fter Ibn Saud’s death, in 1953, the first generation of sons passed the kingship down the line—with the consent of the other brothers. They ruled by consensus. This is no longer the case: a young prince from among the grandsons has now pushed all others aside.
“What is striking is how this has been a methodical process. He’s taken steps, little by little, to ensure potential dissent is silenced or put aside or cast away,” Robert Malley, the vice-president for policy at the International Crisis Group and a former National Security Council staffer in the Obama Administration, told me. “No one has been able to stop him. He’s bested his opponents.”
The Trump Administration supports the sweeping changes that have redefined the kingdom—and the royal family—over the past two years. En route to Asia, just hours before the purge on Saturday, the President spoke with the king from Air Force One to praise him and the Crown Prince for making statements on “the need to build a moderate, peaceful, and tolerant region,” which is “essential to ensuring a hopeful future for the Saudi people, to curtailing terrorist funding, and to defeating radical ideology—once and for all—so the world can be safe from its evil,” the White House reported in an unusually detailed statement.
Trump also said that he is personally trying to convince the kingdom to list the first offering of shares in Aramco—one of the world’s most important oil companies—on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. “It will be perhaps the biggest going-public ever,” Trump told the reporters flying with him. “Right now, they’re not looking at it, because of litigation, risk and other risk, which is very sad.”
Trump did not mention the risk involved in listing the shares in the U.S. but they include the prospect that any Saudi assets in the United States could be seized as a result of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (jasta) passed by Congress, in 2016. It allowed the families of 9/11 victims to pursue a civil suit against Saudi Arabia—in a lower Manhattan court—for alleged involvement in the plot. If there is a verdict against the kingdom, the law would also allow a judge to freeze the kingdom’s assets in the United States to pay for any penalties that the court awards.
“That means Saudi Arabia would be extremely vulnerable for listings on the New York Stock Exchange,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., Pentagon, and National Security Council staffer, told me. “And they know that.”
Ironically, Trump supported the jasta bill—and condemned President Obama for vetoing it. “Obama’s veto of the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is shameful and will go down as one of the low points of his Presidency,” Trump said, during the campaign. Congress overturned Obama’s veto—the only time Congress ever overrode him, and in his final months in office. Trump, now, is critical of the bill.
As part of its lobbying efforts against the bill, Saudi Arabia spent more than a quarter of a million dollars at Trump’s new hotel in Washington—for lodging, catering and parking—the Wall Street Journal reported in June. The lobbying included bringing in military veterans to speak on the Hill against the jastalegislation.
The Trump Administration has heavily courted the House of Saud; Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, made an unannounced trip to the desert kingdom in late October—his third this year. Officially, the focus was the Middle East peace process, but he has developed a close relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince. (Both are in their thirties.) The royal family’s close ties to the Trump Administration have evidently made the king and his son feel comfortable about taking tough actions against their own people.
The sequence of purges reflect the Crown Prince’s vulnerabilities as well as his growing powers, partly because his dramatic plans to transform the ultra-conservative kingdom and heighten the Saudi presence across the region are in trouble. His ambitious game plan for the kingdom is Vision 2030, which is designed to shed the desert country’s image as an oil-dependent state. But not everyone in the royal family stands behind the Crown Prince, who is now only thirty-two years old in a system famed for its geriatric leaders.
“This is an attempt to force the succession on the royal family, which has significant doubts about the wisdom of putting the young general, as he’s known, in charge,” Riedel, the author of the upcoming book “Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and America since FDR,” told me. “And they’re well-founded doubts.”
“The Saudi Vision 2030 is increasingly turning out to be a failure in economic terms. It has more and more the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme. This new city, Neom, in the Gulf of Aqaba that is supposed to attract five hundred billion dollars of investment and where normal rules of Saudi society aren’t going to apply—meaning women can do things—will have more robots than people. This isn’t serious. This is the kind of thing used to divert people from the real issues,” Riedel said.
