Until last weekend, the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh’s exclusive Diplomatic Quarter was colloquially known as the Princes’ Hotel. It was a luxurious retreat from the heat, where royals could engage in the kind of wheeling and dealing with the global business elite that had made them millionaires on the back of the 1970s oil boom. No deal could be brokered without paying a bribe to at least one prince. Last Saturday that era of boundless opportunity and total impunity came to a dramatic end. The VIP guests were booted out, the front doors were shuttered, and heavily armed security forces took up positions around the perimeter.
A Saudi who lives nearby sent me a message about what he thought was an unfolding terrorist incident. That’s one way of describing the extraordinary, chaotic events. We have seen a mini-wave of terror orchestrated by the all-powerful 32-year-old heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has been given day-to-day control of the kingdom’s affairs by his ailing father, King Salman, 81. Bin Salman’s ascent and methods now promise to change Saudi Arabia forever.
Despite his youth and inexperience, he has risen rapidly through the ranks, amassing previously unimaginable powers for a single royal. This, and his refusal to govern through consensus — as is customary — has caused deep resentment, jealousy and anger. His most prominent critics and rivals were therefore carted off on corruption charges to the Ritz-Carlton, turning it into the world’s most luxurious prison. Eleven senior princes were among them, as well as dozens of businessmen, and current and former ministers and provincial governors. Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal — the wealthiest Arab tycoon who holds significant stakes in Citigroup, Twitter and countless other companies — got caught up in the dragnet.
At least he is still alive. Mansour bin Muqrin, deputy governor of the Asir region bordering Yemen, hailed from a rival branch of the ruling family sidelined after King Abdullah’s death in 2015. He boarded a helicopter with seven senior advisers, and amid speculation that he had instructed the pilot to head for a foreign country. Then his helicopter was blown from the sky, killing all on board. No official cause was given, fueling conspiracy theories. However baseless, the incident must have given further pause for thought in these febrile times to anyone then thinking of trying to flout the blanket travel ban.
The country’s Attorney General says that this was only the first phase of mass arrests, and that trials would soon get under way. The front-page headline of the newspaper Al Jazirah a day after the purge encapsulated the new reality: ‘No place for traitors in the age of Salman.’ Welcome to the new Saudi Arabia.
For the Crown Prince’s supporters — vast swathes of the country’s young, eager for progressive social change — his way may be dictatorial but his motives are honourable. The purge represents the opening salvo in a fight against corruption that comes with an embrace of moderate Islam, a determination to relax the strict segregation of the sexes and introduce entertainment venues. Why should ordinary Saudis have sympathy for the arrested if they have, as alleged, been engaged in massive criminal schemes involving bribery and money laundering? When did any of those speak up on behalf of the oppressed masses?
Bin Salman’s power grab is in itself spectacular. But the wider significance of this can only be fully understood in conjunction with events in Israel. The Jewish state is hardly a natural ally for Saudi Arabia, but they have long shared a common enemy: Iran. Both fear the latter is exploiting the opening created by the fall of Isis, and the triumph of the Assad regime in Syria, to dominate the region. Iran and its proxies — whether the Houthi rebels in Yemen or Hezbollah in Lebanon — are in the ascendant, and neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia are going to sit on the sidelines.
So the two have been working together: close diplomatic cooperation, intelligence sharing and perhaps more. Israeli media recently reported that a senior Saudi prince, possibly Bin Salman himself, paid a secret visit to the Jewish state. The idea of a Saudi-Israeli alliance is still deeply controversial in both countries, but details are starting to leak out.
Amid the recent madness, for example, we saw the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi puppet. He was summoned to Riyadh, where he was forced to read a letter announcing his immediate departure, the official reason being that he feared an assassination attempt by Hezbollah. But why would a prime minister visit a foreign capital to resign? The odds are that he had no idea he was resigning until he landed in Riyadh to meet Saudis furious at him for holding talks with both Iranian and Hezbollah officials. His departure has shocked the region.
But it didn’t shock the Israelis. A leaked memo shows Israeli diplomats being instructed to back the Saudi version of events, and start to join Riyadh in denouncing the Houthi rebels. Such diplomatic coordination is dangerous, given that an alliance has the potential to create a massive backlash among ordinary Saudis. For generations, they have been taught that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs and Israel is the eternal enemy.
This brings us back to the night of the long knives. An outpouring of anti-Israeli sentiment might, only a few months ago, have provided a rallying cry for those determined to oust the Crown Prince. They would have likely turned to Al-Waleed bin Talal, a fierce critic of Trump and the most vocal Saudi supporter of the Palestinians. But he is in prison, presumably as a warning to anyone who shows opposition to the young new broom.
The military hostilities have already started. Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh, which was intercepted by the Saudis, who then announced that both Lebanon and Iran had ‘declared war’ on the kingdom by supplying the rebels with missiles. Iran denies it, and military analysts say it would be hard to ship whole missiles to Yemen. The Saudis, though, are adamant, and they say that retaliation will follow.
Whose side will the West be on? Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, recently left Riyadh after his third visit this year, staying up talking with the Crown Prince until the small hours of the morning at a ranch in the desert. Robert W. Jordan, a former American ambassador, says that the recent purges were conducted after ‘what people would call a green light from President Trump’. And all this while Israel was conducting its biggest-ever aerial military drill, just a month after its largest-ever land military drill — both simulating war with Hezbollah.
So two months after his 32nd birthday, the Crown Prince has established himself as a despot, albeit one hailed by the West as an enlightened visionary. He has tightened a military alliance with Israel, all but declared war on Iran and prepared Lebanon as the first scene of this war — with Hezbollah as the first target.
John R. Bradley’s books include Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis.