Reuters Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, November 2017.

A Purge in Riyadh

What Mohammed bin Salman's Crackdown Means for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East

The night of November 4 will long be remembered in Saudi Arabia as a turning point. Three events took place in Riyadh: the arrest of several dozen Saudi princes, officials, and business leaders; the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri; and the shooting down of a ballistic missile, launched from Yemen, aimed at the city’s King Khalid International Airport. What linked all of these developments was the figure of young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In a bid to centralize authority and smooth the path for his eventual accession to the throne, MbS, as he is known, has sought to overhaul the personnel and organizational structure of his country’s domestic politics and enact a newly assertive foreign policy.

CLEANING HOUSE

The list of those arrested was long, and shocked Saudis and seasoned observers, for it included people who had previously seemed untouchable—in particular, senior royals. The arrests were ostensibly carried out at the request of a new anticorruption agency, which MbS heads. There is little doubt that a culture of self-enrichment and collusion prevailed at the top echelons of government and business in the country, and kickbacks were the norm when it came to large government contracts. But this night of the long knives also removed a number of MbS’ competitors. 

Politically, the most significant of those replaced was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Not only had Miteb been a rival of MbS’ in the succession, he was also the last fairly senior prince with an institutional fiefdom—and an armed one at that—left after MbS became minister of defense in 2015, concentrating many other portfolios, including the economy, in his office. 

Saudi Arabia’s national guard is the praetorian, tribally based protector of the royal family. For decades, it had been headed by former King Abdullah and then by Miteb, one of his sons. The guard’s loyalty to the Abdullah branch of the ruling family had been built up

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