The Crown Prince’s regional strategy has also either stalled or backfired, too. “His signature policy is the Yemen war, which has come home to haunt Riyadh,” Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution, said. “Its Qatar blockade is a failure. It wants Qatar to be like Bahrain, just an appendage. And Qatar hasn’t given in.”
Saudi Arabia also appears to have had a hand in the weekend resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, as part of a regional power play. (Hariri made the announcement from Riyadh on a Saudi station.) He cited a threat to his life and meddling in Lebanese politics by Iran and Hezbollah. His father, who was also a Prime Minister, made a fortune off construction in Saudi Arabia. He was assassinated in 2005.
“Saudi Arabia summoned him and had him resign,” Malley, of the International Crisis Group, told me. “It was a Saudi decision about how to deal with Iran and Hezbollah. It was very transparent. What M.B.S. has done at home and in the region—and it’s of a single piece—is intended to clean house, allow himself and the king to be more assertive actors regionally, and let him be uncontested on the domestic scene.”
The purge of the king’s extended family was justified on grounds of corruption, which critics challenge. “Corruption has been killing Saudi Arabia for forty or fifty years,” Khashoggi told me. The new line in the House of Saud is building the same kind of businesses that it claims are corrupt when run by others in the royal family. “They’re saying, ‘What you do is corrupt, but what I do is not corrupt,’ ” he said.
Among those arrested was billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who has rubbed elbows with Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill Gates in his business ventures. Alwaleed has owned prime real estate internationally and chunks of the world’s premier hotels, including the Savoy in London and the George V in Paris. A major philanthropist, he gave twenty million dollars to Georgetown University, in 2005, to fund the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding, which is named for him. He has pledged to eventually give most of his wealth to charity.
Prince Alwaleed, notoriously dapper with a high-society profile, did not have a government position and was not considered political. But he did write, in the Wall Street Journal, in 2012, “If there is a lesson to be learned from the Arab Spring, it is that the winds of change that are now blowing in the Middle East will eventually reach every Arab state. Now is therefore an opportune time, particularly for the Arab monarchical regimes, which still enjoy a considerable measure of public goodwill and legitimacy, to begin adopting measures that will bring about greater participation of the citizenry in their countries’ political life.”
He empathized with the young Tunisian fruit vender who set himself on fire to protest the police whose corruption had robbed him of his income, thus igniting the Arab Spring. “Tragic as it was, [Mohammad] Bouazizi’s self-immolation epitomized many Arabs’ collective sense of hopelessness and despair,” he wrote. “Simply put, they could not take it anymore. Their calls to their leaders were precise and succinct: ‘kifaya’ and ‘irhal,’ meaning, ‘enough’ and ‘leave.’ ”
Prince Alwaleed has clashed with Donald Trump, however. He was among the investors who bought the Plaza in New York City from the then real-estate magnate; he also purchased a yacht from the future President. But Alwaheed was scathing about Trump politically. In December, 2015, he tweeted, “.@realDonaldTrump. You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America. Withdraw from the U.S. presidential race as you will never win.”
Trump tweeted back, eight hours later, “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal wants to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it when I get elected.” The prince had almost twice as many retweets. (Trump had a huge financial boost from his father, too.)
The most powerful figure to be arrested this past weekend was Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard and a son of the late King Abdullah, who died in 2015. More than forty years older than the current Crown Prince, he had once been considered a potential future king. He led the most powerful military force in the country, whose duties include protecting the royal family.
“The arrest of Prince Miteb sends a strong signal that a royal dictatorship by a thirty-two-year-old upstart prince of still unproven abilities awaits the kingdom, together with enormous tensions and resentments within the royal family that could well threaten the House of Saud’s stability for years to come,” Ottaway, of the Wilson Center, said in an e-mailed statement.
Many experts predict additional arrests are to come. “It’s a reckless game of thrones,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, told me. “If I were among the Saudi élite today, I wouldn’t be sitting pretty. Many have long been aware that they’re a hair away from chaos. These arrests are another signal.”