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Will Backlash Against Prince Purge Begin Within Military?

Muhammad bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been called bold, brash, and even an anti-corruption crusader in the press this week. But his arrest of hundreds of potential rivals, including 11 royal princes and many influential Saudi businessmen, can only be described as a pre-emptive coup.

If this was his aim, however, his firing of one prince—the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard—may have been his fatal mistake.

The son of the eighty-one year old King Salman, Muhammad bin Salman, known as MbS, has amassed more power in the last two years than any member of the House of Saud, including its kings. The young prince, who before his father came to power held no position of significance, is now the heir to the throne, minister of defense, chairman of the newly launched “anti-corruption” committee, and, by royal decree, the man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s primary source of wealth, Saudi Aramco.

The concentration of power in the hands of a man who was a junior prince is without precedent in the history of the House of Saud. The House of Saud, which has governed Saudi Arabia as its personal fiefdom since the Kingdom’s creation in 1932, has long depended on consensus and a somewhat equitable distribution of the country’s wealth—which is regarded as the property of the House of Saud not that of the people of Saudi Arabia—to maintain relatively peaceful relations within the family. For years, there was so much money washing around that it was in no one’s interest to not play by the unwritten rules that govern the dynamics of what is the world’s wealthiest extended family.

MbS has turned the notion of rule by consensus on its head. The prince has rapidly consolidated power in the Kingdom and as last weekend’s purge [1] demonstrates, is intent on destroying any and all rivals before they have time to act against him. While dozens of leading businessmen and princes have been arrested, two men stood out in terms of their potential to threaten Muhammad bin Salman’s ascension to the throne: Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, who died in a helicopter crash near [2] Yemen this week, and [3] Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who has been removed as head of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard.

The late Prince Mansour bin Muqrin was viewed by many within the House of Saud as a level-headed reform minded young prince who was already beginning to demonstrate some skill in his position as deputy governor for Saudi Arabia’s increasingly restive southern province of ‘Asir. Prince Muqrin’s father, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, was crown prince from January to April 2015 when he was ousted by Muhammad bin Salman’s father, King Salman. Prince Muqrin was killed on Sunday along with seven other ranking officials when their helicopter crashed in ‘Asir. No cause for the crash has been given by the Saudi government.

Of far more concern to stability within the House of Saud is the removal of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from his position as head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah is the son of late King Abdullah. He has commanded the Saudi National Guard since 2010 when he took over the position from his father. The National Guard is Saudi Arabia’s premier fighting force. It rivals the well-equipped but poorly led Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF). Saudi Arabia has what are essentially two distinct armies: the National Guard which is dedicated to protecting the House of Saud and the Royal Saudi Land Forces which acts as a more conventional fighting force. The National Guard has long been the preserve of the Shammar branch of the House of Saud. The late King Abdullah commanded the National Guard for five decades. The National Guard is unique in that it draws on Saudi Arabia’s tribal roots and in doing so acts as a vital link between the royals and the tribal support that they counted on during their rise to power in the 1920s. While the House of Saud’s dependence on tribal support is diminished, it should not be discounted altogether.

Muhammad bin Salman’s dismissal of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from his position could prove to be a serious miscalculation. MbS is already unpopular with large parts of the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) for his disastrous and impetuous war in Yemen. The Saudi led war in Yemen has proceeded from failure to failure and has put tremendous pressure on the inadequately trained and led RSLF. The National Guard has largely been spared deployment to Saudi Arabia’s dangerous and porous border with Yemen. This is largely due to Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah’s efforts to thwart MbS’ war in Yemen, which is regarded by many within the House of Saud as reckless, dangerous, and deeply immoral.

Dissatisfaction with what many of the old guard regard as an upstart prince could easily manifest itself among the tribal leaders that make up the corps of the National Guard where there is considerable loyalty to the Shammar branch of the al-Saud family. The National Guard is a potent force within Saudi Arabia and is but one of many potential pools of discontent. Muhammad bin Salman’s betrayal of decades of rule by consensus and consultation in favor of determined autocracy has undoubtedly made enemies of hundreds, if not thousands, of wealthy and influential princes and businessmen. These princes and businessmen are unlikely to wait for their invitation to the Ritz Carlton.    

Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including: The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Will Backlash Against Prince Purge Begin Within Military?"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 10, 2017 @ 12:33 am

MbS is an ‘anti-corruption’ agent only as much as he and his PR agents tell us and an unquestioning press. And corruption is defined as that which displeases him.

