Crown Prince Breaks Saudi Monarchy’s Two Pacts

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud shatters the family consensus and risks a conflict between mosque and state.

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and crown prince of Saudi Arabia
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defense minister and crown prince of Saudi Arabia (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest that by putting members of the royal family under house arrest, giving women the right to drive and removing the arrest power from the Islamic religious police, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud has broken the two pacts that have held the monarchy together for more than half a century:

  1. The consensus of family elders that has kept factions in rough balance with each other and kept most contentions from public view.
  2. The duumvirate between the Al Saud and the Al Wahhab, the temporal and religious halves of the whole Saudi enterprise going back to the eighteenth century.

Challenges

Garfinkle speculates that Mohammad shattered the status quo because he believes the future of the kingdom depends on it, because his will to power and personal ambition outrun his wisdom and experience, or both.

Driving Mohammad’s reforms — which include an ambitious attempt to diversify the economy — are the Western world’s decreasing dependence on oil, American disengagement from the Middle East, Iranian designs in the region, Saudi Arabia’s youth bulge and a recognition that Wahhabism’s revivalist interpretation of Islam is incompatible with the modern world.

Risks

Garfinkle warns that the kingdom isn’t used to this kind of upheaval. Add a war in Yemen, which isn’t going well for the Al Saud, and America’s seemingly unconditional support for the crown prince under Donald Trump and chances of things getting worse before they get better look high.