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Feature Article

Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?

It is no secret that the Kingdom has embarked on a campaign of repression, silencing any who might challenge the agenda and succession prospects of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. A ramping up of the intensity and extent of the crackdown raises the question of his survivability - will the king, committed to his son's prospects, take a knee and let the clock run out, or will an overconfident Muhammad celebrate too soon and see his world come crashing down?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The public execution (and, in one case, crucifixion) of 37 Saudi nationals in a single day has once again focused attention on the Kingdom's violent repression of any and all dissent. The bloody and headline-grabbing event follows an attack by four Sunni extremists linked to Da'esh who attacked a security installation north of Riyadh, complicating the argument that the executions represent a further crackdown on the Shi'a minority. Although this is the largest single round of executions since 2015, when Shaykh al-Nimr, an outspoken Shi'a cleric from the Eastern Region, was put to death, there was little to suggest any sectarian element this time around. In fact, Khalid al-Tuwayjiri, who was beheaded and then put on display for several hours, was a Sunni, as is prominent cleric Salman al-Awda, who was imprisoned after a mild social media critique, and now faces the death penalty.

While al-Tuwayjiri was guilty of beheading his uncle, a member of the security forces, the episode throws into relief the convulsions now rocking the Kingdom under the leadership of Muhammad bin Salman (MdS for short). Public executions are nothing new, even if their frequency and extent are ramping up, but they illustrate the violence with which the leadership is responding to any perceived threat. Currently, dozens of prominent Saudis - including princes, clerics, intellectuals and human rights activists - are being held without charge. This number includes women who have advocated for greater freedoms, despite the relaxation of the ban on driving and talk of opening up the restrictions on their movement, calling into question the official commitment to reform.

Furthermore, even members of the royal family are not out of reach. There is unfolding a pattern of detention which takes no account of rank, prominence or seniority. The one common denominator is criticism, perceived or actual, of the crown prince. Ostensibly, this process began as part of the anti-corruption drive that was launched in November 2017, and was formally ended when a royal court statement said that a committee, led by the crown prince, had "concluded its tasks". Notable princes caught up in the sweep included Turki bin Abdallah, the former governor of Riyadh, business titan al-Walid bin Talal, and Turki bin Muhammad bin Saud al-Kabir, an adviser to the king who had reached the highest levels in the Foreign Ministry. Some, like al-Walid, were later released (upon reaching some sort of financial agreement); others, such as the late king Abdallah's son Turki, were said to have been tortured, a shocking allegation considering his family position.

The strange case of Abd al-Aziz bin Salman bin Muhammad is a good example of the new dynamic. On January 4, 2018, Salman was summoned to the Qasr al-Hukm palace, upon which he was detained and taken to the maximum security Ha'ir prison near Riyadh. The rationale at the time was that he was one of a number of princes who had gathered outside a royal palace in Riyadh to protest against the government's suspension of payment of their utility bills. Then when his father became involved in the case, with help from a prominent outside lawyer (which only brought unwanted attention to the matter), he too was detained. It is still unclear what has become of Abd al-Aziz (who is himself a royal of only minor importance, but is married to a daughter of the late Abdallah), but the reality is becoming clear - even prominent members of the royal family are being held outside any formal legal process. Charges are rarely, if ever, brought, and individuals (whether royal or not) are detained if they present any sort of challenge to the leadership. Even those (like the father of Abd al-Aziz) who seek redress for a friend or family member who is detained face arrest. In this case, the offence of the prince seems to have been contact with American politicians who were unlikely to support the proposed agenda of MbS.

Related articles: A Father-Son Rift: Change Of Course Or Course Correction?
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Page 2: victory celebration, or scoring an own goal?
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A Father-Son Rift: Change Of Course Or Course Correction?

The news that King Salman has stripped his son Muhammad, the crown prince, of some financial and economic authority should be considered unsurprising. A widening rift at the top has been apparent for months, and calls to rein in the reckless heir to the throne have only accelerated in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Looking East: Hedging The Bet Or Cutting Losses?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman faces unrelenting international pressure, he has embarked upon a major Asian tour. At the same time, revelations continue to trickle out over his deep involvement with U.S. President Trump and his family. Is the Kingdom's de facto leader playing both sides, or has he given up on his American bet?

A Royal Shakeup: Window-Dressing Or Genuine Reform?

The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, seems more secure in his position than ever. Has the succession dynamic passed the point of no return?

Royal Dissidents And A Change Of House: The Gathering Storm?

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, hunkering down and hoping to ride out the upheaval caused by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is gambling that the continuing support of U.S. President Trump will anchor his precarious place within the royal succession. But will the perception of a weakened Trump provide the impetus for a concerted effort to dislodge the heir apparent?

The Khashoggi Affair: The Downfall of Muhammad bin Salman?

Despite international condemnation, the crown prince carries on with an attitude of 'business as usual'. Yet, internal pressure is mounting, while the question of his removal depends largely on the mental state and willingness to act of his father, the king.