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This spring, Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, went on a triumphant, four-week, coast-to-coast goodwill tour of the United States. Here was the leader who would usher the conservative, oil-rich US ally into a dramatically more modern and moderate era. In addition to distancing Saudi power structures from the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam, he has pursued an agenda billed as the “future for the young generation,” allowing cinemas to open, opening the military to women, and ending a decades-long women’s driving ban. But then came summer: women’s activists jailed, dissident clerics silenced, and a diplomatic row with Canada. The events have left some wondering if this is a prince with a surprisingly fragile grip on power or a savvy ruler navigating competing local, regional, and international politics. Or, more darkly, in an era of strongmen with thin skin, are his actions a symptom of the Saudi system of checks and balances not working? “This could just come down to personalities,” says Texas A&M Prof. F. Gregory Gause, a longtime Saudi observer. “Perhaps it is a case of where you get the crown prince on a bad day.”
For Saudi watchers, the headlines out of the kingdom this summer – women’s activists jailed, clerics silenced, a diplomatic row with Canada – have been perplexing, even jarring.
After all, despite Saudi Arabia’s failing war in Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has an iron grip on power in the oil-rich kingdom and no serious internal rivals and remains in control over one of the wealthiest economies in the world.
Within the Saudi government, the crown prince controls the economy, defense, military, and foreign policy portfolios. It is a direct, top-down power structure; a one-man show.
And from the moment his father, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, made him crown prince a year ago, ending a power struggle within his generation of the Saudi royal family, the young prince, MBS as he is known, has signaled that he is ushering the conservative kingdom into a dramatically more modern, and moderate, era.
In addition to distancing Saudi power structures from the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam that is associated with extremism and terrorism, he has pursued an agenda billed as the “future for the young generation,” allowing cinemas to open, opening the military to women, easing regulations for opening businesses, and ending a decades-long women’s driving ban.
This spring, moreover, MBS took a triumphant, four-week, coast-to-coast goodwill tour of the United States during which he sold himself as a reformer, a modernizer, and a liberal.
But for critics and analysts, contradictions between his centralized hold on power and his presumed reformist inclinations have existed from the beginning.
Now this series of erratic – or what critics describe as over-reactive – policies has left analysts and diplomats alike wondering if we are witnessing the lashing out of a prince with a surprisingly fragile grip on power or the work of a savvy ruler outmaneuvering rivals while navigating competing local, regional, and international politics. Or, more darkly, the actions of a thin-skinned, but unchecked, strongman.
Crackdown on clerics
In September 2017, Saudi authorities quietly arrested several high-profile clerics, including Salman al-Odeh, an influential Islamic thinker with millions of social media followers.
This month, Riyadh renewed its crackdown on imams, jailing over one dozen prominent Islamic scholars and speakers including Safar al-Hawali and Nasser al-Omar.
A reason reportedly given by Saudi authorities to Western diplomats is that the jailed clerics were opposed to the liberal social reforms that the crown prince is trying to push through, including allowing women to drive, opening cinemas, and allowing mixed entertainment and sporting events.
Moreover, the Crown Prince’s office asserts, these clerics are opposed to his progressive view of a “moderate Islam” that rejects extremist tendencies associated with Wahhabism.
Observers and activists say the motivations are more Machiavellian.
Many of the jailed clerics such as Mr. Odeh and Mr. Hawali are leaders of the so-called Sahwa movement, a strain of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamism where clerics use Islamic theory to call for democracy and human rights. The movement opposes Western military intervention in the region, but also opposes terrorism against civilians. It was split over the Sunni uprising against US forces in Iraq.
The Sahwa movement, while socially conservative, is ideologically at odds with the Wahhabi school over fealty to monarchs and dictators, and in the 1990s was at odds with the royal family, calling for democracy and organizing protests. In 2011, amid the Arab Spring, scholars such as Odeh used Twitter to reach millions of followers with calls for a constitution, an elected parliament, and the formation of professional associations and unions.
By locking up clerics, the crown prince has removed the few voices who would and could dare to challenge his increasingly autocratic grip on Saudi society.
