News has been pouring in with unexpected speed and importance: Dozens of high-ranking officials have been sacked, a ballistic missile was fired upon Riyadh from Yemen unsuccessfully, and it was the first attack over the Saudi Arabia capital.
A Saudi helicopter crashed near the kingdom's southern border with Yemen. The accident claimed the lives of a dozen high-ranking administrators, including the son of the former intelligence chief and Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who is second in line for the succession of King Salman. He probably won't keep this status for a very long time in the huge Saudi royal family with its complex network of competing factions. His son, Prince Mansour bin Muqren, who lost his life in the helicopter accident, was the deputy governor of the Asir province.
This proliferation of princes, crown princes, governors, and deputy-governors make it hard to understand the functioning of the Saudi administration. It remains a totally obscure, authoritarian state apparatus. Dynamics of change have been almost visible in the last few years, with the enthronization of King Salman in 2015, whose son, Prince Mohammed, the minister of defense, looks like the strong man in charge of the Saudi Kingdom destiny. King Salman's other sons hold important positions within the state apparatus, Prince Abdulaziz is the Oil Minister deputy - a key position - Prince Faisal is the governor of Medina, Prince Sultan is the head of the tourism authority and a former Royal Saudi Air Force pilot and astronaut and Prince Turki chairs the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a huge publishing holding company.
The first important sign of a "palace coup" came with the declaration by Prince Mohammed on state television that a "moderate Islam" would be the new line of conduct for the kingdom. Coming from the representative of the "Wahhabi" Islam, this declaration was to be taken very cautiously, which is what the world media did. What Prince Mohammed meant was not fully understood at first, so long as it is probably not the duty of a minister of defense to give guidance concerning religious matters, especially in the Wahhabi kingdom. Already, some hesitant but important steps were taken to ease the weight of Islamic rules in the daily life, like allowing women to drive cars within the kingdom. That may sound funny to Western democratic countries, but for Saudi women this was obviously an important step toward a better status in society.
What ignites this change in Saudi Arabia is probably more a dire need to reform the state rather than a theological debate over the flexibility and implementation of Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia is rich beyond imagination and the immense part of wealth created by oil revenues are used to create a modern infrastructure in the country, which is not at all coupled with better and participative governance.
More importantly, Saudi Arabia has been funneling the oil revenues into developed countries' company shares. The way of living of most ministers and princes is reminiscent of Aga Khan or King Farouk of Egypt, dilapidating immense sums for pleasure and showing off, in the most expensive resorts and touristic regions of developed Western countries. Together with their Russian counterparts, oil-rich executives and representatives of Gulf regimes of the Middle East have been injecting huge sums of money into Europe's professional football teams buying financially weak football teams and inflating the football industry finances to a degree unseen of in history.
For a country that aims to represent the "ummah," this is obviously not an ideal image.
However, there is more, Saudi Arabia is losing ground against Iran, whose regime is hardly more participative and democratic, but looks definitely more ascetic than the flamboyant lifestyle of Saudi princes. Yemen was the theater of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and in spite of a huge asymmetry between the Saudi armament and the Iran-backed rebels in Sanaa, the Saudi Air Force has not been able to overcome this rebellion. A couple of days ago, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned over the assessment that he was not able to govern his country, because the Iran-backed Hezbollah sabotaged the whole administration. The Iraq central government is almost openly subservient to Iran, and the very clumsy attempt to establish an embargo over Qatar has been a real failure for the Saudi regime, which lost Turkey's support on the issue.
There is a saying in the United States, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. The new unfolding events in Saudi Arabia, taken within the context of recent political developments, looks like a palace coup, sounds like a palace coup and progresses like a palace coup. Whether it is a palace coup, we don't know yet, but time will show.