When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was replaced by younger, hipper, more charismatic Mohammed bin Salman, the government of Saudi Arabia took pains to present the switch as logical, good for the people, and acceptable to all parties.
We soon learned that former Crown Prince Nayef was considerably less pleased with the new line of succession than we were led to believe. Now it seems happiness with Crown Prince Salman’s ascension is mandatory because Saudi police have been staging midnight raids against his critics and holding them incommunicado in prison.
“Over the last week, 16 people were held, their friends, relatives, and associates said in interviews. They include prominent Islamic clerics, academics, a poet, an economist, a journalist, the head of a youth organization, at least two women and one prince, a son of a former king,” the New York Times reports. Some activists in Saudi Arabia claim that at least 30 dissidents have been poached so far.
According to the Times, the subjects of these raids are being held incommunicado, for an indeterminate length of time, with no formal charges filed against them or public disclosure of evidence. Critics of the arrests insist the subjects were not part of any organized plot against the government or working as agents of foreign powers.
Some of them are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia classifies as a terrorist organization, but others are not. The closest thing to an official charge was a vague statement from the State Security Directorate that it has been investigating people who are working “for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom.”
The NYT helpfully notes that, in the current Saudi political climate, expressing support for the diplomatically isolated Gulf nation of Qatar is considered seditious. In fact, insufficient enthusiasm for the blockade of Qatar might be the one common thread connecting all of the individuals taken into custody during this mysterious crackdown. Another commonality is that they all seem to have used social media to irk the new Crown Prince.
One of those who got the black-bag treatment, cleric Salman al-Awda, was last heard on Twitter praying for Allah to “harmonize the hearts” of Crown Prince Salman and Qatar’s emir. That was the last thing heard from him before he was arrested over the weekend and has been held incommunicado ever since. His brother Khalid promptly joined him in jail after publicly complaining about his arrest.
The highest-ranking crackdown target to date is Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, whose father was king until his death in 2005. Prince Abdulaziz was initially placed under house arrest — more properly, palace arrest — after a post-Hajj meeting with Prince Salman that evidently didn’t go very well. His current whereabouts are unknown. Prince Nayef, incidentally, still appears to be under some form of house arrest, although his status is remarkably nebulous for someone who used to work closely with U.S. intelligence on counterterrorism projects.
Several Saudis who spoke to the New York Times expressed amazement at the crackdown, which is a marked departure from the Kingdom’s usual discreet methods of chastising dissidents, particularly those with public profiles.
The UK Guardian speculates that contrary to public denials, Prince Salman may be planning his ascension to the throne in the very near future — he is just 32 years old, while the current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, is 81 — so the House of Saud is clearing the decks for his coronation.
The prince is strongly associated with some of the most controversial Saudi policies, including the Qatar impasse and the war against Iranian proxies in Yemen. He’s also the architect of the grand plan to make the Saudi economy less dependent on oil revenues. Not only could critics of those policies make trouble when he takes the throne, but factions loyal to former Crown Prince Nayef might interfere with the succession.
A senior Saudi official told the Guardian that the crackdown “needs to be viewed through the prism of Qatar primarily,” but it’s also about “eliminating any other potential rival power bases on the home front for an eventual ascendancy to the top job.” According to this source, Salman is still deeply concerned with what Nayef might do. A significant detail is that most of the arrests have been performed by a relatively new security agency that once reported directly to ousted Crown Prince Nayef, but now serves the king directly.
Another intriguing clue to Salman’s agenda comes from the Jerusalem Post, which relates rumors that the Saudi Crown Prince made an unprecedented secret visit to Israel this week.
“As expected, news of the visit was not warmly welcomed by the Arab public,” the Jerusalem Post writes stoically. If Salman becomes King and soon afterward announces a major diplomatic opening to Israel, it would certainly reshuffle the deck of Saudi politics. That could explain his sudden determination to put all the wild cards in jail for a while.
The Associated Press quotes observers who believe the crackdown is part of Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to socially liberate the Kingdom’s oppressive Islamic society, acting under the tutelage of his close friend Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
According to this analysis, the United Arab Emirates are the tourist-friendly Disneyland of the Islamic Middle East, and Crown Prince Salman’s vision of foreign investment calls for a more inviting Saudi Arabia, remodeled along UAE lines. Publicity photos MBS, as he’s widely known, make him look like he’s trying to shake hands with the entire world at once and invite everyone to Riyadh for lunch. If the planned sale of stock in Saudi Arabia’s national oil company goes well, he might be able to afford that.
An alternative interpretation offered by the AP is that MBS ordered the arrests to appease hardline Wahhabi clerics, not intimidate them. From this perspective, Salman is making a bid to reassure them that modernization of Saudi trade and infrastructure will not provoke a liberal social revolution because the new King will maintain a strong hand in guiding society.
The most interesting question about the sudden Saudi crackdown on dissidents is whether it represents strength or weakness on the part of the monarchy. The Associated Press judges that the arrests have “thrown an already anxious kingdom into deeper unease,” with apprehension mounting that MBS’s ascension to the throne might not be as popular as originally anticipated.
Naturally, human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch denounced the crackdown. “In recent years we cannot recall a week in which so many prominent Saudi Arabian figures have been targeted in such a short space of time. It is clear that the new leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is sending a chilling message: freedom of expression will not be tolerated, we are coming after you,” said Samah Hadid of Amnesty International.
In the long term, it may prove to be a more difficult situation to evaluate from a human rights standpoint if MBS’s ultimate objective is to liberalize Saudi Arabia, and he’s working on consolidating the power he needs to do it. The pessimistic view is that very few liberalization movements have begun with midnight raids, arrests without charges, and incommunicado detention.