Saudi Arabia has been rocked by the almost simultaneous detention of senior members of the royal family and the collapse in oil prices. But this is no coincidence. Both events are arguably evidence that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman remains as keen to assert the kingdom’s leadership beyond its own borders as he is to consolidate his own leadership at home.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) called an emergency meeting last week with non-OPEC oil producers to discuss the impact of coronavirus on the global oil market. At the gathering, Saudi Arabia pushed strongly to renew a deal to cut production quotas, thus boosting oil prices. Russia, as a country less affected by the collapse in Chinese orders, feared production cuts would impact on its finances. It refused to renew the deal and thus brought to an end the years-long strategic cooperation on the oil market between the two countries. Saudi Arabia was swift to retaliate, unilaterally slashing its export prices by nearly 10 percent. The strategy in Riyadh is to leverage its unique capacity as a swing producer – one able to independently influence prices globally – to drive these prices down, and bet that Russia will be unable to sustain them at this level. Riyadh believes that a new deal will then emerge, this time under undisputed Saudi leadership. Its plan is to strongarm Moscow into a new OPEC+ deal – and it bears all the hallmarks of Mohammad bin Salman’s approach to politics.
This strategy might ultimately prove effective, but the immediate impact on the global energy market was disastrous, as the Brent global oil benchmark price collapsed to $28. The move has had wide repercussions, with stock markets plunging around the world. In Saudi Arabia, it translated into an 8 percent fall on the Riyadh stock exchange and a substantial drop in the Saudi Aramco share price.
The ‘old guard’ of the large Saudi royal family includes senior members who are highly sceptical of the current trajectory
This economic uncertainty may yet spell trouble for Mohammad bin Salman. He has spearheaded recent campaigns to persuade both ordinary citizens and business tycoons to buy shares in Saudi Aramco. He has also long advocated more privatisation and financialisation of the Saudi economy. In the recession that could now potentially come, such shifts make economies more vulnerable to shocks. On top of these, a prolonged fall in oil prices could translate into significant strains on the investment projects envisioned in Mohammad bin Salman’s flagship Vision 2030 and the welfare programmes that the Saudi state traditionally offers its citizens. Dramatic leadership abroad could backfire on him at home.
Against this backdrop peaked the royal court’s sensitivity to criticism and disagreements around Mohammad bin Salman’s strategies. The crown prince’s ascent has long polarised the large Saudi royal family. Its ‘old guard’ includes senior members of the family who are highly sceptical of the current trajectory, disruptive as it is of decades-old traditions in all fields. These include social liberalisation reforms; the rapid and radical modernisation of a political-economic model that guarantees established vested interests and patronage networks; oil price tactics; an exceptionally assertive foreign policy resulting – among other things – in the Yemen war; risky investment strategies; the floating of Saudi Aramco; and even more concerns beyond these.
Both of the most notable individuals arrested in the early hours of Saturday are well connected internationally. For example, former Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef was the preferred choice for the royal succession with the Central Intelligence Agency and its counterparts round the world. Each individual belongs to the old guard that is critical of current policies. Mohammad bin Nayef was coercively retired in 2017 and replaced as heir by Mohammad bin Salman. He has always been a strong critic of both the Yemen war and of Saudi Arabia’s increasingly hawkish approach to Turkey and Qatar. From 2017 onwards he was under surveillance, had his assets frozen, and saw his freedom of movement restricted.
The second detainee is Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the younger full brother of King Salman. He too for some time has had disagreements with his nephew, Mohammad bin Salman. In 2018, he notoriously engaged with a group protesting against “al-Saud’s crimes” in Yemen outside his London residence, highlighting that those responsible were King Salman and Mohammad bin Salman – as opposed to the entire family. In Letters sent to the Guardian back in 2015, Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was identified as the only legitimate heir by royals who rejected Mohammad bin Salman’s leadership. The prince was allegedly one of only three royals in the Allegiance Council to vote against Mohammad bin Salman’s elevation to his current position following the ousting of Mohammad bin Nayef in 2017.
While there were no indications that these individuals were actively planning a coup against Mohammad bin Salman, this is the context to the accusation of treason officially made against them. In addition, several other princes are thought to have been arrested or put under house arrest. Rumour now also has it that the authorities will soon set about screening allegiances within the Ministry of Interior, which both Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Mohammad bin Nayef have previously led. As some detainees were quickly released, however, the operation looks to have been a way for Mohammad bin Salman to reassert his authority over royals critical of him, in preparation for him to succeed his father in the near future.
Indeed, whether there was an active coup on the cards or not, increasingly it appears that Mohammad bin Salman is in a rush to take the throne. Securing a transition while King Salman – his staunchest ally – is alive would undoubtedly make challenges in the Allegiance Council and the state’s structures much less likely. King Salman would retire and remain Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and his son, who has been his right-hand man since 2009, will take the role his father has long wanted for him. Having a particularly friendly president in the White House, such as Donald Trump, would be another crucial factor, especially given how all the major Democratic contenders for the US presidential nomination have been very critical of the US-Saudi alliance, with Bernie Sanders publicly calling Saudi leaders “murderous thugs”.
Individuals close to Mohammad bin Salman’s circles have long talked about Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the G20 this November as an opportune moment for the transition to take place. Mohammad bin Salman will have the chance to interact closely with other world leaders, establishing personal relations and potentially convincing them of his intention to move beyond the issues that drag on his country’s reputation, most particularly the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.
However, what the Saudi leadership apparently chooses to ignore is that moves such as engaging in an oil price war during a health epidemic, or pre-emptively cracking down within the royal family and state institutions, are deeply concerning to world leaders. This may especially be liberal leaders, but it is not exclusively so. Trump allegedly addressed the negative repercussion of an oil price war on the global economy in a call to Riyadh on Monday. In addition, officials in more than one European capital have privately complained of the foolhardiness of the move in a time of pandemic.
While European leverage to influence developments in Saudi Arabia’s internal politics or its oil policies is very limited, there is time for European leaders to prepare for November’s crucial G20. As the largest representation at the summit, Europeans should be particularly aware of Mohammad bin Salman’s expectations for the meeting. If they coordinate their actions there and convey a coherent, consistent, and well-formed message to Riyadh, European leaders may be able to navigate this delicate context in defence of their values and interests. Their message should be that reckless politics cannot make Saudi Arabia a reliable leader or partner in the region; and that looking beyond past actions that tainted the leadership’s reputation will only be possible if the leadership shows concretely how it intends to change course. If nothing else, last week’s tumultuous events show that Saudi Arabia’s leadership looks set to be only more assertive both domestically and internationally; and that the coming transition they herald is an opportunity for influence that Europeans should not pass up.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.