In 1595 Mehmed III became sultan of the Ottoman empire. In order to preempt any challenges to his power, he ordered aides to strangle all 19 of his brothers, some of them no older than infants. They were buried in their father’s tomb near the Topkapi Palace complex.
Palace intrigues of kings, khedives, caliphs, sultans, and presidents for life is the stuff of history—some of it fascinating, lots of it bloody and consequential.
Now the pages have turned to Saudi Arabia—which is entering an unprecedented and perilous chapter in the struggle for a successor regime to an aging King Salman, led by the king’s favorite son, the 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
The big news is the Saudi government, spurred by a new anti-corruption task force led by MbS, began arresting key royal family members on November 4. These arrests included 11 princes—among them sons of the deceased former King Abdullah—and more than 30 former and current ministers, together with the heads of three major Saudi TV stations.
The campaign to strip the losers of their considerable wealth has already begun. The assets of those detained have been frozen, and efforts are now underway to attach wealth currently beyond the reach of the new corruption commission. All of the funds, potentially counted in the billions, are headed to the national treasury, where the Salman wing of the ruling family now rules supreme.
Some of those detained in the sweep are being held in the local Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. The accommodations are far better than the Tower of London, and there is no suggestion—yet—that those under such comfortable arrest will meet the sad fate of Mehmed III’s unfortunate brothers.
But this much is clear: MbS is breaking the rules of the game of a resilient if opaque and primitive system of familial rule of the Al Saud—marked by consensus among the aging sons of the founder of the modern state. He is asserting the power, if not the right, not only to inherit the throne, but also to determine the fate of his weaker rivals, both real and apparent.
We can guess this because, more broadly, the targets of these arrests, along with the conservative Wahhabi establishment, have been key pillars of the modern Saudi state, dating from the 1920s.
MbS, named crown prince in a major reshuffling in June, is the instigator and presumed chief beneficiary of such actions. Over the last year, he has mounted a very public campaign to succeed his father that has left many uneasy. But this latest move offers further evidence that MbS wants to ascend the throne unchallenged by traditional family considerations, or the countervailing power exercised by the religious and commercial establishments that have dominated the politics, economics, and internal security of the country since its inception almost a century ago.
Rooting out corruption is said to be the primary purpose of this so far bloodless coup against competing branches of the ruling family, and indeed doing so would mark a welcome if radical departure in how business and politics are conducted in Riyadh. But transparency and the supremacy of the rule of law are not often the hallmarks of hereditary royal governance and skeptics can be forgiven if they withhold judgment on the outcome of this element of this new campaign.
More certain is the ruthless determination of the presumed heir apparent to crush the centers of royal and economic influence—often one and the same—that may be less than enthusiastic about MbS’s outsized ambitions. Even the religious authority of the Wahhabi theocratic establishment, locked in a symbiotic embrace with the Al Saud family, may not escape MbS’s efforts to consolidate power.
MbS has won the plaudits of many for his aspiration to modernize certain elements of the Saudi state, which is in a perilous economic condition despite its oil wealth. Young, energetic, and determined, he is said to be committed to force a Saudi social accommodation with the requirements of a modern post-oil economy—liberating women, modernizing the economy, and welcoming visitors from around the world. In all cases, the bar to succeed is pretty low. But it is enough to mobilize royal and religious opponents who see permitting women to drive and attend public sport events as dangerous changes in the kingdom.
MbS is certainly not the first to be tempted by the talisman of absolute rule. There have been royal reformers before him and more than one ambitious, modernizing colonel has forced his way into palaces from Cairo to Istanbul and Tripoli.
Donald Trump recently weighed in, albeit on Twitter, urging the Saudis to choose the NYSE to float 5 percent of ARAMCO, one of the issues said to be dividing the Saudi royals and business elites. Later on Monday, he lauded the arrests:
….Some of those they are harshly treating have been “milking” their country for years!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2017
Meanwhile, the destructive war across the border in Yemen, the brainchild of MbS, is another arena in which the drama over Saudi succession is being played out. So too is Beirut.
Lebanon’s hapless Prime Minister Saad Hariri has presided for almost a year over a divided government that, like all modern Lebanese administrations, has tried to balance competing demands from stronger parties both domestic and foreign. In an extraordinary move, Hariri cabled his resignation last week from the Saudi capital, where he remains. Hariri himself, a Saudi citizen reared in the country, was summoned twice last week from Beirut, and reportedly read his marching orders by Saudis unhappy with growing Iranian influence in Lebanon. MbS can no doubt be counted as first among them.
Lebanon has long been a barometer of the vitality and venality of competing powers throughout the region. In recent months, Riyadh, preoccupied with wars in Syria and Yemen, has paid less attention to that balance of power in the Land of the Cedars. Hariri’s resignation is of a piece with MbS’s domestic campaign. Both are meant to signal in no uncertain terms to Iran, Qatar, and all others domestic and foreign that a new ruthless, and activist leadership is running the show in Riyadh.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.