“These clerics are the only guys that have the ability to challenge the regime,” says Stéphane Lacroix, associate professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris and an expert on Saudi Islamist movements.
“If any political challenge to the regime should come from anywhere, this is it. It is this potential that scares MBS.”
The Qatar factor
Another of this summer’s puzzling Saudi fare was the stunning arrest of women’s rights activists at the very same time the regime says it is increasing women’s role in the work force, military, and public life.
In May, Saudi authorities rounded up 11 women’s rights activists, issuing travel bans and holding many without trial.
As part of an alleged state-sanctioned smear campaign, social media accounts began accusing these activists of crimes against the state; Saudi newspapers ran photos of women’s rights activists with the word “traitor” in a banner above their faces.
Oddly, the crackdown came one month before Riyadh’s announced an end to the ban on women driving, and only days after Mohammed bin Salman completed his much-hyped tour of the United States.
The Saudi regime has recently renewed its arrests of women activists, culminating in the July jailing of activist Samar Badawi, who was awarded the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award by then-first lady Michele Obama in 2012 for her fights for women’s suffrage.
“It basically cancels out a lot of the good publicity Bin Salman got on his US trip, which means it was almost certainly aimed at a domestic or regional audience,” says F. Gregory Gause, professor of international affairs at Texas A&M and a longtime Saudi observer.
Professor Gause says a prime explanation for the regime’s actions is the kingdom’s longstanding feud with Qatar, which is driven by a resentment of Qatar’s attempts to rival Saudi Arabia’s influence through backing Islamist groups during the Arab Spring, and the fact that it harbors Saudi dissidents and critics.
“Looking at these arrests, I think you must go back to the issue of Qatar, and the overestimation of Qatar’s power and reach by some within the ruling circle,” he says.
According to the accounts of Arab and Western diplomats, the feud drives much of Riyadh’s domestic and foreign policies. Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates implemented a blockade of the rich emirate in 2017 and have even called for “regime change.”
For Riyadh, the crackdown on human rights activists was both a message that dissent will not be allowed, and a pre-emptive strike immobilizing any potential human rights critics at home that Qatar may try and support in order to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade.
Canada gets dragged in
But why go after Canada?
The feud between Riyadh and Toronto came after the Canadian Foreign Ministry issued a Tweet Aug. 3 calling for the immediate release of Ms. Badawi, the acclaimed women’s activist, along with other human rights advocates.
In response, Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador, froze trade deals, unloaded Canadian assets, and canceled direct flights to Toronto by the state-owned Saudia Airlines. Even more surreal for some, the kingdom also cancelled scholarships for 8,000 Saudi students studying in Canadian universities, ordering them to return home.
This time, the feud cannot be explained away by power politics or regional scheming.
“There is absolutely no way that a tweet from the Canadian Foreign Ministry will have any effect domestically or regionally on Saudi Arabia,” says Gause.
“This could just come down to personalities. Perhaps it is a case of where you get the crown prince on a bad day.”
Rather than a power play, it may be a symptom of a deeper upset of the system in Saudi Arabia.
Although by no means a democracy, modern Saudi Arabia was built on a careful system of checks and balances within the royal family and between the rulers and Saudi society at large.
The royal family would rule by committee, with the various princes and branches of the family, elites, clerics, and technocrats playing a role in the decisionmaking process.
But in the past two years, Saudi insiders say, as Bin Salman takes policy decisions alone, other royals, clerics, elites, and technocrats are “left in the dark” – and none are allowed to criticize or challenge a decision.
Without those informal restraints to keep a ruler’s worst impulses in check, analysts say, we may now be witnessing the whims of an unfiltered and unbound Saudi royal.
In an era of strongmen with thin skin, launching a trade war and a smear campaign to avenge a perceived personal slight is becoming a norm – and in Saudi Arabia there is no institution to moderate it.
“It may just be that MBS has a prickly personality and takes these things as personal insults,” Gause says. “This is the new Saudi Arabia.”