Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On March 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that three senior members of the Saudi royal family had been arrested after being accused of plotting a coup against King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The alleged plotters include King Salman’s brother and two princes. Commentators believe the arrests are part of an ongoing crackdown against perceived as well as vocal critics of Prince Mohammed, which began in earnest in 2017.

Various princes and members belonging to the Saudi ruling family have been arrested or ousted from the government by Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, and many believe this may be another attempt by him to consolidate his power and cut down potential rivals. Outside the family, members of Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious elite have also been taken to task, even though these elites were once an integral part of the ruling matrix of Saudi Arabia. In October 2018, a Saudi journalist associated with the Washington Post, and a vocal critic of MBS, was murdered within the confines of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Coup attempts in oil-rich Arab monarchies are, however, not that rare. Even though 20th century history is peppered with coups in developing countries, there have been coup attempts in rich Arab monarchies as well. However, mention and discussions on these often gets buried beneath talk of the many coups and coup attempts that have taken place in various developing countries in the last century.

In 1929, Dubai’s then Emir Saeed bin Maktoum was overthrown in a coup. His family had been ruling Dubai since 1833. Saeed came to the throne in 1912 and presided over a boom in Dubai’s pearl trade. He also further opened up Dubai’s economic policies, enhancing its reputation as a tax-free haven. However, Dubai’s pearl trade was badly hit by the 1929 global economic crash. In his 2019 book, 15 Cities That Define a Civilisation, the British historian Justin Marozzi writes that the collapse bankrupted Dubai and triggered widespread discontent.

The recent reports of the discovery of a plot against the Saudi king may not be as surprising as they seem. There’s a long history to such attempts in Arab monarchies ...

In the chaos, Saeed’s cousin Mani bin Rashid declared himself as the new Emir, but he was himself removed in a counter-coup, just three days later, which saw Saeed return to power. In 1934, Saeed faced another attempt to oust him when Dubai’s economy failed to recover. He survived an assassination attempt but the coup effort was neutralised by British soldiers and air force stationed in Dubai.

In 1938 emerged another attempt to oust Saeed, this time by Dubai’s influential merchant community. The merchants had formed an assembly (majlis) and forced Saeed to recognise its legitimacy, which he reluctantly did. This came on the heels of Saeed signing deals with the British for oil exploration in the region. As it began to clip away the Emir’s powers and introduced some social welfare plans, the majlis asked Saeed to invest 85 percent of state revenues on public expenditure.

In 1939, when the majlis asked Saeed to agree on a fixed monthly salary for himself, the Emir finally lost his composure. The merchants armed themselves and occupied certain prominent locations of the city. But with the help of his Bedouin supporters from the outskirts of Dubai, Saeed managed to crush the uprising. In 1940, there arose yet another coup attempt. Five men were arrested and their eyes were pulled out with hot irons.

In the 1950s, Saeed began to hand over power to his son and the ruling family did not fully recover from tribulations until oil was discovered in Dubai in the 1960s.

Not so far away, in another opulent monarchy, in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz entered into a power struggle with his brother, King Saud. In 1963, while Saud was out of the country, Faisal removed Saud’s loyalists from the government, and posted his own partisans in key military positions. On Saud’s return, Faisal asked him to abdicate, but he refused. Faisal accused the king of squandering Saudi wealth and keeping the kingdom socially backwards. Faisal ordered the National Guard to surround Saud’s palace. In March 1964, Saud agreed to resign and Faisal became king.

However, in 1969, Faisal himself faced a serious coup attempt. Clandestine groups within the kingdom’s security circles, who were inspired by left-leaning Arab nationalism, plotted to overthrow the monarchy with the help of the military and air force. J. Kechichian, in the anthology Succession in Saudi Arabia, writes that the plan was to bombard the royal palace from the air and kill the king and the princes. After toppling the monarchy, the country was to be renamed Republic of the Arabian Peninsula.

The attempt was crushed and hundreds of military men were arrested and many others dismissed. Eight years later, in 1977, another coup plot was unearthed involving some officers of the Saudi air force. After the 1979 ‘Islamic revolution’ in Iran, the Saudi monarchy became concerned that Iranians would stir up trouble in the kingdom and assist Shias in Saudi Arabia to overthrow the Sunni monarchy.

Dilip Hiro, in Cold War in the Islamic World, writes that over 10,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s. However, in 1985, Saudi authorities asked the Pakistani army to only send Sunni soldiers. The army refused the demand, stating, “There can’t be sectarian discrimination in the Pakistan army.”

In his June 2, 2015 essay for Open Democracy, Hesham Shafick demonstrates that the apparently unwavering Saudi ruling family, that has been in power since the late 1920s, has always been vulnerable to coup attempts.

Apart from the already mentioned attempts, Shafick believes the Saudi monarchy is now more susceptible to coups than before. He writes that there are three main reasons that legitimise the rule of the Saudi king: his status as protector of Saudi version of Islam, his nationalistic status as a unifier of the country, and his association with the Saudi ruling family.

According to Shafick, Saudi kings have largely lost the first two reasons. The country’s religious elite has been under the radar post-9/11 and more and more stakeholders have appeared in Saudi civil society, quietly but surely, demanding unprecedented rights as contributors to the nationalist cause, which may now be different than the one the monarchy upholds.

It can also be said that it is exactly these realities which are driving MBS’s modernist reforms. He doesn’t see much value in the religious elite anymore in a world of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Unlike his predecessors, who patronised this elite so it could continue to religiously legitimise the monarchy, he is neutralising it, sensing that it might turn against the monarchy after losing prestige in the post-9/11 world.

On the other hand, MBS’s social reforms are clearly engineered to attract the evolving Saudi civil society’s sympathies and support. The recent alleged coup attempt, if it existed, must not have come as a surprise to him. There is a likelihood that MBS believes his measures against the religious elite and his social reforms to placate civil society are enough to neutralise the three erosions of legitimacy which Shafick points out.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 15th, 2020