Security and Foreign Policy

Mohammed bin Salman, the ‘Reformist’ Consolidating Power

Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power has been one that has taken center stage in Middle East and world politics. Amir Dehghan discusses MBS' politics, tactics and subtle disregard for human rights violations in his own backyard.


Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is the current crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and is expected to succeed his father on the throne. Business leaders, politicians, and columnists view the 32-year-old MBS as a reformer, who is trying to appeal to the young population of Saudis and loosen restrictions.  MBS has pledged to diversify the economy, lift the driving ban for women, permit divorced women to have custody of their children, open movie theatres across the country, and attract foreign investors. During his three-week tour of the United States in March 2018, MBS met with politicians and business leaders to share his vision for the future of his country. MBS’s reforms sound promising and ambitious, but before individuals start to praise him it is important to understand how he seized and is consolidating power.

MBS became the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2017. President Donald Trump was quick to congratulate the new Crown Prince, and made clear that both countries would work together to bring stability and security to the Middle East. One month later, the New York Times reported that Mohammed bin Nayef, the nephew of King Salman and previous crown prince, “was summoned to a palace in Mecca, held against his will and pressured for hours to give up his claim to the throne.” Mohammed bin Nayef relented and by the morning, MBS was the new crown prince. The previous crown prince was, then, prohibited from leaving the country and placed under house arrest in his palace. The Saudi government, further, froze his bank accounts.

During the same month that MBS was named the new crown prince, Saudi Arabia – along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – announced that they were ending diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on the country. Saudi Arabia led the charge, accusing Qatar of appeasing Iran and backing Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Shiite-majority Iran is Saudi Arabia’s biggest regional rival. Both countries are often on different sides of conflicts throughout the Middle East. MBS is the current defense minister of Saudi Arabia as well, and he has been overseeing the blockade of Qatar.

To make matters worse, in November 2017, MBS ordered the arrest of 200 former cabinet ministers, princes, and family members in what the Saudi media described as an anti-corruption effort. The detainees were held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.  But critics argued that this crackdown was about MBS consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. President Trump was quick to offer his support for the Saudi purge and tweeted “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years.”

The same day the purge began, Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, was summoned to Riyadh. Upon his arrival to the king’s palace, his cell phone was confiscated and he was ordered by Saudi officials to read a prewritten resignation speech on live television.  In the speech, Hariri blamed Iran’s destabilizing behavior for his resignation.  According to the New York Times, “The day Mr. Hariri was ordered to report to Riyadh, he was just a pawn in the crown prince’s overall battle: to rein in the regional ambitions of Saudi Arabia’s longtime rival, Iran.”  Three weeks after his abrupt resignation and stay in Saudi Arabia, Hariri returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.

In March 2018, shortly before his three-week tour of the United States, it was reported that MBS had hidden his mother from his father, the current king, for the past two years.  American officials believe that MBS’s mother was concerned about her son’s consolidation of power, and was placed under house arrest. The king himself, reportedly, does not know his wife’s whereabouts.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, has developed a close personal relationship with the crown prince. One week before the November purge, Kushner traveled to Riyadh and met privately with MBS. According to a report by the Intercept, “Crown Prince Mohammed told confidants that Kushner had discussed the names of Saudis disloyal to the crown prince.” The list was included in the President’s Daily Brief, which was then shared with MBS. MBS later told the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates that Kushner was “in his pocket.”

Last week, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador and recalled its own ambassador from Ottawa.  The Saudi government also suspended trade agreements, canceled direct flights between both countries, suspended educational exchange programs, and ordered Saudi patients hospitalized in Canada to transfer to other countries.  Saudi Arabia was reacting angrily and accusing Canada of interfering in its internal affairs after the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, openly supported Samar Badawi, who was recently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, calling for the release of both Samar and her brother, Raif. Samar Badawi is a prominent human rights activist in Saudi Arabia.  Her brother, Raif Badawi, is a prominent blogger who has been imprisoned since 2012 on charges of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and has been publicly flogged.

The United States, which has often stressed the importance of human rights around the globe, needs to be cautious about embracing MBS.  This is a man who came to power by overthrowing his cousin, placing his own mother under house arrest, and arresting individuals he views as a threat to his rule.  He has consolidated his power by intervening in Yemen, blockading Qatar, and forcing the Lebanese prime minister to resign.  Furthermore, the human rights situation has not improved. Just last week, in the midst of punishing Canada for allegedly interfering in its internal affairs, Saudi Arabia executed a man by crucifixion. If MBS is really interested in reforming Saudi society, he should listen to criticism of his country’s human rights record. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not emphasized the importance of human rights in its foreign policy, but that should not stop other countries from speaking out. Saudi Arabia may not like the criticism, but at least we will know that there are some countries that will continue to defend human rights and democratic values.

Amir Dehghan recently received his Master’s of Science degree in Global Affairs from New York University.  

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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