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New plot twists in Saudi game of thrones

Friday (March 6th) morning, international news agencies reported the arrest of prominent figures of the dynasty and a large number of military-civilian bureaucrats in Saudi Arabia, bringing the Kingdom’s domestic politics back to the forefront of the global agenda.

Following the appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as crown prince in 2017, we witnessed a series of “intimidation of intra-dynastic rivals” operations, in which numerous senior princes were arrested. Looking at the charges against those arrested in the operations against senior figures of the dynasty so far, it can be said that the operations were shown as a legal action.

Saudi ministers, princes and businessmen, including prominent figures such as al-Waleed bin Talal, were detained in 2017 as part of the fight against corruption and held for months at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. The arrest warrant was issued by the “Anti-Corruption Commission”.

On the other hand, a look at the identities of those arrested in Friday’s operation and the accusations on them – point to a severe crisis in domestic politics of the Kingdom.

Those arrested include Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, son of King Abdulaziz; and Mohammad bin Nayef, former crown prince. The arrests were made on the direct orders of Mohammad bin Salman, also known by his initials MBS, and the accusations – attempted coup and treason – are vastly different from the ones we have witnessed in the past.

In addition to these two, the arrest of Nayef bin Ahmed, the head of the land forces and intelligence agency and son of Ahmad Bin Abdulaziz; Nawwaf, the brother of Mohammad bin Nayef; and more than 20 high-ranking princes and soldiers indicate a new inter-dynasty purge.

When we look closely at Saudi politics, we can assert that the recent arrests are closely connected with the domestic politics of the country and with a number of international developments.

Is Riyadh preparing for post-King Salman era?

Friday’s arrests reignited concerns over King Salman’s health. His deteriorating health and age were already concerns that have intensified over time.

The game of thrones post-Salman has kicked off.

Because the 5th Article of the Saudi Constitution establishes the structure of the Saudi regime as absolute monarchy, it states that the sons of King Abdulaziz (not his descendants like MBS) have the primary right to the Saudi throne. Although MBS was appointed crown prince, it seems legally possible under this article of the Constitution that Abdulaziz’s living son, Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, could claim the throne.

The second aspect of Friday’s arrests is the possibility that Mohammad bin Salman, who recently led radical changes in Saudi domestic policy, has upset the balance of the dynasty that has existed since the country’s founding and could provoke a reaction among members of the dynasty.

Although the Saudi political system is described as an “absolute monarchy”, it is based on a politics of balance between members of the dynasty. According to this balance policy, not all power is gathered in the hands of the king, and political decisions (such as army commands, governorships, ministries) are based on a compromise between the powerful members of the dynasty who are appointed to influential positions and the king who is the head of the Saudi state.

The Saudi system could originally be described as a “dynastic democracy,” unlike one-person monarchies. The members of the dynasty, whose numbers are over 10,000, struggle to be influential in the Saudi political system, as they are divided into 34 branches, similar to political parties in democratic countries.

In this system, a possible crisis situation can be easily overcome through mutual concessions and alliances among members of the dynasty. The ulema, who hold a very important position in the Saudi political system, have always been influential in decision-making processes.

With the death of the previous King Abdullah in 2015, MBS’ growing power in the Saudi political system prompted a process that resulted in the exclusion of the two most important elements of the Saudi regime; members of the dynasty and the ulema from the political system.

In order to ensure a smooth change of hands from Salman bin Abdulaziz to MBS, powerful candidates for the throne, such as al-Waleed bin Talal, Mutaib bin Abdullah, Mohammad bin Nayef, and many powerful dynasty members who supported them, were systematically intimidated by arrests.

This resulted in the monopolization of power in the hands of MBS, upsetting the dynastic balance that had existed in the country in the past.

Theoretically, the selection of the new king upon the death of the current king or if he becomes unable to accomplish his duties (due to health problems or other problems) is performed by the Commitment Council (Allegiance Council) composed of high-ranked dynasty members.

It is known that Ahmed bin Abdulaziz is the most important council member who is against the selection of MBS as the new king. Again, the “moderate Islam” policy that has been launched by MBS resulted with the decrease in the role of ulema in both Saudi political system and the social construction of the state.

Thus, the policy of “moderate Islam” broke the pact created in 1744 between Mohammad bin Saud and Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the first Saudi state, alienating and enraging the ulema — the most important element of the country’s politics for three centuries.

These developments in Saudi domestic policy remind us of what happened to Saud bin Abdulaziz, the country’s first king after its founder, King Abdulaziz in 1964.

The 1960s were a period in the Middle East when Socialist Arab nationalism, led by Egyptian President Jamal Nasser, posed the most significant threat to conservative Arab monarchies, mainly Saudi Arabia.

