How Uniting Saudi's Military Could Backfire on Mohammed Bin Salman

Published November 20th, 2017 - 02:50 GMT
Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Al Bawaba
Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Al Bawaba


  • Mutaib bin Abdullah, the former Saudi National Guard commander is reported to have been tortured
  • Bin Salman, who ordered the arrest of bin Abdullah, is attempting to consolidate Saudi's disparate miltiary under him
  • The National Guard may react against bin Salman, threateing his hold on Saudi and creating chaos in the country
  • But if the National Guard relent to bin Salman, civilians may suffer in the region as bin Salman uses the newly-unified Saudi military in proxy wars 


By Ty Joplin


Bin Salman’s Military Gambit

Mutaib bin Abdullah was covered in bruises left from military boots. He was admitted to a hospital with five others--one was beaten so badly he was taken to the intensive care unit.

Mutaib is not an average citizen of Saudi Arabia, but a top member of Saudi’s royal family who was once thought to be Saudi’s next crown prince.

He also commanded Saudi’s highly professionalized National Guard before being arrested in an ever-widening purge.

The man behind that purge is Saudi’s current crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman.

Bin Salman’s consolidation of power is wide-ranging: from the society to its economy and its military, he has promised to shape each in his image.

His most public mechanism to gain power is by ordering the arrests of hundreds who could oppose him. Most recently, on Nov 18., dozens of high-level military officers were reportedly detained in the ongoing purge of potential dissidents or challengers to Salman’s rule.

But in Salman’s ambition to consolidate the military around him, he is bringing Saudi’s National Guard under the same unofficial stewardship as its regular army--a massive structural shift that may cause uncontrollable internal instability as Saudi reckons with the de facto integration of two armed forces, one of which was made specifically to counterbalance the other.

Such a move could threaten bin Salman’s hold on power in the long run, since the National Guard will not likely remain complacent under bin Salman’s rule.

The National Guard is not under the control of the Ministry of Defense, which is the administrative force behind Saudi’s regular army, making it a completely separate armed entity. It was established to safeguard the royal family against Saudi’s professional military who used to plot coups against the Saudi royal family with some regularity.

Ordering the National Guard and the regular army to act together would be an unprecedented consolidation of power by bin Salman that would go against the core of the National Guard.

Salman’s reshaping of the military then may turn out to be the precise point where he overstepped his own power and began his descent into a situation that could embroil Saudi in chaos.


Hijacking the Coup-Breakers

Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, AFP/File

In the first wave of Salman’s purge, the head of the Saudi National Guard, Former National Guard Commander Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, was arrested and reportedly brutally tortured.

What is particularly stunning is not just that bin Salman may have ordered the torture of one of the top members of his own royal family--but that the move may begin a process of bringing the National Guard under the control of the Minister of Defense, currently led by bin Salman.

Mutaib bin Abdullah was able to assert effective control over the National Guard because he had military experience and was the son of Saudi former king and commander of the National Guard, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

In contrast to Mutaib bin Abdullah, before bin Salman was the crown prince, he began his tenure as Saudi’s Minister of Defense--head of the regular armed forces. His only military experience came by ordering the hopeless entanglement of Saudi in Yemen, where they are currently deadlocked with Iranian-backed Houthi militias. In other words, he fits the profile of someone the National Guard would be extremely skeptical of.



The National Guard, intended to prevent any coup planned by military officials in the Ministry of Defense, may have just faced a takeover of its own--the hijacking and forceful change of leadership from its respected commander to a virtual no-name appointed by bin Salman.

U.S.-based intelligence firm Stratfor predicted in May of 2015 that the National Guard may be formally integrated into the Ministry of Defense under bin Salman.

In speculating about the consequences of such integration, Stratfor writes: “The Saudi Arabian National Guard's ranks also include numerous powerful tribal groups, which are key to the balance of domestic power. Many of these tribes have seen their influence grow along with that of the National Guard and would be reluctant to forfeit their position.”

And though the formal integration Stratfor imagined looks less likely, bin Salman may be throwing the fragile balance maintained between the two armed forces dangerously out of whack.

The National Guard, as a force fiercely loyal to a part of the Saudi family whose patriarch has been tortured under bin Salman’s rule, and with a reason to distrust the kind of power bin Salman is waging, will not likely acquiesce to bin Salman and the Ministry of Defense without a struggle. In a way, they are built to fight against this type of move.

To put it simply: bin Salman’s desire for a unified military may fracture his ability to rule and/or create a rogue armed force inside of his own country hell-bent on re-asserting its independence and potentially seeking retribution for the mistreatment of its former commander.

It is too soon to accurately determine the likelihood of the National Guard reacting with hostility against bin Salman, but the newly minted crown prince has not seemingly done anything to mitigate this threat.


If the National Guard Acquiesce to bin Salman

Yemenis check the destruction following an airstrike by Saudi warplanes in the capital, Sana’a, on September 4, 2016, AFP/File

Perhaps more dangerous for the world than the National Guard going rogue is if it doesn’t; if it goes along with bin Salman reigning it into his orbit.

Front and center in bin Salman’s mind is countering Iran’s rise in the region--a process he’s begun in Yemen and in Lebanon by pressuring the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri for not being tough enough on Iranian-backed Hezbollah cementing power in the country.

The National Guard may be used as an auxiliary force to further this goal, sparking or intensifying military conflicts that promise to kill thousands more civilians and displace millions more in the battle to claim the title of regional hegemon.

Either way, bin Salman’s breakneck-paced seizure of power has rocked the power structure of Saudi to its core. Depending on how the National Guard reacts, bin Salman himself may turn out to be the main victim of the aftershocks.

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