For decades, no Saudi ruler has drawn world attention the way the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has done. Interest in him is not confined to the Arab world but has gripped the entire world.
He has even been suggested as the political personality of the year, whether because of the influence he wields in his country, or because of his regional and foreign policy blunders.
In short, he has become, more than any other Saudi – or Middle Eastern personality for that matter – a real-world phenomenon.
The question now is, if he were to succeed in enforcing his will, and has enough time to implement his project, what kind of Saudi Arabia will emerge under his leadership.
A tight grip over power
Since Mohammed Bin Salman, also known as MbS, was appointed deputy crown prince, or the third leading personality in the Saudi system of governance, in early 2015, the young prince moved swiftly to bolster his authority and tighten his grip over Saudi affairs and resources.
He took charge of the Saudi ministry of defence and assumed the chairmanship of the council of development and economic affairs, yet this seemed insufficient. During the two years that followed, he endeavoured to take hold of several security and foreign affairs files, both the exclusive property of crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and the council of security and political affairs, which Nayef chaired.
Last summer, he toppled bin Nayef, who is also his cousin, and became crown prince. He also seized control of the interior ministry and all the forces affiliated with it.
In early November, he got rid of his other cousin Miteb bin Abdullah, whose ambitions in seeking the crown were not hidden. This way, bin Salman took control of the National Guard, an army parallel to the armed forces of the ministry of defence.
As a result, he emerged in full control of all the armed apparatuses of the state and its effective institutions.
A vision for the kingdom?
It is not a secret that the Yemen war, launched a few months after King Salman ascended to the throne, was the personal project of the young prince. The reasons behind the war, however, were difficult to ignore.
After the Houthi Ansar Allah movement toppled what many Yemenis considered as a legitimate government and took control of the capital, Sanaa, Saudi Arabia feared that its immediate backyard was being turned into an Iranian sphere of influence.
Yet, bin Salman ran the war with haste and short-sightedness, without being prepared or even being able to bear the consequences.
There is no doubt he imagined the war and what it would imply in the wider confrontation with Iran would provide him with the justification to assert his leadership and enforce his vision for the kingdom, without significant opposition.
And while still embroiled in the war with its huge political and financial costs, he triggered a new crisis with Qatar six months ago. There was no question that the policy of severing ties with Qatar was meant to force it to submit to Saudi will, which was no longer distinguishable from the will of the crown prince himself.
In 2017, his wild strides toward power and control became even clearer after he ordered the detention of dozens of Islamic scholars and personalities in an arbitrary and extrajudicial manner, without proving that any of them had committed crimes.
This was soon followed by another detention campaign that targeted scores of princes from the ruling Saudi royal family, and many others from the business community, all done in the name of combating corruption.
In the background, and with the assistance of a small group of loyalists, he moved to adopt a series of measures aimed at creating a radical change in the Saudi cultural climate and conservative social life.
Additionally, covertly and without any public discussion, he got himself involved in what many viewed as a US plan aimed at liquidating the Palestinian question, with utter disregard to Saudi public opinion.
Traditional centres of power
The measures adopted over the past two years suggest the young prince has simply no regard for the kingdom’s traditional centres of powers – the ruling family, religious institutions, the major tribes, the community of traders, financiers and business people.
Unlike the first Saudi state, established on the basis of an ideological and tribal contract, and the second state, torn apart by internecine conflicts and wars, governance in the third Saudi state reflected a continuous process of negotiation and compromise with the traditional circles of power.
Not only Abdul Aziz, founder of the Saudi state, but all those who succeeded him, including the shrewdest and most charismatic among them such as Faisal and Fahd realised that the effectiveness of the ruler and the stability of the kingdom were two elements of the same objective, which could not be accomplished without taking the traditional power centres into consideration.
Despite the endeavour of successive kings to build a sort of modern state, in terms of structure or the ability to maintain hegemony and control, they were generally keen to avoid ignoring any centre of power within society.
Faisal, the king who worked more than anyone else to centralise the state institution, made sure, before toppling his predecessor, of the loyalty of all traditional power centres in the country.
It would be naïve, of course, to overlook the fact that the Saudi modernisation process during the past four decades led to tangible changes in the power relations between state and society, and that the Saudi state has grown stronger and more authoritarian than it used to be during the period from the 1930s to the 1970s.
However, this change occurred in a gradual fashion, without rupture and broad conflict.
A shocking scheme
The crown prince is leading a sudden, quick and shocking scheme to reassert state control, which does not take into consideration the position of the tribe, the authority of the scholars, the position of the House of Al Saud, the contribution of the men of finance, business and trade, or the role played by these centres of power in representing wide segments of society.
MbS does not need to be fully aware of the theoretical framework of the coup he is carrying out. Muhammad Ali, who laid the foundations of the modern Egyptian state, did not read Hegel or Jeremy Bentham, nor did he predict the profound impact that his policies were to leave on the making of Egypt and its state.
Even in the absence of parliamentary elections and a constitutional framework, it would not be accurate to describe a traditional system of governance as despotic. This is because authority in traditional systems is not absolute but rather emanates from a complex process of negotiation and compromise between the decision maker and various centres of power within society.
If bin Salman succeeds in implementing his project, the kingdom will come to see what despotism really looks like. In his kingdom, the state will deal with the Saudis not as communities and social centres of power, but merely as individuals.
Yet the difference between the new Saudi Arabia and other modern states will be in denying the majority of Saudi citizens the right to express their will through representative institutions of governance.
In other words, the ruler in the new kingdom will be the embodiment of the state, and citizens will lose every voice they once had, whether traditional or modern.
This article was first published by Middle East Eye