Why we should worry about Saudi's Game of Thrones

The 32-year-old trying to revamp Saudi Arabia
The 32-year-old trying to revamp Saudi Arabia

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The 32-year-old trying to revamp Saudi Arabia 01:42

Nic Robertson is CNN's international diplomatic editor. The opinion in this article belongs to the author.

(CNN)Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is mercilessly neutering opponents standing between him and the desert kingdom's throne.

His meteoric rise to power raises the specter of an equally rapid crash -- and with it chaos in the Middle East.
Critics fear he may be on the verge of a soft coup, sliding his 81-year-old father out and himself in. But closer study suggests he could be playing a more cautious game.
Each apparently Machiavellian move -- government reshuffles, economic and social promises and now arrests -- has been taken one deliberate step at a time.
    But whether he takes his father's place now or in a few years makes little difference to arguably the most important issue in the region: the conflict between the Saudis and their regional nemesis, Iran.
    His father isn't just Saudi Arabia's monarch: King Salman is custodian of Islam's two holiest sites, and a palace coup in Riyadh could have ramifications beyond the kingdom's borders.
    And in this most Sunni of Sunni nations, Prince bin Salman wants the Saudis to lead a grand coalition against Shia Iran.
    For most his life, the crown prince will have been aware that he and some of his cousins could end up in a battle for power.
    Since the death of Ibn Saud -- the first monarch of Saudi Arabia -- his sons passed the job along until their hearts gave out. The crown prince's father is almost the last in that line.
    At an early age, bin Salman knew this might be his destiny: If his father didn't die of old age before becoming King, then it could be engineered so that Prince bin Salman would become the first of Ibn Saud's grandchildren to take the throne.
    Without serious portfolios to manage other than his father's private office while governor of Riyadh, bin Salman has had plenty of time to plot.
    Now, as crown prince, technically nothing stands between him and the top job -- other than his father's health. But bin Salman still appears to be taking no chances.
    This week he arrested a slew of princes and ministers after accusing them of corruption.
    President Trump appears to have no concerns: "I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing."
    But not everyone shares his confidence. Many in the region fear that Prince bin Salman is overly ambitious, zealous in the extreme -- and maybe even a little bit paranoid. They worry he might cause the collapse of one of the world's most unchanging religious and cultural anchors, not to mention throw the global economy off-kilter.
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    But bin Salman's moves to secure his succession may not have been as wild as they appear.
    His opponents also have been playing the Saudi "Game of Thrones" long before HBO's blockbuster series.
    So while his actions may look sudden, they will have been carefully considered. What we don't know is how precise those calculations have been.
    Last year he launched his ambitious Vision 2030 to diversify the economy away from hydrocarbons and employ the Saudi young.
    The change was necessary: decades of ossifying Kings had left stuck Saudi in the past. Rock-bottom oil prices were stripping unsustainable billions from the nation's sovereign wealth fund. But an appeal to the young could shore up a huge base of popular support away from the scheming in the palaces.
    Bin Salman ordered belt tightening. He cut subsidies on fuel and food basics and dreamed up an initial public offering for the world's largest company -- the oil behemoth Aramco -- to fund his gamble on Saudi rebirth.
    Yet each phase of Vision 2030 has seen revision. Subsides were reintroduced and rates of employment revisited. Even the IPO was questioned.
    History suggests that bin Salman appears to risk it all before pulling back when disaster looms.
    Yet when it comes to securing the throne, he probably won't be dialed back so easily.
    His fight against corruption is an easy sell to many of the Saudi poor. They have long grumbled in subservient apathy while royals enjoyed wealth they could never imagine.
    In a country where nepotism is rife, and government jobs and their perks come for life, bin Salman could have arrested many more.
    President Donald Trump appeared to have no trouble believing the scale of corruption, tweeting, "Some of those they are harshly treating have been 'milking' their country for years!"
    Whether or not Trump included multibillionaire businessman Alwaleed bin Talal -- a protagonist for change in the conservative kingdom -- is unclear.
    What is clear, though, is that bin Talal -- an outspoken prince and head of Kingdom Holding Co. with stakes in Citigroup, Twitter, Apple and News Corp. -- could have been a powerful adversary for bin Salman.
    But before bin Salman ordered police to arrest potential foes, he had also been carefully co-opting other rivals.
    Back in 2015, I met with a senior Saudi royal. He lived close enough to the corridors of power to know how influence is traded.
    The war in Yemen was still fresh. Bin Salman had initiated the air campaign against the Houthi-backed Yemeni government. He owned the war: How it went and how much Saudi blood would be spilled will all rest on his shoulders.
    Sitting with the senior royal, we talked about bin Salman, his growing power, his clear aspiration for more and his suitability to hold such high office.
    He told me if that if bin Salman failed in Yemen, he'd be judged a failure across the board. Princes would talk quietly among themselves and -- if necessary -- request that he step down.
    The 32-year-old trying to revamp Saudi Arabia
    The 32-year-old trying to revamp Saudi Arabia

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    The 32-year-old trying to revamp Saudi Arabia 01:42
    When I met the same royal again this year, he told me bin Salman would not be held to account for his failings. No gathering of princes would move against him.
    When I asked why not, he sounded a little defeated: No one, he thinks, has the power or the money to take him on.
    Months later, bin Salman's cunning was made clear to me when I learned he had given that royal a prestigious job by the Crown Prince.
    In his meteoric rise, bin Salman hasn't just been clearing out an aging, sclerotic bureaucracy, but he has also been energizing the nation's youth. In a little more than two years, he has swept away a generation of elderly and experienced ministers.
    He is building loyalty and -- if he gets it right -- longevity in leadership for himself. Seventy percent of the country is like him: around 30 or younger. What he has done to secure their support has been nothing short of revolutionary.
    He has promised women the right to drive, allowed them to enter sports stadiums, banned religious police from arresting people and allowed men and women to meet in public without fear of persecution.
    On Saudi National Day this year, music thumped out on the street. Men and women danced together, utterly unheard of even last year. And all of this around the corner from the square where Saudi beheadings take place.
    Bin Salman is tapping into a desire for change and deftly wrapping it in the Saudis' already passionate nationalism.
    And in arresting many conservative clerics, he seems to be downsizing religion in favor of nationalism.
    But such a move is risky and could be bin Salman's Achilles' heel: A conservative backlash would be bloody. But he seems to counting on the outward-looking youth.
    And while these kids are not tame, they are tied down by strict tradition, respect of family and deep loyalty to their nation.
    So where is all this going? Bin Salman's growing anti-Iranian rhetoric might indicate what his reform agenda and nationalist cries have to do with one another.
    This week, bin Salman called the rocketing of Riyadh a potential act of war by Iran.
    If he can't fix the economy and generate more jobs for his young supporters, at least he can blame Iran for their predicament. It might buy him time, if nothing else.
    And it's this strategy that makes Vision 2030 so risky -- both for bin Salman and the wider region.
    His vision is bigger and bolder than the last king's, but only a fool would buy into it without some skepticism.
    Bin Salman may be a modern-day Machiavelli. He certainly knows how to play the crowd. But if his gamble is to be any more than a cultural Ponzi that collapses at the first quake of dissent, he must deliver on some of the dreams he is promising.
    If he doesn't, the risk of an all-out Saudi-Iran war could be much closer -- regardless of whether or not he has replaced his father.