity in the Saudi system, albeit within the ruling family, as influential princes have controlled the security media, and economic institution, control of which is now all being put in the hands of the ruler. This means that the opportunities to express diversity in the Saudi political input and output are very few given the reduced diversity in the decision-making circles.

Read more: Rapprochement with Israel carries a heavy price tag for Riyadh

Third, the changes are characterised by enormous speed and greatness, and often do not correspond to a strong internal reaction. The overthrow of Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef from the position of crown prince occurred without a trace of resistance, while the arrest of some of the most famous preachers and most influential and wealthy princes occurred as well without much hubbub. This is surprising and raises questions regarding the Kingdom's ability to bear all of these changes, on one hand, and the lack of any institutions that can control or guide the speed of the change or its magnitude. Given the centralisation of power, change in any direction, positive or negative, becomes inevitable in the face of a lack of any apparent resistance.

Fourth, This does not mean that the changes are not being met with any opposition, as it is clear that they are facing different challenges, as the oil prices have declined, unemployment has spread, and the Saudi economy is facing the very difficult challenge of privatisation. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is facing a prolonged war with Yemen and a heated regional rivalry with Iran, in addition to a security challenge with extremist groups. The rapid changes must be facing opposition, even if only by those affected by it, such as some members of the ruling family.

Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (L) meets US President Donald Trump (R) at the White House in Washington, United States on March 14, 2017.
( Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout – Anadolu Agency )

Fifth: The previous changes are taking place under the clear personal support of US President Donald Trump who seems to be clearly supportive of the approaches adopted by King Salman and the Crown Prince. However, there is clear evidence that Trump's personal support for the Crown Prince's policies is not necessarily accompanied by long-term American support, or even enough current support from the American institutions, such as the State Department and Department of Defence. The Qatar crisis is the most prominent example of this.

The logical consequences of the aforementioned issues is that given the centralisation of power, political responsibility will be centralised and the Saudi Crown Prince will increasingly bear full responsibility for what is happening in the Kingdom. It will become difficult to convince those opposed to these policies that the Crown Prince is unable to make reforms due to the resistance of opposition forces within the ruling family or the Kingdom. Along with the Crown Prince's increased control over these forces, he alone would be responsible for everything that happens.

He may be successful and become a founder of a new iron ruling system in which the wealth and power is almost exclusively put in the hand of the ruler alone, and not in the hands of the ruling family. There is no doubt that success will not be easy, as the Crown Prince will have to face extremely difficult internal and external challenges, beginning with the revival of the Saudi economy due to the decline in oil prices. He will also have to face the consequences of the rapid cultural and religious changes in the Kingdom, achieve security stability and prevent internal political divisions, especially among the security institutions.

At the same time, he will have to manage difficult external challenges, such as the relationship with Iran, the Gulf crisis, and international relations post-Trump. He must do so without suffering political and diplomatic losses that will weaken his internal image.

In addition to this, he will have the task of maintaining the new system based on the centralisation of power and responsibility and the absence of diversity and institutions capable of absorbing the opposition and change. The centralisation of power and authority facilitates the process of seizing it. Moreover, the centralisation of responsibility also centralises the discontent of the opposition, while the lack of diversity deprives the opposition and government the chance of having clam change. Furthermore, institutional weakness opens the door to sudden dramatic changes if opponents can gradually rally themselves, even after a while. Every system has its own characteristics.

This article first appeared in Arabic on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 15 November 2017.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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