GULF – March 2020
Mohammed bin Salman tightens his grip on Saudi military
The crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS for media), has been working to secure his power before the looming ascendance to the throne. Doing so, MbS is now focussing on one of the few, but decisive, areas of power that have not been monopolised by him so far: the military.
On March 5, the Saudi National Anti-Corruption Commission (Nahaza), a governmental agency, announced it had investigated 674 state employees, ordering the detention of 298 of them for financial and administrative corruption, included bribery crimes, embezzlement and waste of public money.
Both in-charge and retired military officers of the Defence Ministry, security officers of the Interior Ministry and judges are among the detained. In the Shia-populated Eastern Province, 29 Interior ministry officials were arrested, including three colonels, a major general and a brigadier general [Reuters, “Saudi Arabia detains 298 public officials in new corruption probes”, 15 March 2020].
At least three Saudi princes were also imprisoned: Ahmed bin Abdulaziz (the younger brother of king Salman bin Abdulaziz), who is member of the Council of Allegiance; his son Nayef bin Ahmed, the former head of the army intelligence; and the cousin of MbS, Mohammed bin Nayef, former minister of the Interior and deposed crown prince (who is under house arrest since 2017).
On November 2017, the chief of the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG), Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah Al Saud, was removed from the SANG, detained at Ritz-Carlton and then released in the context of the crown prince’s first crackdown against the Saudi elite. Two dozen of Saudi military officers, also retired, were reportedly arrested by Riyadh’s authorities in 2017, all with corruption allegations.
In that occasion, Mohammed bin Salman’s direct offensive against the leadership of the SANG displayed an internecine struggle for control of military institutions [Eleonora Ardemagni, “Saudi Arabia: the coming political struggle for the National Guard”, Strategic Trend, NATO Defense College Foundation, November 2017], confirmed today also by this new wave of arrests.
Since 2017 onwards, MbS has been trying to strengthen and, in some cases, to build parallel security institutions vis-à-vis the existent ones. This paves the way for a gradual convergence in defence governance under his leadership. For instance, the Presidency of State Security established and headed by the crown prince (focussed on intelligence, cybersecurity and counter-terrorism), works autonomously from the Ministry of Interior. The SANG is still separate from the army and Ministry of Defence, although MbS removed its chief and some officers to appoint loyalists [Neil Partrick, “Saudi Arabia’s Elusive Defense Reform”, Carnegie Sada, November 14, 2019].
Under Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s military has become a political battlefield: this undermines its traditional checks and balances for the first time since its foundation in 1932.
Eleonora Ardemagni – Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan and Adjunct Professor at ASERI.