The Kingdom’s Crown Prince is flexing his muscles by implementing a new social contract that puts the demands of ordinary Saudis above those of royal family members

With the recent arrest of 11 dissenting princes, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is again showing his commitment to change in the kingdom. On January 7, the Saudi attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, issued a statement confirming media reports about the detention of 11 Saudi princes from the Kabeer branch of the royal family. The princes had reportedly been protesting on January 4 in a public square adjacent to Qasr al-Hokm palace in central Riyadh without government approval. According to the attorney general, the Princes are now in al-Hair prison awaiting trial after challenging the government’s recent moves to trim financial support for royal family members’ utility bills. The state has been steadily rolling back some of its subsidies for utilities during the past year. With a new budget having kicked in on January 1, the cost of utilities is loosely scheduled to increase this year.

Popular protests are not frequent, but they are not unheard of in Saudi Arabia. If they occur, they are usually by expatriate labourers or ordinary citizens. Protests by princes are far less common, and so is the seemingly harsh arrest of the royal family members. These arrests echo the anti-corruption purges of the powerful economic elite that began last November, and are part of an effort by the crown prince to establish control over the patronage networks of those elites. Many princes are reportedly upset about how the lines of patronage are being redrawn without incorporating their economic interests. The public backs the trimming of state financial support that the princes receive for their utility bills, but some members of the royal family, understandably, do not.

When a new round of allowances and bonuses for Saudi pensioners, students, soldiers and civil servants was announced late on January 5, it was received positively in the Saudi press and on social media. The juxtaposition of the additional one-time cash allowances for ordinary Saudi citizens – amounting to about $13 billion – to the arrests of the princes points to the priority that the crown prince is placing on appeasing citizens, while also being willing to boldly establish control over how patronage flows within the royal family.

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