On Sunday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri insisted that he was not being held captive in Saudi Arabia during a television interview that, according to the Associated Press, “was filled with bizarre moments” and which led some allies to believe that he was performing under duress. Eight days earlier, Hariri, whose family owns a massive Saudi construction company, had turned up in Riyadh to announce that he was resigning. He blamed Iran’s growing influence in the region and said that he feared that an assassination plot was underway—a claim the Lebanese military denied later in the week. The move sent Lebanon’s fragile government into a major political crisis.
Hariri hadn’t been heard from for over a week prior to Sunday’s interview, and members of his party suspected that he’d been placed under house arrest.
But Hariri’s sudden resignation was only one element of the intrigue that shook the Saudi Kingdom on November 4. That same day, Muhammed bin Salman, the brash young crown prince who had made headlines in the West by spontaneously buying a $550 million yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon while pushing a painful “austerity program” back at home, consolidated his control over the Saudi armed forces and rounded up almost a dozen members of the Saudi royal family—along with other senior officials—on the pretense of fighting corruption. They included Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a powerful rival whom bin Salman had skipped over to become heir to the throne when the former’s father, King Abdullah, died in 2015, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire investor who owns or has owned significant positions in companies like 21st Century Fox, Citigroup, Apple, and Twitter.
Widely known as “MBS,” bin Salman had become a darling of DC’s foreign-policy community, who saw him as a reformer, and had reportedly formed a personal friendship with Jared Kushner, who visited him recently during Kushner’s third trip to Riyadh since the election.
That same day, the Saudis said they’d intercepted a missile fired at Riyadh’s airport by Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged a brutal proxy war with the Iranian-backed forces. MBS immediately characterized the missile strike and the “assassination plot” against Hariri as acts of war on the part of Iran. Last Thursday, the Saudi government ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately.
Meanwhile, almost a dozen Saudi princes remain detained in a gilded prison at the Ritz Carlton Riyadh.
I asked Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Middle East Centre, for her take on these events that have shaken the Saudi Kingdom andwhat MBS’s endgame was. Could MBS hold such powerful figures indefinitely? What happens next?
Nobody knows. According to the Saudi press, there will be fair trials. But [the princes] may be sidelined, or basically disappear into oblivion. Like Muhammed bin Nayef, who was expelled from his office in July. Since then, we haven’t heard anything about him. He has not spoken to the media. He hasn’t appeared anywhere. Which means that he’s under house arrest somewhere in the kingdom, or on an island in the Red Sea.
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Those 11 princes may face the same fate—in addition to all the ordinary Saudis who are detained, lets not forget about them. It is very, very sad to see how the international’s community is so worried about those 11 princes. And we forget that there are hundreds of Saudis detained in Saudi prisons simply because of their opinion. They are political prisoners.
Al-Rasheed offered an overview of how MBS came to hold such power, and how far his ambitions have led him from the typical norms of Saudi governance. You can listen to our entire interview in the player above, or read an edited transcript below.
Joshua Holland: I’d like to start out just by briefly setting the stage here. Is everything we’ve seen in the last week a culmination of a competition for power that began with King Abdullah’s death in 2015?
Madawi Al-Rasheed: Yes, absolutely. In 2015, we saw how many princes stood to become kings after King Salman, who ascended to the throne that year. So Salman immediately sacked his brother Muqrin, who had been the crown prince. He also got rid of Muhammed bin Nayef, who became crown prince after Muqrin, and promoted his own son Muhammed bin Salman, otherwise known as MBS. So there has been a change in the line of succession in Saudi Arabia. It had gone from one person to his brother. But in 2015, King Salman moved towards making it go from father to son, along the European model of monarchy.
There are several reasons for this. First, the brothers of Salman are old, and none of the remaining ones are actually [strong] enough to become kings. So Salman didn’t face great opposition when he sidelined all his remaining brothers. Now, his choice of Muhammed bin Salman, the youngest son, was controversial. He immediately placed MBS in high position, making him minister of defense. MBS then amassed so much power in his hands, maintaining his control over the media, over the military apparatus of the Saudi regime and the intelligence services. And that paved the way for the recent detentions.
And the detention of the commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, was actually the removal of the last rival to the throne of that generation.
JH: Now, MBS’s moves have been described as a departure from long-standing norms of Saudi governance. They tended to stress a sometimes difficult process of creating some consensus within the royal family. There was also an emphasis on continuity. Can you talk about that briefly?
