Since being named heir to his father’s throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has assumed significant power within the Saudi government and used it to position himself as a reformer. His boldest move so far came on November 4, when he ordered the arrest of over 40 princes and government ministers while playing a role in the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon. Hussein Ibish describe what he sees as the prince’s three-pronged effort to wipe the slate clean and “create a new Saudi Arabia for a new era”:
The first [prong] is the consolidation of political power. To all appearances, last weekend’s arrests pretty well conclude that chapter: there are no more viable, independent power centers in the country, or at least none that are not on existential notice. However, it’s possible the crown prince and his father have overreached and that there will be a backlash because they have jettisoned decades of carefully calibrated power-sharing within the royal family and other elements of the power structure. . . .
The second part of the project, economic and social reform, is a taller order, but still doable. . . . Mohammed has certainly shown a determination to lead this transition from the top down and a due appreciation of the social changes, particularly with regard to the role of women, that will be necessary for a globally competitive post-petroleum economy. His attempt to forge an alliance with the general public, especially the youth, so far appears relatively successful and could be a key basis for long-term success. There is evidence of an emerging new dynamism in parts of Saudi society.
It is the third front that is likely to be most challenging: the assertion and defense of Saudi interests throughout the Middle East, particularly with regard to an ever-more-powerful Iran. . . . Hariri’s resignation is likely tied to significant gains made by Iran and its key ally, Lebanese Hizballah, in securing, along with their Iraqi allies and clients, key areas in northern and western Iraq (in the aftermath of the Kurdish independence referendum and the battle against Islamic State) and in eastern Syria. . . . These developments are a potential strategic game-changer in the Middle East, and the Saudi response, apparently, is to go after Iran and Hizballah in their central and original locus of power in the Arab world: Lebanon. . . .
By positioning himself as an all-powerful incoming monarch, . . . Mohammed is gambling everything on relative success on all three registers: political power, socioeconomic reform, and foreign policy. While most Saudis seem to understand the pressing need for radical change, and many may currently support the crown prince’s measures, the danger is that a perceived significant failure on any of these fronts could produce a crisis of legitimacy in an environment of such personalized authority. . . . Mohammed bin Salman—and therefore almost certainly Saudi Arabia as a whole—will either win or lose spectacularly.
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