Saudi Arabia’s crown prince plays for high stakes

The reform ambitions are so vast that they are colliding with each other

Even a well-trained robot like Sophia would be confused by Saudi Arabia. A week ago, the famous machine was among the powerful western financiers attending a coming-out party, in which the heir-to-the-throne, Mohammed bin Salman, was showing off the kingdom’s new embrace of modernity. Among the gimmicks was the award of Saudi citizenship to Sophia, a distinction she was programmed to accept.

This week, the Ritz hotel that hosted the conference welcomed a different kind of guest: the fallen princes and businessmen caught in an unprecedented anti-corruption purge that rids the crown prince of rivals and affirms his rise as the supreme ruler of the kingdom.

The latest political earthquake, unveiled in the middle of the night on Saturday, was the most dramatic in a series of dizzying changes. It included the removal of a potential rival to MbS, Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the late king and head of the elite National Guard; and the arrest of scores of others, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire financier. The net was cast so wide that, as one Saudi friend joked, if a message was meant to be sent “there was no one left to receive it”.

The 32-year-old MbS is not the monarch, though speculation is rife that his father, King Salman is planning to abdicate in his favour. What he is proving to be is a young man in an extraordinary rush to accumulate power and transform the kingdom into a more socially liberal and economically diverse place. The brazen attitude with which he is setting out to accomplish his objectives could yet jeopardise the whole endeavour.

While he is betting that younger Saudis, who make up the majority of the population of 32m, will cheer him, MbS is also alienating sections of society — from the clerics, to the political elites, from other branches of the royal family to the business elite.

The crown prince’s ambitions are so vast that they are colliding with each other. On the one hand, he wants to return Saudi Arabia to the more socially liberal system that prevailed before the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a Wahhabi extremist. That event so terrified the royal family that it ceded considerable social power to the clerics. Just the other day, a Saudi official showed me pictures of those days, with women in sleeveless dresses dining with men in the conservative capital Riyadh. That would be unthinkable today.

His economic programme aims to trim cradle-to-grave benefits that the state can no longer afford and end Saudi addiction to oil. MbS recognises that such reform requires drastic surgery. But alongside these laudable goals, the prince is following a strict authoritarian playbook that brooks no dissent — whether internally, within the royal family or even among fellow Sunni neighbours. On social media, the main forum for Saudi political expression, critics have been silenced and the sycophants have taken over. Dozens of intellectuals, clerics and businessmen have been rounded up. At the weekend, MbS went a big step further, taking aim directly at his royal cousins and the traditional business elite.

Similarly, Saudi foreign policy is characterised by a new fierceness aimed at rolling back Iran’s influence in the Middle East. After waging war in Yemen against the Tehran-backed rebels, MbS has led the diplomatic battle against Qatar, a maverick that refuses to toe the Saudi line. Hours before the purge on Saturday, Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister and Saudi ally, announced his resignation from a government of national unity that includes Iran-backed Hizbollah. The announcement was made in Riyadh and on a Saudi television channel; many in Lebanon assume Mr Hariri was told to resign by his Saudi patrons.

An anti-corruption drive and a firmer stance towards Iran resonate in Saudi society. But the execution will not necessarily inspire confidence. Nor are the policies without broader risk. The war in Yemen has cost billions that could have been invested at home to create the jobs that MbS is promising. The purge also reinforces the arbitrary nature of Saudi rule and unnerves businesses that should be encouraged to invest. What MbS is building with one hand, he could be destroying with the other.