MAR: Muhammed bin Salman has shattered the consensus of the Saudi royal family. Detaining senior princes is unprecedented in the history of the Saudi state. The only time we’ve had princes detained is when they committed criminal acts. And they would be put under house arrest. Even those who challenged the rule of the House of Al Saud in the 1950s and ’60s—the free princes—were eventually pardoned. They came back to Saudi Arabia. They were invited to come back, and were forgiven.
This detention, even if there are no serious charges, has undermined the status of these other princes and proved to the world, and to Saudis, that there’s only one man who’s running the show in Saudi Arabia, and that is Muhammed bin Salman.
JH: Can you tell us a little bit about bin Salman’s modernization plan known as “Vision 2030,” and what do you make of the claims that this move to consolidate power was the only way of overcoming resistance to the kind of sweeping change that he envisions for the Saudi Kingdom? This idea that he’s trying to overcome defenders of the status quo?
MAR: There are multiple issues here. Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 builds on previous development projects in Saudi Arabia. It’s not that new. For example, privatization had already started in Saudi Arabia. “Saudization”—replacing the expatriate labor force with Saudis—has been government policy since the 1970s.
What’s new in this vision is the IPO that is planned for Aramco, the state oil company. It’s not going to happen anytime soon because they still don’t know whether they’re going to do the deal in New York or in London. Or, possibly, the Chinese are going to buy a huge chunk of it. It’s still up in the air.
But this is the novelty of Vision 2030—that it touches the oil sector, which is the main economic driver in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia depends on oil for about 75 percent of its income. Muhammed bin Salman’s vision is to [sell] 5 percent of the oil company’s stock.
The other aspect of Muhammed bin Salman’s vision is to engineer social change from above. Which means that he sees Saudi Arabia becoming more open in order to attract foreign investors. For his project to succeed, at least the economic one, he needs an open society, an open environment.
But the openness that we have seen so far is very superficial. Women’s driving [which has still not been legalized] is extremely important. But the real question is why Saudi women have been denied the right to drive until the 21st century. Hundreds of articles in the Western media have been written about MBS’s moves to rescind the ban as if it were the culmination of a great social transformation, or a revolution. In fact, that’s not the case, because there remain certain restrictions and legal issues that need to be resolved.
Finally, some claim that Muhammad bin Salman wants to advance a moderate vision of Islam, bringing Saudi Arabia back to a kind of religious moderation. But when he announced that as a goal, he was actually not very accurate when it comes history. The Saudi regime has always been built on a radical version of Islam, namely the Salafis or the Wahabis. And to claim, as he did, that since 1979 Saudi became radical as a result of Iran—thus blaming it on Iran—this is totally untrue. Those of us who spend time reading the archives and looking at Saudi history realize that this is absolute rubbish. Saudi Arabia has always been radical.
But let’s assume that he’s going to make Saudi Arabia endorse a moderate Islam. How is he going to do that, when he has actually put in prison so many religious scholars and clerics who are not radical at all? To give you one example, Cleric Salman Al Huda, who was associated with this more moderate Islamist trend, recently announced that we do not, and cannot, prosecute homosexuals. He said we should not impose punishment on those people. But Muhammed bin Salmon objected to this kind of development in religious thinking and put that cleric in prison in September.
The founders of the NGO Hashim have been imprisoned since 2009 simply because they formed an independent civil society, calling for human rights. When Salman became king, he did not pardon them. When Muhammad bin Salmon became crown prince, he put more of them in prison. Some of them are over 75 years old, and they’re going to die in prison simply because they dared to ask for civil and political rights in Saudi Arabia and expressed their opinion. This kind of repression is really not the right environment in which to encourage moderate Islam.
JH: This recent roundup has been couched as an assault on corruption. How do you define corruption in a monarchy where the line between the royal family and the state is so fuzzy? And is that framing something that’s resonating with the Saudi public?
MAR: Yes, the Saudi public has cheered this move. They like the idea that anybody who’s suspected of corruption is going to be detained, put on trial. But one thing that dictators usually do, if they want to get rid of their opponents, or rivals, is they always fabricate some kind of case against them, and put them in prison. We’ve seen this in other countries. So Muhammed bin Salman is not doing anything new.
And by detaining his rivals under the pretext of fighting corruption, he’s trying to augment his popularity in the eyes of both the Saudi public, and also with foreign investors. But this proved to be counterproductive, because since the detention the Saudi stock market has declined, and a lot of people overseas who may have considered investing in Saudi are thinking about the rule of law and what it means to do business and put a lot money in a country that lacks transparency and an independent judiciary.
