It is not often that a Ritz-Carlton becomes a detention facility. But last November, when a large slice of the Saudi elite was arrested on accusations of corruption, the luxury hotel in Riyadh became a gilded prison for hundreds of princes, billionaires, and high-ranking government officials. Behind this crackdown was the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, who is attempting to remake the kingdom’s economy and social life, and even the House of Saud itself.
At only 32, MBS is already the most powerful figure in contemporary Saudi history, having sidelined other members of the ruling family with the full support of his father, King Salman. His concentrated authority and evident will to shake up the system make it possible for him to do great things. But he has also removed the restraints that have made Saudi foreign and domestic policy cautious, conservative, and ultimately successful amid the crises of the modern Middle East. Whether the crown prince can pull off his high-stakes gamble, which the Middle East expert Bernard Haykel terms a “revolution from above,” without destabilizing his country and adding to the region’s chaos remains an open question.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Saudi regime rests on a social compact among the ruling family, the religious establishment, and the economic elite. The system is lubricated by enough oil wealth to also fund a substantial welfare state. But that view is only half right. Over the decades, oil wealth has lifted the ruling family above its partners and the governing princes above the other members of the extended House of Saud. Religious elites are now state bureaucrats, not equal partners in governing. The business community is also a junior partner, more of a lobby than an independent actor. The crown prince’s campaign is further redefining the role of the regime’s traditional pillars of support while also appealing, in a most unmonarchical way, to an inchoate Saudi public opinion. So far, MBS
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