WASHINGTON ― Saudi Arabia in free fall would make the other crises in the Middle East look puny.
The hugely wealthy kingdom is key to U.S. efforts to combat America’s most urgent threats. It has stockpiled thousands of ready-to-launch missiles, tens of thousands of bombs, uncounted reserves of small arms, hundreds of tanks and fighter jets and some of the most aggressive spyware available in the world.
Through Saudi Arabia’s supply lines to Asia and its sway over the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, it wields vast power over the oil production that fuels global trade.
And its population of nearly 30 million is largely young and often vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, as striking levels of volunteering and fundraising for the self-described Islamic State and al Qaeda have shown.
Despite the risks, Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old Saudi king-to-be, has spent close to three years pushing the kingdom to change in unprecedented ways — to forcefully intervene abroad, as it has to brutal effect in neighboring Yemen, to open up its state-dominated economy to entrepreneurs and foreign capital, and above all, to embrace rule by one near-omnipotent leader.
The crown prince is likely to see at least some success. But officials and experts monitoring the kingdom are increasingly worried about his methods. If Mohammed bin Salman pushes too hard, he could shatter his society ― and unleash a nightmare.
Since Nov. 4, the prince has accelerated his campaign. His new anti-corruption agency has arrested hundreds of prominent Saudis ― including royal family members like recently released Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the previous king and former head of the powerful National Guard, and noted billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal ― as well as dozens of military officers and private businessmen like construction magnate Bakr Binladin.
At least 17 detainees have needed medical attention because of abuse, according to The New York Times, and Saudi authorities say they seek to confiscate much of the wealth these figures accumulated — securing hundreds of billions of dollars to fund Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda.