The rich and the famous of Saudi Arabia will not forget the night of November 3 anytime soon. Darkness engulfed many of their glittering lives as Saudi authorities arrested scores of them in a widespread crackdown accusing them of corruption.
Ranging from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world, to Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who is a contender for the Saudi throne, as many as 500 biggies — including more than 10 princes, four sitting ministers, many former ministers, chiefs of the Saudi National Guard and Saudi Royal Navy, owners of three powerful television networks and business leaders — were detained and their assets seized.
An estimated 1,700 individual bank accounts have been frozen and at least $100 billion in corruption uncovered. But the purge isn’t done yet because the attorney general has said that only ‘phase one’ is complete, implying more arrests are on the anvil.
The man behind this purge is the ambitious 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also heads the newly-formed anti-corruption committee that issued the royal decree for these arrests. He claims that these arrests were meant to make the country graft-free and develop it as a good bet for investments.
But the way things have panned out, it is unlikely to be all about the lofty aim of a clean Saudi Arabia. It could simply be a power-grab under the garb of noble intentions.
No Balance of Power
Saudi Arabia has been a largely stable power in an oasis of instability since the days of its founder King Abdulaziz, who ruled for 50 years. On his death-bed in 1953, he had advised that family unity should be accorded priority and so, all decisions including that of governance be arrived at through consultations among all Princes.
Since then, power has been distributed among various senior Princes, and this ensured a system of checks and balances. Prince Sultan was the Defence Minister for nearly five decades, Prince Nayef and then his son headed the interior ministry for over 40 years and National Guard was commanded by Prince Abdullah, who later became king.
But this balance of power started going awry since January 2015, when 81-year-old King Salman ascended the throne. Soon after taking over, he appointed his favourite son Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the Defence Minister. Thereafter, he was anointed the head of the Supreme Economic Council and also runs the all-powerful Royal Court.
While power began to concentrate in Prince Salman, others began to be shown the door. In April 2015, Prince Muqrin was removed as crown prince and replaced by Salman. Mohammed bin Nayef was sacked in June 2017 and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, has now been detained.
This effectively makes Prince Salman the head of the Defence and Interior Ministry as well as the National Guard, the three most powerful organs of the Saudi State.
Not Sure Yet
So, what was the night of November 3 all about? Was it about heralding a new beginning in conservative Saudi Arabia or was it the night of all knives to remove all threats to Prince Salman and allow him a free reign.
In fact, the world isn’t sure yet of the aims of the blitzkrieg that was carried out in the name of frail King Salman. Many critics have termed it a risky move aimed at consolidating power by sidelining potential rivals and dismantling alliances within the royal family.
“This shakeup is not just a consolidation of power by the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, but an act of persecution against members of King Abdullah’s policymaking circle. To properly move on from the Abdullah era, the leftovers of the old order had to be scrapped, and suddenly their time was up. The removal of Mutaib Bin Abdullah is merely a continuation of Mohammad bin Salman’s strategy to bring the various royals’ security fiefdoms under his direct control,” writes Umer Karim, from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Birmingham, in the Conversation.
But there are also those who have hailed this move to fight corruption and abuse of power. Many also hope that the move will encourage people to invest in the kingdom without fear.
“What is happening in Saudi Arabia is a game changer. It is turning the country on the political, economic, social and religious levels. Today, there is a new Saudi Arabia that is totally different from what it used to be but it is still early to judge it,” Pierre Daher, the founder of LBC, one of the top media outlets in the Arab world, told the Associated Press.
More to it
US President Donald Trump tweeted his approval of the anti-corruption purge by saying, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing….Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”
Prince Salman had visited Trump in March and Trump had visited Saudi Arabia in May. During both these visits, it was agreed that Iran was a key security threat in the Middle East and they needed to work with Israel to combat Iran and its ally Hezbollah, which has strong roots in Syria and Lebanon.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unexpected resignation announced from Saudi soil citing “danger to his life and blaming Iran for meddling in his country” points to a larger plan to check Iran’s influence in Lebanon. Moreover, Syrian President al-Assad is backed by Iran and Russia and Saudi Arabia has had to beat a hasty retreat.
Prince Salman also has the support of Mohammed bin Zayed, his counterpart in Abu Dhabi, and both are possibly combining forces, along with support from Trump to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East. Both also got together to tighten the screws on Qatar. Iran is largely Shia Muslim, while Saudi Arabia is the leading Sunni Muslim power.
In fact, in an interview to The Guardian, the Crown Prince pointed out that he wanted to make his country ‘normal’ again. “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it,” he said.
Earlier at the Riyadh’s Future Investment Initiative conference, he had said: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
The Prince has been pushing for reforms that modernise the economy, usher in new technology, reduce dependency on oil, bring in foreign investments and enable a dynamic private sector. He is also walking the talk for a liberal society. In September, a royal decree ended a decade-long ban and announced that women can drive from next year. Guardianship laws that restrict women’s roles are being diluted and religious police have been curbed. Cinemas too could be thrown open to the Saudis soon. These are big changes in a closed society and it cannot be brought about without huge power.
The Guardian too writes that “central to the reforms has been the breaking of an alliance between hardline clerics who have long defined the national character and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of state.”
The common people of Suadi Arabia, especially the young, tired of corruption and radicalisation, have largely supported Prince Salman’s moves. Living up to their expectations is the big test.