In recent days the Saudi Arabian government has been the focus of significant media attention surrounding a wide-ranging crackdown against opposition figures, with influential clerics, intellectuals and government critics having been arrested across the country. The crackdown comes amidst rumours that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud intends to abdicate the throne in favour of his young and ambitious son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and during a period of intense geopolitical tension across the region. In addition to the ongoing Saudi-Qatar dispute, the Crown Prince’s radical economic reform plans appear to have somewhat stumbled, leading some to question whether the crackdown is a manifestation of the country’s future King’s attempts to regain political credibility at home.


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The al Saud family has always publicly-labelled Islamist groups as the biggest internal threat to its monarchic rule over the highly Islamic Saudi Arabia. Islamist-political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt and briefly held power there after the 2011 Arab Spring, represent an ideological threat to Saudi Arabia’s dynastic monarchical system of rule and have been designated as “terrorist organisations” as a result.

While the Saudi Arabian authorities have denied that a crackdown is taking place, in mid-September state media announced that a group of people with links to “foreign parties against the security of the kingdom” were being detained. The individuals arrested were not identified, but are accused of “espionage activities and having contacts with external entities, including the Muslim Brotherhood”. The Brotherhood plays a central role in the ongoing dispute between the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council and Qatar and has long played the role of political boogeyman for the House of Saud.

Government approval levels may have now suffered to the point where austerity measures have become a genuine risk, and could be seized upon by challengers to the Crown Prince both within the House of Saud and from external opposition elements.

Many of those detained also appear to have been guilty of showing public resistance to the Crown Prince’s aggressive policies, including the Qatar dispute and his Vision 2030 domestic reform plans. Crown Prince Mohammed rapidly climbed the Kingdom’s royal hierarchy in recent years and has garnered significant attention over his plans to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and to reform the country’s archaic social and civil rights systems. Critics have accused the Crown Prince of simply using the promise of social reform to bring about renewed foreign investment, whilst in reality doing little to change a system that grants the monarchy absolute power.

Somewhat overshadowed by news surrounding the security crackdown, reports have emerged that Saudi Arabia will shortly be revising its National Transformation Plan (NTP), which remains a key element of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 strategy. According to a leaked government document, which labels the planned revisions NTP 2.0, timelines associated with the economic transformation are being pushed back from what now appear to have been overoptimistic initial estimates. While the details of the draft NTP 2.0 are still under construction, rumours suggest that the plan has been downscaled to include only ten government ministries as opposed to the initial 18. It also appears that NTP 2.0 involves the galvanisation of the previously-vague reforms into 36 clear-but-inoffensive objectives ranging from increasing participation of women in the workforce, access to health care, and diversifying the national economy. The leak also reveals that non-oil sector privatisation efforts, affordable housing programs, and reforms in the financial sector will now be managed outside of the NTP.

Multiple factors have likely led to this less optimistic revision of the NTP’s timeline. Most impactful being the fact that Saudi Arabia has experienced slow economic growth throughout a prolonged downturn in oil prices since 2014. In addition to this, the conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen has turned into a strategic quagmire which has taken a heavy toll on both the economy and the Crown Prince’s political credibility. The plan also intially involved significant domestic austerity measures as a means of cutting rampant government spending against the backdrop of economic turbulence. Government approval levels may have now suffered to the point where austerity measures have become a genuine risk, and could be seized upon by challengers to the Crown Prince both within the House of Saud and from external opposition elements.

It must therefore be asked whether it is a possibility that the Crown Prince has launched this latest security crackdown while down-scaling Vision 2030 in order to reinforce his domestic authority ahead of a formal transfer of the crown. Some reports indicate that several figures amongst those arrested have no clear links to political Islam or opposition groups, and suggestions have arisen that the 32-year old Crown Prince is simply attempting to erase any remaining traces of internal dissent before the rumored transfer of power from his 81-year-old father.

In a country typically ruled by octogenarians, the young Crown Prince may now be discovering the perils of attempting radical change in a country deeply divided and deeply conservative.


Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on MENA-region geopolitical and security analysis.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo Credit: Jim Mattis

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