The anachronistic family enterprise known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been politically fragile. In some respects it is remarkable that this entity has endured into the Twenty-first Century. A clan of royals lives on rake-offs from the country’s petroleum wealth, while using more of that wealth to buy off a fast-growing population.
The Saudis have had to continue playing that game through vicissitudes of the oil market, on which the Saudi economy depends. The potential for breakdown has always been present. Now a king and his favorite — and ambitious and inexperienced — son are bringing the potential closer to becoming reality.
The power plays by that son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), include the latest spectacular purge, which extends to senior princes in government as well as leading private-sector figures. The power plays flout some of the principal conventions through which the Saudi royals have held their enterprise together so far.
Although only one man can be king at a time, the system of rule to date has involved a distribution of power among different branches of the royal family. With the latest purge and the concentration of power in the young hands of MBS, that system is destroyed.
Another feature of the Saudi political scene over the past few decades has been a leaving open of the question of exactly where the royal succession, which had been working its way through sons of kingdom founder Abd al-Aziz, would go once the succession reached the grandsons of Abd al-Aziz. There is no evident reason why MBS’s father Salman — the sixth Saudi king since the death of Abd al-Aziz in 1953 — should have had the prerogative of giving the nod to his favorite son as the holder of power in the following generation.