TSG IntelBrief: Instability in the Saudi Kingdom
September 18, 2017

Instability in the Saudi Kingdom


Bottom Line Up Front

• Last week the Saudi government arrested cleric Salman al-Awdah and other relatively moderate clerics in its latest crackdown on any hint of internal dissent.

• There are reports al-Awdah may go on a hunger strike, which would likely have repercussions for the kingdom.

• The arrests come amid reports the Saudi king might step down, which would make Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman the new king.

• Economic reforms and other changes promised by the Crown Prince are being overshadowed by rising internal dissent and the Yemen war, which has become a quagmire.


Saudi Arabia is experiencing more than its usual share of palace intrigue and internal murmurings, with recent arrests of several very prominent scholars highlighting government concerns over even the slightest hint of internal dissent. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who assumed that role and title in late June, has moved to consolidate his power, sidelining his perceived rival Mohammad bin Nayef (MbN) who is under house arrest. There are also reports, dismissed by the royal family, that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud might soon step down so the new Crown Prince could assume the throne. While such reports appear to be palace speculation at this point, some very concrete examples of increased instability have recently appeared in a kingdom that aims for stability and continuity, above all. 

In that context, the arrest of Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah is particularly significant. Al-Awdah, fellow-cleric Awad al-Qarni and others were arrested or detained last week with no public notice of their alleged crimes. Al-Awdah is no firebrand preacher issuing fatwas on behalf of the so-called Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Rather, al-Awdah, who is immensely influential in the Gulf, has publicly called out Usama bin Laden for his crimes against humanity. 

It appears al-Awdah’s own recent ‘crime’ was to show insufficient loyalty to the crown at a time when it is hyper-sensitive to even the most muted criticism.  After a publicized phone call between Crown Prince bin Salman and Shiekh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, al-Awdah, who has over 14 million Twitter followers, tweeted ‘May God harmonize their hearts for the good of their people’. Al-Awdah was arrested after that September 8 tweet—essentially for hoping there can be peace between neighbors—and has not been heard from since. There are unconfirmed reports he might begin a hunger strike; were this to happen, it could spark more instability, and mark another self-inflicted wound on the Saudi state. 

Al-Awdah is closely tied to both the Muslim Brotherhood—which Saudi Arabia has branded a terrorist organization—and the ‘Awakening Movement’ of the late 1990’s that demanded real social and political reform in the tradition-bound kingdom. Al-Awdah was arrested in the 1990’s after calling for reform; Usama bin Laden tryied to use al-Awdah’s imprisonment as a rallying cry against the House of Saud. However, al-Awdah didn’t return the favor, denouncing bin Laden and al-Qaeda by name after the September 11 attacks. Others arrested in this latest crackdown include Sheikh Hassan al-Maliki, economist Essam al-Zamil, and poet Ziyad bin Naheet.  None had anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. All, like al-Awdah, were far from violent extremists. and were not seen as opposed to the royal family.  

Several important questions remain unanswered as they relate to current and future Saudi instability. Will the current King step down to allow Crown Prince bin Salman to assume the throne and how far will the government go to stamp out even the mildest internal dissent? Meanwhile Saudi Arabia continues to struggle to gain traction for its 2030 economic reforms while dealing with a war in Yemen that has become a quagmire, a boycott of Qatar with no easy face-saving resolution, and persistent low oil prices.



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