With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘Purge,’ Could There Be a Civil War in Saudi Arabia?

Photo of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

By Justin K. Thomas

Dec. 2017

In November, King Salman of Saudi Arabia announced the creation of an anti-corruption committee headed by his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Under Prince bin Salman’s direction, 200 people, some of the royal family and some of the kingdom’s business sector were placed under house arrest.

MbS has since begun promoting his Vision 2030, a large-scale program meant to diversify the kingdom’s economy by reducing its dependence on oil export revenue, opening its economy to foreign investments, and promoting its private sector as conducive to the growth of businesses to the world.

Dr. Sean Foley, an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic History at Middle Tennessee State University, said that MbS is proclaiming that he is changing the way the kingdom manages national and foreign policy back to a time before the attack on the Grand Mosque in the late 1970s.

By doing this, MbS is consolidating his power from family rivals who owe their fortunes and status to the late King Fahd. But, Foley said that a civil war is not likely to ever happen.

“There is a certain logic to this,” Foley said. “If you are going to return to the era prior to 1979, it makes sense that those who benefited from that era would be swept aside for a new generation. Those [detained] are a small fraction of the Saudi royal family, which has approximately 15,000 members. They may be wealthy and have been key to the economy, but they are in no position to fight back militarily.”

However, the move by MbS could make diplomatic relations with the United States and surrounding Gulf nations such as Iran tumultuous, said Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell and a retired U.S. Army Colonel.

“MbS is ready for war with Iran and even seems to be fomenting the situation,” Wilkerson said. “[Saudi Arabian] relations with Qatar are at rock-bottom levels. Syria and Iraq are more likely to side with Iran. Saudi Arabia will expect its ally of convenience, Israel, to deal with Lebanon, while it deals with the threat from Iran. But, the United States is caught in the middle. President Trump, however, seems more inclined to side with Saudi Arabia than take a neutral position.”

Reuters has reported that Israeli Army chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, said that Israel is willing to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on their potential foe, Iran.

Although this is only the beginning of MbS’ new policies, younger Saudi Arabians feel that their Crown Prince’s actions are a positive means to negate the corruption that has been seen in their nation’s leaders for many years.

For example, since 2009, political cartoonists in Saudi Arabia have used Adel Fakeih, one of the people detained in MbS’ anti-corruption round-up, as the unnamed symbol of the kingdom’s corruption.

Fakeih, a high-ranking economic advisor with the Saudi government before his Nov. 4 arrest, was mayor of Jeddah, a port city near the Red Sea, which was inflicted with a major flood in 2009. Official government reports state that just over 100 people died. However, claims have been made that it was through Fakeih’s corruption and inability to prioritize improving the city’s sewer and drainage system led to death of many more people. It is presumed that nearly 500 residents of the town drowned and their bodies washed out to sea.


“The arrests are having wide support among young Saudis,” Foley said. “This can be seen especially on social media. ‘Jabertoon,’ a political cartoon on Twitter that has been very critical of the government, said that it would continue to use the caricature of Adel Fakeih as the symbol of national corruption. And with over 1 million followers, you can believe that MbS’ message of anti-corruption will be seen throughout the kingdom by the people of Saudi Arabia and the world.”