The members of the dynasty supported by the ulema, who were troubled by the rise of socialism due to the incompetent politics of Saud bin Abdulaziz — deposed and replaced him with Faisal bin Abdulaziz in a palace coup.

This event represents a first in Saudi political history since the king was deposed in a coup while he was alive and replaced by another king.

Global developments that push MBS

A number of developments in the global arena starting in early 2020 have started a process that has weakened MBS’ hand both in the country’s domestic politics and on the regional front.

The most important of these developments is the coronavirus threat that emerged in China’s Wuhan province in December 2019 and spread very rapidly around the world. Although initially perceived as an ordinary health problem, the rate of spread of the virus and the increasing number of casualties has raised serious concerns about the course of the global economy.

The rapid spread of the virus in the Far East, which is the engine of the global economy and oil demand, especially in China, caused a significant slowdown in economic activity in the region, and due to this slowdown, the oil demand of the Far Eastern economies, especially in China, decreased by 20-30%.

Moreover, this slowdown in demand for oil from China affects Saudi Arabia the most, as China imports half of its oil from the Gulf region, and a recovery in oil demand is not expected in the short term.

This economic slowdown in the region has revealed two important results in terms of Saudi Arabia. This serious weakening in the demand for oil firstly caused steep decreases in the prices. Oil prices which had marched around $70 on January 2020, decreased by 60% and came down to $30 as of the first week of March. Given the fact that Saudi Arabia is dependent on oil for 90% of the country’s income, and economic stability in the country is only possible with oil prices around $80-90, this “oil shock” will have a profound impact on the country.

With Saudi Arabia already in trouble with severe budget deficits recently, this oil shock poses a huge threat to the country’s economic stability.

Saudi Arabia’s total budget for fiscal year 2020 is set at 1.02 trillion riyals ($272 billion), according to the budget announced in early December.

That figure falls further behind the 2019 fiscal year’s budget of 1.048 billion riyals ($279.5 billion). However, while the targeted amount of revenue for 2019 is 917 billion riyals ($244.5 billion), it is set at 833 billion riyals ($222.1 billion) in the 2020 budget.

Looking closely at these figures, the Saudi budget deficit in 2019 was $35 billion, while that figure for 2020 (an increase of about 50%) was $50 billion. Given the recent sharp decline in oil prices, the budget deficit is likely to be well above the projected figure.

The deteriorating economic outlook in the country is the most important evidence of this situation.

Secondly, these recent developments also revealed that Saudi Arabia has no longer had any influence in the global energy market, of which it was the biggest actor in the past. Indeed, Qatar’s departure from OPEC last year had made the power of that institution, which is largely controlled by the Saudis, controversial.

Recent developments have reinforced comments that the Saudis have lost their most important policy tool — the energy card — due to Russia’s opposition to proposals to cut production to curb hard falls in oil prices. In the past, the Kingdom had a deterministic monopoly on the price of oil by harshly reducing and increasing its oil supply.

In this period, both the inclusion of major producers such as the United States and Russia in the market and the costly foreign policy of the Kingdom recently, make it impossible for the Kingdom to attempt to cut production at the risk of declining oil revenues.

A closer look at the structure of today’s global energy market suggests that a possible production cut by the Saudis would result in large producers such as the U.S. and Russia increasing their production, not just reducing the amount of oil on the market, but seizing the Saudis’ Sunday Share.

After responding to a rejection of Russia’s demand to cut production from OPEC at the weekend, the Riyadh administration decided to increase oil production further, opting for a policy of inflicting losses on its strong rivals in the global oil market.

Thirdly, the suspension of visits to umrah under the threat of viruses and the temporary closure of Masjid Al-Haram and Masjid Al-Nabawi for precautionary purposes also endangers the Kingdom’s annual Hajj and Umrah revenues of around $25-40 billion, deepening the economic downturn.

Another consequence of the weakening of hajj and umrah tourism is the wearing of the “Khadim Al-Haremayni’sh-Sharifayn” (servant of the two holy places) attributes of the kings of Saudi Arabia, which for many years has been a basis for their own political legitimacy and the country’s claim to the leadership in the Islamic world.

This could raise a question of legitimacy within the country and undermine the reputation of the Saudis in the Islamic world.

In Riyadh, the swamp that the country fell into during the Yemen war, which began with the initiative of MBS, the damage to the international reputation of the Saudis by the murder of Khashoggi, the bottleneck that developments in the global energy market have put the Saudi economy into, the alienation of the Saudi ulema in the name of the “moderate Islam”, the revival of the entertainment sector, and the purging of the members of the powerful dynasty.

The failures of the MBS administration make it easier for this dissatisfaction to turn into action in the country’s politics. Recent developments show that MBS deeply feels this growing discontent of political actors and their anti-administration actions. The arrest of Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the son of Abdulaziz, the founding king of the Saudi state and the most important name of the dynasty, is impossible to explain otherwise.

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