Last weekend, guests at the five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh were all told to pack and leave immediately.
A couple of hours later, the hotel was turned into a detention centre for the highest-profile prisoners in Saudi Arabia’s modern history: tens of royal family members, bureaucrats and business executives.
By dawn, news of the arrests broke worldwide, framed by the Saudi government as an anti-corruption crackdown, which included blood relatives of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
Indeed, the Saudi King decreed the arrests. But his bold and ambitious 32-year old son, who is also said to be behind the war in Yemen, is running the show.
Bin Salman was Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince, before his father predictably deposed Mohammad bin Nayef and made him heir apparent to the throne earlier this year.
Well before his promotion, Bin Salman did all he could to frame himself in the West as the young, moderate and visionary face of an increasingly media-slated conservative kingdom. Thanks to his PR stunts, Bloomberg described him as ‘revolutionary’. The Financial Times went as far as calling him a ‘Thatcherite’. More recently, the Guardian praised his ‘zeal for reform’.
Last summer, the then Deputy Crown Prince travelled across the world to promote his economically-liberal ideas, culminating in the so-called Vision 2030 plan to transform and diversify the oil-dependent economy and modernise the state.
However, since then, it has become clearer that the young prince is largely following the textbook of preceding kings at home and other resilient autocrats in the region, to consolidate power and silence all critiques and rivals.
Bin Salman and his allies in the ruling family have managed to knit a cover of moderation and liberalisation to what seems to be traditional authoritarian strategies in Saudi statecraft: addressing the West with a narrative of moderation and economic liberalisation to shore up international support, while exacerbating sectarian tensions regionally and violently crushing opposition, including the very forces of reform they claim to endorse.
This is not to say that the same old policies persist. On the contrary, Bin Salman is coming to power at a time when the failing local and regional policies of his precursors, especially during and after the Arab Uprisings in 2011, culminate in an existential crisis for the ruling elite.
Corroding Social Contract: the Barrel Over the Ballot
Bin Salman’s era is strikingly different to that of his uncles, who shared amongst themselves the returns of enormous oil resources and used its surplus to ‘rent’ the civil and politics rights of the Saudi population.
Throughout the history of Saudi Arabia, royal family members used the oil surplus to create thousands of unproductive public service jobs for the youth, selectively waive debts, send students to study abroad and provide generous housing, food and energy subsidies, bonuses and extra salaries to Saudi labour without the Saudis paying any taxes.
In return, the House of Saud expected obedience – and got it, most of the time. Today, the younger generation of Al-Saud come to power with oil returns almost halved and state expenses nearly doubled.
The economy shrank by 0.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2017, and it is expected to shrink further over the year. Consequently, the unemployment rate is reaching unprecedented levels. Since January 2016, the government has used as much as 3 per cent a month of its reserves to plug the largest budget deficit in its history. The deficit is mostly the result of plummeting oil prices, wide-scale corruption, along with the costly war in Yemen.
The new Crown Prince seems to reckon that if he and his family are to survive in power, they have to reconsider the existing social contract.
But changing it is another matter.
Oil returns cannot sustain the clientelist system any longer. However, until now, Vision 2030 seems to be both unrealistic and late, as Bin Salman had to hold back austerity measures and reverse most of the social and economic reform policies after public backlash.
Furthermore, the purge last weekend shocked global oil markets, as investors were anticipating an initial public offering soon for a roughly 5 per cent share (estimated value of $1 trillion) of the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil company.
By detaining internationally-renowned business figures, such as Al-Waleel Bin Talal, who sponsors the most prestigious Middle East research centres in the West, the Saudi government has undermined its credibility among investors who it seemed keen on attracting earlier.
This puzzling move reaffirms that the cover of reform overshadows authoritarian ambition by the young prince. Hence consolidating power seems to be more pressing than saving an ailing economy or reversing a sequence of regional policy blunders.
Lebanon as Saudi Arabia’s Fig Leaf
Hours before the purge, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned from Riyadh, accusing Iran of meddling in the region causing ‘devastation and chaos’ and its affiliate in Lebanon, Hezbollah, of imposing a ‘fait accompli’ by the force of its weapons.
The Lebanese public, including the president and senior figures, suggested that the speech was written by the Saudi authorities, as it seemed far off from Hariri’s tone after the formation of the so-called ‘national unity government’ with Hezbollah more than a year ago.
It became increasingly difficult to downplay the connection between the two events in Riyadh: Hariri’s resignation and the royal purge.
Saad Hariri holds a Saudi citizenship, and his political legacy is inherited from his late father, Rafiq Hariri, who also left him a multi-billion-dollar business in Saudi Arabia. In the context of the purge, it is worth noting that Saudi Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahed, the cousin of Bin Salman who was killed during an attempt by the authorities to arrest him, was Saad Hariri’s business partner.
In a televised interview from his house in Riyadh aired live on his own channel, Future TV, on Sunday evening, Hariri attempted to downplay claims that the purge and his resignation are connected.
But his weary face and subdued body language failed to clear the air and, if anything, reaffirmed the allegations.
Without vindicating Iran and its Lebanese affiliate, what they say of Saudi Arabia’s latest policy in Lebanon seems to have some truth in it: Hariri’s resignation comes as part of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to use Lebanon as a fig leaf to cover its swelling failures regionally, from Qatar to Syria and Yemen.
At the local stage, we are yet to know if Bin Salman has indeed silenced all his local rivals. We are also yet to find out if any real economic and social reform will take place amid his regional adventures.
But what is clear now is that, unlike his predecessors, oil barrels are unable to save him. Only bullets can.
Ibrahim Halawi is a visiting lecturer in Contemporary Middle East Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London.