Frida Ghitis: Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been pushing for changes on many fronts in his country
His priority, above all, is maintaining power, and he will let nothing stand in his way, she writes
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent Opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to inherit the throne from his 81-year-old father, is not a patient man. The 32-year-old is driving a frenetic pace of change in pursuit of three goals: securing his hold on power, transforming Saudi Arabia into a very different country, and pushing back against Iran.
In the two years since his father ascended the throne, this favorite son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz has been spectacularly successful at achieving the first item on his agenda. He has become so powerful so fast that observers can hardly believe how brazenly he is dismantling the old sedate system of family consensus, shared privilege and rigid ultraconservatism.
In the process, however, MBS, as the crown prince is known, is making a lot of enemies.
To put it in poker terms, the prince is, quite plainly, all in. He will either sweep the table, winning it all and becoming the all-powerful, transformative ruler of the desert kingdom, or fail spectacularly, with unforeseeable consequences for the region.
Much of the prince’s agenda is laudable and long overdue. He has no interest in democratic reforms, but he does want to introduce social reforms, and is making some progress on that front. That, too, is making him enemies among the old guard.
He has vowed to improve the status of women, announcing that the ban on women driving will be lifted next year, and limiting the scope of the execrable “guardianship” system, which treats women like children, requiring permission from male guardians for basic activities. He has also restrained the despised religious police. And just last month he called for a return to a “moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” combating extremism and empowering its citizens.
On the economic front, bin Salman wants to reinvent an economy that became complacent from fantastic oil riches – only to see oil prices crash – and bring it into the 21st century with his ambitious Vision 2030 plan.
But the prince’s revolutionary changes require, above all, making sure he remains in charge, and he is letting nothing stand in his way.
The prince is not bluffing. That became startlingly clear last Sunday, when he unexpectedly ordered the arrest of some of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful men.
In what some are calling the Night of the Long Knives – an unflattering comparison to a 1934 purge in Germany – authorities detained princes and ministers who had, moments before, wielded great influence and lived in luxury. The fact that their temporary prison is Riyadh’s lavish Ritz-Carlton hotel, (the gilded home for Donald Trump during his recent visit) makes their situation no less perilous or humiliating.
The government says the wave of arrests, which by some accounts numbers as many as 500, was part of a new anti-corruption campaign. King Salman has just made MBS chair of a new supreme committee on corruption, with the power to “take any precautionary measures” against corruption, including arrest and seizure of assets.
The new position gives bin Salman even more power in addition to his role as heir to the throne, minister of defense, president of the council for economic development, and others.
Saudi Arabia is riddled with corruption – that is no secret. And it’s true that MBS’ economic reform program, which calls for diversifying the economy and attracting foreign investment, would greatly benefit if corruption were uprooted. But no impartial observer would believe this was all about corruption. By all appearances, the principal objective was fortifying bin Salman’s hold on power. In fact, the arrests of prominent businessmen and the possible confiscation of their wealth is more likely to spook foreign investors than to make them risk their money in the new Saudi Arabia.
Outside the kingdom, the most famous detainee is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s wealthiest men. He had, interestingly, disparaged Trump on social media in 2015. He is one of the dozens purged, which include numerous ministers and deputy ministers, top advisers and business personalities, many now crammed into a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton. Among those purged is a top economic adviser to the crown prince, the commander of the Saudi navy, the former governor of Riyadh, and many others who are well known and well connected.
It’s hard to imagine that their public humiliation will not produce a reaction in the tight-knit kingdom.
Also removed from power was the minister of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, son of the previous king. The move is striking because it takes the 100,000-man National Guard from the family of the late King Abdullah.
MBS’ rise dismantled the division of power among Saudi brothers and cousins. When he became crown prince in June, he removed the previous heir to the throne, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who in turn had taken the place of Prince Muqrin, who was removed from the succession in 2015, when King Salman took power.
In a mysterious development that occurred almost simultaneously with the wave of arrests, the son of the former crown prince, Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, died in an aircraft crash on Sunday, adding to the sense that there’s much more happening in Saudi Arabia than meets the eye.
The stakes, to be sure, could not be higher for a kingdom unaccustomed to change.
Perhaps King Salman is preparing to step down, and his son is pushing away against potential challengers.
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As the prince moves forward aggressively to secure power, he is also pushing just as hard toward other goals. His campaign against Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon is heating up and he is avidly luring investors.
But of his three priorities, it is only the first, strengthening his grip, on which he is making measurable progress. The economy has not started reviving; on foreign policy, his war against Iran’s allies in Yemen looks like a quagmire. Iran continues to gain ground, and a blockade of Qatar has not succeeded in breaking Doha’s ties to Iran. MBS’ main foreign policy success so far is gaining the backing of President Trump.
With so many enemies, the crown prince needs to produce more than a vision, he needs to show tangible results. The days of a quiet, patient Saudi Arabia are now over.