We all have perceptions of Saudi Arabia; it’s most widely known for its oil tycoons, prohibiting women from driving, and having thousands of royal princes. We also know, limitedly, about the power struggles that go on behind the scenes in the family court. One of only four active absolute monarchies in the world (not including Vatican City), Saudi Arabia often captivates Western audiences because of its complete otherness. But lest we forget, layered under the plethora of multi-billionaires is a complex political system that thrives on inter-family deceit and upheaval.
This past summer, Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) was removed from his position as heir by King Salman in favor of Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). That upheaval was highly irregular because MBS is only in his early thirties, much younger than multiple other princes who could take on the role. However, MBN was merely a nephew of the king while MBS is his son. The strong tie between fathers and sons can help explain why the previous heir was passed over in favor of the new one.
The most current episode in the Saud family saga of drama is the arrest of eleven princes on November 4. One of the men detained was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a giant in the region who also happens to be one of the world’s richest men with controlling stakes in Kingdom Holdings, a very powerful investment firm with ties to Apple, Time Warner, Citigroup, and more.
David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times posits, “[t]he sweeping campaign of arrests appears to be the latest move to consolidate the power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman…”
In 2015, MBS rose from a virtually unknown position within the plethora of princes. Soon thereafter, he became Saudi Arabia’s defense minister and in charge of the country’s economy. But being as young as he is, this man must constantly prove himself and assert his power both in his domestic arena and to the international world.
Domestically, these arrests prove that he is not afraid to take down any opponent he deems in the way. On the international stage, it showcases his resolve to maintaining control over the government and succession line, obliterating the idea of intervention
I am going to posit something in the next paragraph that may seem controversial. Reader, I want you to read the whole argument first and then make a judgment.
Here is a pattern I see: a young, virtually unknown man in a highly influential ruling family who was probably never supposed to come into power takes control, or near control, in his country. That same man uses measures of terror and political purges, to root out perceived competition while also consolidating his power.
Now, who does that sound like? I’ll give you a hint, the country he rules rhymes with Fourth Maria.
Alright, I won’t leave you in suspense any longer.
The pattern I perceive MBS following closely mirrors with the trajectory Kim Jong Un charted on his rise to prominence within North Korea. Like MBS, Kim Jong Un was a younger son of his country’s leader and quickly rose out of near obscurity to prominence in North Korea’s political party system. Once in power, Kim Jong Un purged many high-ranking members of the Workers Party of Korea whom he deemed threatening. One of the most prominent examples was the purging of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. Granted, in North Korea, purging means executing rather than imprisonment, but the general trend remains similar.
I am not claiming that Saudi Arabia and North Korea are alike in every respect or that they should be considered equally dangerous. But, the ruling parties are following frighteningly close to the same pattern. Now this is probably a larger comment on some geopolitical themes at work, but the comparison I made here – rise of an unknown figure, consolidation of power, and removing political rivals – should not be ignored.
In our present-day world, leaders of totalitarian countries (Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy and North Korea as a dictatorship) are rising to prominence in this seemingly formulaic way. You know what they say: once is chance, twice is a coincidence, and thrice is a pattern. Now all we need to prove my theory is another example of such a rise to power.
If one comes along, what does that say about ruling powers in this type of regime?