Power is power, that is all that we see here…

#2 Comment By fabian On November 10, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

Very interesting. Thanks.

#3 Comment By wolf tones On November 10, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

@WhineMerchant – ” And corruption is defined as that which displeases him. ”

… and that which he covets.

Don’t forget, since MBS and his father are now the owners of the kingdom, whatever they confiscate from the other members of the royal family (and the other Saudi tribes) becomes their personal property.

Nice work if you can get it, eh?

One really irritating thing about what’s going on is this elaborate pretense by MBS’s enablers in the Western press that all these events are somehow “perplexing”. The arrests are “perplexing”. Hariri’s resignation is “perplexing”. “Yemen’s Iranian missile” is perplexing.

“Perplexing” my ass. The motivation and means are as obvious as their results. The man is killing and imprisoning his rivals and taking possession of their wealth and estates. And he and his Israeli buddies are ginning up a war with Iran that they want America to fight.

#4 Comment By charles cosimano On November 10, 2017 @ 8:19 pm

If it becomes coup meets counter coup, let us be intelligent and allow them to wipe each other out in peace.

#5 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 11, 2017 @ 12:47 am

as wolf tone commented [above]: “The motivation and means are as obvious as their results. The man is killing and imprisoning his rivals and taking possession of their wealth and estates. And he and his Israeli buddies are ginning up a war with Iran that they want America to fight.”

AIPAC and Netanyahu have instructed Congress and the Trumpsters on what to do, and who will profit. All that is left is to invest another trillion taxpayer dollars, a few thousand lives from America’s underclass, it’s business as usual.
The distraction and drain on goodwill and resources and will smooth Xi Jinping’s “One Road – One Belt” replacing America with China as the remaining superpower.

#6 Comment By Princes In The Tower On November 11, 2017 @ 8:54 am

@wolf tones – “The man is killing and imprisoning his rivals and taking possession of their wealth and estates. ”

Latest reports are that he’s also having them beaten and tortured. And you now can add Prince Bandar to the roll of detainees, an even bigger name than Alwaleed bin Talal.

MBS is making a lot of bad enemies.

#7 Comment By Daniel Bryant On November 11, 2017 @ 9:43 am

Not surprisingly, all this was predicted in a risk analysis when Saudi IPO was being proposed as gods next best thing. A counter coup is coming and investors should rush out as fast as the can.

[4]

#8 Comment By Mark Thomason On November 11, 2017 @ 10:23 am

What goes unsaid here is that the National Guard was conceived of as a force that would prevent a coup. Its independence from the Army was matched by its independent spirit to protect those to which it is loyal from being overthrown.

With turmoil inside the House of Saud, to whom is it loyal? Anyone? Various factions loyal to various members of the family?

An anti-coup force is a major factor in consolidating after a coup.

#9 Comment By Nina Valim On November 11, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

I love MbS, he is going to destabilise SA and end the siege of the country by his family. Also be assured, SA won’t attack Iran. These guys can’t even (with nice weaponry ) fight Yemen, a country that has been destroyed. What happened to the Shah of Iran is going to happen to the royal family of SA. And MbS is just another Saddam Hussein.

#10 Comment By Take It Easy While They Off Each Other On November 11, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

“let us be intelligent and allow them to wipe each other out in peace.”

Some of us have been putting this forward as the winning US strategy for the Middle East for quite some time.

Letting the Israelis first drag us into the “peace process” was our biggest mistake. There are no peace processes in the Middle East. Only occasions on which people who hate each other sit down with Uncle Sam long enough to rip off the American taxpayer, and of course try to get us to put Americans in harm’s way, to save Israelis and Saudis the trouble.

#11 Comment By Sophistry On November 11, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

He’s going to be assasinated.

#12 Comment By Followthemoney On November 13, 2017 @ 9:18 am

“Q Anon” is saying on 4Chan that Trump told MBS to take down the “swamp” by eliminating those who funded the DC swampsters.

The trillion dollars taken from them, may be recycled toward paying the author to start telling the truth about what may have really been going on since before 9-11.

#13 Comment By b. On November 13, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

“The young prince, who before his father came to power held no position of significance, is now the heir to the throne, minister of defense, chairman of the newly launched “anti-corruption” committee, and, by royal decree, the man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s primary source of wealth, Saudi Aramco.”

It would appears that we should not focus on the jester before the throne, but the power on the throne. Maybe the King is recognizing his mortality but not his senility, attempting one reckless bid to extend his line’s inbred wealth into the future?