Saudi Arabia—the only absolute monarchy among the world’s major economic powers, a place whose citizens are referred to by the name of the family that rules them—is a country whose continued existence in the 21st century makes very little sense on paper.
Yet the kingdom has managed not only to survive but also to maintain its place among the world’s major powers, thanks in large part to the combined power of oil wealth, religious orthodoxy, and a long-term security alliance with the United States. The next generation of Saudi leaders, however, may face the toughest challenges yet thanks to growing regional instability, the growing influence of its main rival Iran, and a desperate need for domestic reform. Whether or not the House of Saud survives with anything resembling its current status, we’ll probably look back on the events of the past few days as the beginning of a new era.
On Saturday, 11 Saudi princes, including the country’s most prominent businessman, Alwaleed Bin Talal, were arrested. Four government ministers and dozens of former ministers were also detained. The arrests were ostensibly part of a recently announced anti-corruption crackdown but are widely seen as a move by Crown Prince and heir apparent Mohammed Bin Salman to eliminate potential rivals and consolidate his power.
In a separate incident, Prince Mansour bin Muqrin was killed in a helicopter crash near the Yemen border. No explanation has been given for the crash, though it’s led to some conspiracy theories, given the timing and the identity of the victim: Muqrin’s father, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, was the country’s former intelligence chief and was briefly crown prince until King Salman booted him from the line of succession in 2015.
It was an eventful weekend for Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy as well. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned in a televised address from Saudi Arabia on Saturday, saying his life was in danger, sparking yet another political crisis in his country. Hariri was a Saudi ally, and his rivals in the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah were quick to accuse the Saudis of forcing him to resign.
As if all that weren’t enough, after the successful interception of a missile fired toward Riyadh from Yemen on Saturday, the Saudi-led military coalition announced it was closing all of Yemen’s land, air, and sea ports to prevent arms shipments to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and the coalition accused Iran of an “act of war.” (Iran denied responsibility.) The coalition, with U.S. support, has been involved in a brutal military intervention to combat the Houthis since 2015. The blockade is likely to worsen the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, already afflicted by mass starvation and the worst cholera epidemic in history.
So what is going on in Saudi Arabia? One important factor is that the upcoming transition from the current king, Salman, to his son, Mohammed bin Salman, will be a unique one. Since the death of the country’s founder, Abdulaziz, in 1953, all of his successors have been his sons, who have passed the crown down brother to brother. This has meant that the last few kings have all been very old men with very short reigns. The crown prince, who will be the first of the next generation to rule, is only 32. The current king is 81 and reportedly struggles with health problems—both physical and mental—so the transition could come soon, either through Salman’s death or his abdication.
But Mohammed’s elevation over more senior and experienced uncles and cousins—he’s the third heir apparent since Salman’s reign began in 2015— has undoubtedly ruffled some feathers, and he has a lot of competition. Saudi succession law only states that the king has to be a male heir of Abdulaziz, who had 45 sons by 22 wives. Given that many of those sons were similarly prolific, Saudi Arabia now has more than 7,000 princes. The arrests are likely a signal that the young king-in-waiting is not waiting until he inherits the throne to start exercising power.
Some are comparing the weekend purge to Xi Jinping’s use of a massive anti-corruption campaign to eliminate potential political rivals. Prince Mohammed no doubt likes the comparison to Chinese leaders who have modernized and developed their country while maintaining complete political control. Mohammed fancies himself a modernizer as well, having launched Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to wean the country off its traditional dependence on oil. The plan comes with some flashy ideas, including a proposed futurist megacity complete with citizen robots. However, Saudis have been talking about diversification for years, yet the economy remains heavily dependent on oil.
That’s a problem at a time when oil prices are staying low, and there are doubts about just how much oil the country is still able to produce. Economic growth has been sluggish and unemployment is growing, despite the fact that half the country’s potential workforce—women—are excluded from many jobs. The kingdom has fended off social instability, including the tumult of the Arab Spring, in large part through spending on social welfare programs paid for by oil wealth, but as any Venezuelan will tell you, that’s not a long-term solution.
Over the past couple of years, the government has taken some steps to loosen up the country’s notoriously strict religious laws, curbing the powers of the feared religious police and ending the infamous ban on women drivers. While welcome, periods of liberalization are always risky for authoritarian governments: Progressives will take advantage of their new freedoms to push for more rapid change—and the pace of change, particularly for women, has been glacially slow—while conservatives may push back against even modest reforms. Mohammed may want to be a Xi, but could end up looking more like a Gorbachev.
Things don’t look much more promising on the international front. Archrival Iran is increasing its influence in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The war in Yemen has become a costly and bloody quagmire. Saudi support for rebel groups in Syria has both failed to bring the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and bred a new generation of extremists who, like the mujahideen the kingdom backed in Afghanistan in the 1980s, may eventually turn their sights on the kingdom itself. And this year’s efforts to bring its wayward neighbor Qatar to heel haven’t gone as planned.
Arguably the main international bright spot in recent years has been the election of Donald Trump. The Saudis were not fans of Barack Obama, given the Iran nuclear deal and his perceived lack of support for longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Trump, by contrast, has seemed to buy the Saudi worldview whole, framing Mideast politics during his speech in Riyadh in May as an existential battle against Iran. Weapons deals with America are in the works, and the administration has doubled down on support for Saudi combat in Yemen.
Mohammed has reportedly become very close to America’s own “prince,” Jared Kushner. According to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the two were up until 4 a.m. one night during the May trip “swapping stories and planning strategy.” The Sauds, who had a famously close relationship with the Bushes, may just prefer it when America has a ruling family.
Prince Alwaleed, on the other hand, was an outspoken critic of Trump, raising the discomfiting possibility that his arrest may have been partly meant as a gesture of friendship to the U.S. administration.
Of course, the Saudis may not be able to take that relationship for granted forever either. The U.S. Congress is increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia, particularly over controversial allegations involving the kingdom’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks—allegations Trump himself trafficked in during his campaign.
Ever since the modern U.S.-Saudi relationship began in 1945, the U.S. has been willing to overlook many of the kingdom’s less savory aspects as long as it kept the oil flowing and supported U.S. national security policies. Today the oil is less of a factor than it used to be, and unless Mohammed finds a way to maintain stability—both in his country and in his region—the Saudi relationship may come to be seen in Washington as more trouble than it’s worth.
The Saud family has survived tough times before, but Mohammed has his work cut out for him now.