Are we seeing early signs of an "Arab Spring" coming to Saudi Arabia, or will the next king emerge stronger than ever? The kingdom is now in the midst of an unprecedented crackdown of both dissidents and even loyalists perceived as less than enthusiastic about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's consolidation of power as he prepares to ascend the throne of his aging and increasingly senile father. It was only last June that King Salman shocked the world by suddenly and unexpectedly removing next in line for the crown Muhammad bin Nayef, which made Mohammed bin Salman heir apparent to the throne.
In a rare front page story airing sharp criticism of the kingdom, The Wall Street Journal assessed the scope of the crackdown today:
In the past week, Saudi authorities have detained more than 30 people, roughly half of them clerics, according to activists and people close to those who have been detained. The campaign goes beyond many of the government’s past clampdowns, both in the scope of those targeted and the intense monitoring of social media posts by prominent figures. It is not known if any charges have been filed.
WSJ further mentions that several senior princes have been essentially under house arrest as they are barred from traveling abroad, which even includes a brother of King Salman. The kingdom has been tight lipped amidst the crackdown, refusing to engage with the media since as the story began breaking early this week.
King Salman himself has at times appeared barely able to function or speak coherently in public or government addresses, and aides have had to closely assist when he does make such rare appearances. Prince Mohammed has become the de facto ruler on a day-to-day level.
As the WSJ explains, preparations are underway for the king's early abdication:
“Mohammed bin Salman is definitely preparing to become king,” said a Saudi adviser to the government. “He wants to tackle the internal debate about him becoming the king and focus on consolidating his power, rather than doing that while being distracted by dissidents.”
The government has denied an abdication is planned, but several people close to the royal family say preparations have already started. The transfer of power, which several people close to the royal family had expected to occur this month, is likely to take place late this year or early next year, these people say.
Analysts point to the fact that most of the detained in the latest crackdown have large social media followings and have expressed criticism of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic and economic war with Qatar, if not expressing outright support for Qatar. The crown prince is considered a hawk when it comes to the Qatar crisis, and himself had a huge role in the kingdom's policy of strong arm tactics targeting its small oil and gas rich neighbor. Saudi law further makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a punishable offense, and has accused many of those detained with ties with the group.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been the favored political proxy backed by Qatar for much of the "Arab Spring" movements in Egypt, Syria, and throughout the region. The Brotherhood has also historically been active in short-lived protests within Saudi Arabia, such as the so-called Islamic Awakening anti-government protests which occurred in the wake of the first Gulf War as the US military was allowed to assemble in Saudi territory. But the Brotherhood now carries the double stigma of being seen as an arm of Qatari foreign subversion. Saudi state media has lately warned of “intelligence activities for the benefit of foreign parties” within the country.
Last weekend Saudi authorities detained prominent clerics which had previously taught and preached from within the heart of the country's Wahhabi establishment, including Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omary. Though such recently detained clerics hold religious views which do not depart from the state Wahhabi religion, religiously driven criticisms of the royal family tend to focus on impurity, excess, and compromising relations with Western democracies. And lately it appears that the crown prince may even be quietly opening up to Israel, which we predicted could create dissent and instability among the Saudi domestic population. Various reports hint at calls for protests to take place both within and outside the country this weekend. Al-Qaeda itself called for the overthrow of the ruling monarchy with the message, "How can the grandsons of the Prophet and his Companions become slaves of the Family of Saud and its fool headed tyrants?".
Though most international reporting is playing up the current crackdown as targeting figures that are loosely "oppositionist", it appears the nature of the move is more nuanced. According to Middle East history professor and expert on Saudi affairs, As'ad AbuKhalil, the crackdown is primarily aimed at regime insiders and prominent voices who threaten push-back against the crown prince's vision for Saudi foreign policy:
Unlike what some in the media are writing on social media, this crackdown is not directed against dissidents. Many of those arrested are loyal propagandists for the Saudi regime. They are being punished not for what they say but for what they are not saying: they are being punished for not being vocal against Qatar and against the Muslim Brotherhood.
AbuKhalil, who authored a book which examined internal Saudi regime fault lines called The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power, provides a somewhat comical example of how regime insiders are being publicly humiliated should they not fall in line. In the below case, two pro-Saudi writers with connections to the monarchy battled it out on Tuesday:
AbuKhalil translates and describes the Twitter exchange between the two highly visible pundits as follows: Nasir Salih As-Sirami (above) is commenting on the latest tweet by Jamal Khashoggi who wrote - "You arrest Isam Az-Zamil!! Isam was here in DC serving his country accompanying an official delegation. Those are the best of the sons of my country. What is happening?" So As-Sirami says: "Don't worry, brother Jamal. Enjoy America and your spacious home which was bought to you by Saudi Arabia as an adviser to its embassy then. And don't forget the London home too."
Ironically, Isam Az-Zamil is actually close to the Saudi regime as a prominent economic analyst. His recent arrest did much to increase the general climate of fear now descending on those who previously felt themselves safe as firmly within the loyalist camp. As AbuKhalil notes even those with close government ties are now being accused of harboring sympathies for the kingdom's enemies: "The arrests seem to target those who were accused of Islamist Ikhwan sympathies or Qatar sympathies or Turkish sympathies."
So it seems Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rule may be faltering before it really even begins. Or alternately, his aggressive stance against dissent will induce enough paranoia for everyone to fall in line the moment his father abdicates. Regardless, once imperceptible cracks in the "stable" kingdom are now beginning to show as external geopolitical pressures (such as the Qatar and Iran rivalries) are being brought to bear.