And those foreign investors in the US, Europe, Japan, and other places must think twice about investing in a country like Saudi Arabia, where you don’t know what will happen to your money. In the short term, these investors may make a lot of money, but at any minute they could be detained and put in the Ritz Carlton or, even worse, in the Saudi Al-Ha’ir prison for any reason. Or because this autocrat has proved to be erratic, young, and in a hurry to make a lot of money.
He’s also used the pretext of fighting the war on terror. So in September when he detained a number of professionals, activists, and religious scholars, he claimed that they were all radical, and this is absolutely not true. According to Human Rights Watch, those people have not been involved in violence. In fact, a lot of them were just peaceful critics of the regime. And some of them aren’t even critics—they just abstained from applauding every policy that Muhammed bin Salman had introduced. And they were punished for their silence.
JH: I want to talk about the US relationship with the Saudi regime, with MBS. The Trump regime has adopted an unspoken Saudi-first Middle East policy. In part, I think that’s a reflection of their hawkish view towards Iran. In any event, a number of analysts have argued that the administration’s uncritical embrace of MBS and King Salman has emboldened the prince and given him the sense that he can make these kind of radical changes without any repercussions from the outside world. Is that your view? Or, are we giving Washington too much credit for its influence over these events?
MAR: There are two issues here. Quite a lot of the stuff that is going on inside Arabia—unpleasant things, like these detentions—has to do with the power struggle in Saudi Arabia at the very top level. At the level of the royal family. But Mr. Trump, since he became president, has given positive signals to Muhammed bin Salman. Especially in MBS’s policies in the Middle East.
The first example is Yemen. Trump remains silent on Saudi atrocities in Yemen. As much as Obama had been. Both presidents didn’t make any noise about this humanitarian crisis that they had precipitated in Yemen.
And then there is the crisis with Qatar, which has been blockaded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. And here, Mr. Trump has simply endorsed what the Saudis told him in Riyadh when he visited. They told him that Qatar sponsors terrorism, and he seemed to have repeated that like a parrot, I’m sorry to say, without any kind of investigation. I think he was trying to endear himself to the prince—they have a lot in common.
And Muhammed bin Salman has miscalculated this war in Yemen. Three years later, he hasn’t brought the Houthis—his rivals in Yemen who are supported by the Iranians—to their knees. At the same time, the Qatar crisis is ongoing, but the Qatari Emir hasn’t been expelled from the country. The Qataris are not starving. In fact, what Muhammed bin Salman wanted is to limit Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula. But the crisis in Qatar has brought Qatar closer to Iran than to its neighbors in the Gulf.
So a lot of these policies that Muhammed bin Salman has pursued are backfiring, and he must be feeling some pressure. And he’s short of money. Despite Saudi Arabia’s wealth, oil prices are still low, which hobbles MBS’s projects.
JH: The regional context here seems a little bit bewildering on its face. It looks like MBS is taking a recklessly aggressive stance toward Iran at a moment when, as you mentioned, his country is in the midst of this campaign in Yemen. And the resignation of Saad Hariri has plunged Lebanon into chaos. Is there a method to all of this? Or is this about being young, and brash, and inexperienced?
MAR: MBS has ambitions to become the final arbiter of all Arab affairs. But this is not going to happen, for all sorts of reasons. One of them is that Iran is there, and it is there to stay in the Middle East. And should Muhammed bin Salman be interested in fostering peace and security in this region, he should come to the negotiating table with Iran to discuss how they could divide this region into different zones and refrain from interfering in other Arab countries’ internal affairs.
But that’s not going to happen because every time we think that there is a way out of this seemingly eternal rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we face a setback. The latest setback was when Saudi regime summoned Saad Harriri, the Lebanese prime minister who’s very, very close to the Saudi regime historically, and is also a Saudi citizen. He has dual nationalities. So he’s Lebanese and Saudi at the same time. MBS summoned him to Riyadh where he announced his resignation.
And throughout history, no prime minister would resign from another country unless he’s trying to form a government in exile, or during war time. But perhaps he didn’t have a choice. He was summoned and announced, unexpectedly and abruptly, that he’s resigned. And the resignation is very important, because Lebanon spent two years without a president. Eventually they arrived at a kind of agreement between the various factions in the country and formed a government and got a president elected. So Saad Hariri gives the regime in Lebanon a kind of legitimacy because it means that all of the country’s factions, the sectarian groups—the Sunni, the Shia, the Christians—are all participating in the government. By pulling Hariri from government, the Saudis hoped the Lebanese political agreement would collapse, and then Muhammed bin Salman could blame Iran for it.