On Friday, the media reported that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had arrested two powerful members of the royal family, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, the sole remaining full brother of King Salman, and the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. Al Jazeera describes the arrests as “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s latest effort to consolidate control of all major levers of power inside the kingdom.”
After several days of speculation about why MBS would have taken what appears to be an extreme measure against members of his own family, The Guardian now reports that, despite rumors concerning an imminent succession, the sitting king is still in good health. It turns out that MBS ordered these arrests not in response to a suspected coup as the regime itself has stated, but simply to prevent members of his family from using the official procedure that, according to Saudi law, regulates royal succession.
The Guardian states that “The detention of the two men was directed by Mohammed bin Salman, whom they are accused of trying to sideline through the allegiance council, a body established in 2007 to ensure a smooth transition of power should the king or crown prince die.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The commitment of loyalty to a nation, a hierarchy or an institution, understood as a voluntary act, though in reality it may often be constrained and, in despotic regimes, constrained by extreme measures.
The commentators seem bemused by the extremity of this measure. Al Jazeera describes the current status quo within the royal family, insisting that MBS logically should have nothing to fear. “Saudi insiders and Western diplomats say the family is unlikely to oppose MBS while the 84-year-old king remains alive, recognising that he is unlikely to turn against his favourite son. The monarch has delegated most responsibilities of rule to his son but still presides over weekly cabinet meetings and receives foreign dignitaries.”
Equally in the dark about MBS’s motives, Bobby Ghosh, writing for Bloomberg, laments the “absence of clarity” days after the news broke. The mystery is compounded by speculation concerning the Saudis’ nearly simultaneous declaration of an oil price war with Russia that has troubled an economy already struggling with the effects of the coronavirus epidemic.
The critical factor that can clarify the mystery lies in the role of the allegiance council (or allegiance commission) created in 2007. In a leaked confidential document from 2009, the US government described this institution as the result of a “codification of the unwritten rules that have governed the selection of Saudi rulers since the passing of King Abdulaziz in 1953.”
Royal families that control a rich nation’s entire economy tend to generate internal rivalries. Extremely rich royal families in extremely rich countries tend to generate extremely bitter rivalries. The role of the king is to set the rules during his lifetime and, via his authority, to maintain the peace among the factions. King Salman, for example, changed the designation of the crown prince in 2017, transferring it from his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef (who is also the grandson of the nation’s founder, King Abdulaziz), to his favorite, Mohammed bin Salman.
Because of the complexity of relations within the royal family, with its multitude of princes, in 2006 the government, under King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, decided to create the allegiance council to reduce the friction of clan rivalries. Unlike European monarchies, the Saudi royal house does not follow the logic of a direct line of succession from father to son (obviously daughters have no political status in Saudi Arabia). Instead, the allegiance council — composed of descendants of the nation’s founder — follows its formerly “unwritten rules” of haggling and power-broking between likely heirs to the throne according to rules that allow for collegial decision-making.
The council has the power to “reach consensus on the King’s nominee” for the title of crown prince and can even “propose its own candidate, whose qualifications must satisfy conditions stipulated in the Basic Law.” This includes being “the most upright’ among the descendants of the founder king rather than the most senior.”
These provisions of the law — especially the condition of being “the most upright” — could not possibly please MBS, who considers that having been chosen by the king, his father, there should be no obstacle to his succession. Even though it happens to be the law, allowing a group of princes from his own extended family to make the final decision on the succession would be an intolerable assault on the near-absolute authority he has been wielding for the past three years.
Some point out that there are also laws against ordering the assassination of dissident journalists on foreign soil, but that didn’t impede MBS from organizing, as the United Nations and even the CIA have concluded, the gruesome assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.
Because of that assassination, along with the disastrous war in Yemen and other decisions that have been bad for the kingdom’s PR, the crown prince would be right to suspect that members of the allegiance council may feel more allegiance to the reputation of the nation than to the person of MBS. In so doing, they could easily be tempted to use the authority of the institution to effectuate a changing of the guard.
Because of that risk, MBS appears to have taken the eminently rational decision of arresting anyone who might, in his view, be tempted to express a different preference for the succession. Other members of the allegiance council are thus forewarned of what might await them were they to affirm allegiance to anything other than Mohammed bin Salman’s absolute power.
The drift toward autocratic rule has become a global phenomenon in recent years, one that worries those who believe in a democratic model. Democracies have increasingly shown a tendency to elect leaders with a taste for despotism, Donald Trump being the prime example.
But Trump shares the stage with many others, including the most obvious cases: Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, several heads of state in eastern Europe and Latin America, including one that has flown under the radar: the interim president of Bolivia, Jeanine Anez, who it now appears was allowed and even encouraged by other democracies (including the US) to replace President Evo Morales under the false pretext of a fraudulent election that Morales won. Anez claims to be reconstructing democracy but appears to be doing the opposite.
No one considers Saudi Arabia to be a democracy. It is a monarchy ruled by a royal family. But because it doesn’t practice the traditional linear succession familiar in Europe, it functions as a monarchy of the tribe rather than of a single lineage. As a consequence, it has created a tradition of collegial decision-making. The US diplomatic cable from 2009 explains the logic: “Though the country defines itself as a monarchy, in practice the sons of Abdulaziz have governed through a unique system of collective rule.” That historical tradition appears to be too dangerously democratic for MBS’ tastes.
Quoting Rami Khouri, a journalism professor at the American University of Beirut, Al Jazeera points to the “immense, direct and brutal control” that the crown prince has over all of the kingdom’s security agencies” as the key to his despotic success. There is no arguing with an army, a police force and a security apparatus whose allegiance to one man is absolute.
Bobby Ghosh worries that the irresponsible actions of MBS have already damaged the historically solid relations between Saudi Arabia and the US, as well as the rest of the world, given the crucial role Saudi oil plays in the global economy. Ghosh hopes MBS will learn to see the advantage of transparency but, more realistically, fears that “the arrests of the weekend were a precursor to a wider crackdown.”
In its evaluation of this story, the BBC sees no opening for transparency. Michael Stephens explains that the arrests were “a message from both [King] Salman and MBS to the rest of the family to get into line, an act of discipline that will secure loyalty and remind everyone who the boss is.” Allegiance will henceforth be owed to the one person who holds the power and has shown that he knows what he can do with it.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.