by Thomas W. Lippman
It’s too soon to reach a definitive judgment, but the high-level government shakeup, arrests of brand-name personalities, and far-reaching anti-corruption campaign announced over the weekend in Saudi Arabia have the potential to turn the country into the despotic banana monarchy its critics have long believed it to be.
These latest developments could discourage foreign investment and ignite the same kind of power struggle within the ruling family that crippled the country’s development in the 1950s. The immediate effect of the decrees issued by King Salman and of the reported arrests is to consolidate virtually all power in his young son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), and to make clear that dissent and criticism will not be tolerated.
At the age of 32, the crown prince was already minister of defense, chief of the economic policy team, and chairman of a new “supreme committee” on corruption. In this last position, MbS is charged with “the investigation, issuance of arrest warrants, travel ban, disclosure and freezing of accounts and portfolios, tracking of funds, assets and preventing their remittance or transfer by persons and entities, whatever they might be.” In performing its tasks the committee is exempt from existing “laws, regulations, instructions, orders and decisions” and is authorized to seize the assets of those it accuses.
Through the official Saudi Press Agency, the king said in a statement that he acted “in view of what we have noticed of exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money and as we have taken care, in this regard, since we assumed the responsibility to follow these matters out of our pledges towards the homeland and the citizen.”
The king did not name any individuals. But everyone who does business in or with Saudi Arabia knows that off-the-books money has been the lubricant of commerce for generations. Some members of the ruling family have not hesitated to accept “commissions” or to insist on getting a piece of the action when foreign investors establish businesses.
After an earlier shuffle that gave the prince, known as MbS, effective control of the Interior Ministry and the police. As defense minister, he controls the armed forces. The only security force that remained outside of his authority was the National Guard, a bedouin-based domestic security force that is trained and equipped by American contractors and widely regarded as the most efficient and capable military organization in the kingdom. Now he apparently controls the National Guard too. His father, the king booted its commander, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, a son of the late King Abdullah, from the leadership, replacing him with another prince, Khalid bin Abdulaziz bin Mohammed bin Ayyaf Al Muqren. The new commander is little known to outsiders, has reportedly not had any military training, and has no constituency of his own. His father was mayor of Riyadh when King Salman was the provincial governor.
MbS himself was little known to the public until his father became king two-and-a-half years ago. In that time he has steadily expanded his power, often at the expense of older princes with better educations and more experience in government, including two of his older half-brothers. King Salman ousted two other crown princes to make his son the heir apparent. He is the only king since the revered founder, Abdul Aziz al-Saud, to attempt to pass the throne to his son rather than to a brother or to another respected senior prince of the ruling clan.
Choosing a King
The country’s “Basic Law of Government” specifies that the king must be a direct descendant of Abdul Aziz, but does not specify how the choice is to be made. It says only that the successor be “the most upright” among them.
After the death of Abdul Aziz in 1953, the kingdom endured a power struggle between his designated successor, the profligate and incompetent Saud, and Saud’s brother, the ascetic, respected Faisal. Their rivalry held back the country for a decade, until the family—to ensure the survival of the regime—forced Saud into exile.
All kings since then have remembered the lessons of that time and have sought to win support, or at least acquiescence, from other branches of the family and from disappointed aspirants to the throne by parceling out positions of power and influence such as cabinet ministries and provincial governorships. They have ruled by consensus, not of the public of course, but of the royal family.
Salman has largely jettisoned that practice, placing his son in full control and loyalists in key posts, and reportedly arresting three additional princes who, according to regional media, were kidnapped in Europe. How the rest of the family responds to the latest moves may not become apparent for some time.
An earlier wave of arrests this past summer brought the confinement of several prominent but politically suspect religious scholars and preachers, some of whom have millions of followers on Twitter.
King Salman’s weekend decrees said nothing about arrests and did not specify the fate of the dismissed princes, military officers, and cabinet officials. But widespread reports in Arab and Western media said dozens of them were taken into custody.
The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, which often conveys official information, reported that “eleven princes, four sitting ministers and ‘tens’ of former ministers have been arrested on orders from the new anti-corruption committee.”
If all the reports are accurate, the roundup is bound to raise doubt among the foreign investors upon whom MbS hopes to stake the country’s economic future. The roundup can’t be seen as a message of stability and reassurance in a troubled region because the list includes princes and business executives with whom foreign investors have long been comfortable. Nor is it compatible with the messages that the king and crown prince delivered just last month to a glittering gathering of hedge-fund managers and other potential investors.
The list of detainees reportedly included Adel Faqieh, economy minister and former minister of labor. Faqieh, whom King Salman himself appointed to steer the economy ministry, has been widely credited with opening new lines of employment to Saudi women, but he was also mayor of Jeddah when disastrous floods ravaged the city in 2009. The king suggested that the causes of those floods may be a target of an investigation by the new corruption committee.
Of potentially more significance is the reported arrest of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the kingdom’s best-known international investor, often described as the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia.
Prince Alwaleed, who is as flamboyant as most of other princes are discreet, has always been an outlier in the ruling family. He recently posted a video of himself, shirtless, playing volleyball, climbing a rocky ridge, and swimming at an Egyptian beach resort. He has sometimes spoken critically on sensitive issues, but he is not known as a political dissenter. His father, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, was exiled for his political activities in the 1960s but later rehabilitated by King Abdullah.
Prince Alwaleed is Rupert Murdoch’s business partner in Saudi Arabian media, and he has had business relations with the likes of Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. Moreover he has strong ties to Lyft, Citigroup, Twitter, and other major international corporations. The prince is also, by Saudi standards, a social liberal, giving prominent jobs to women having them work alongside men in his offices and studios. It is hard to imagine that his arrest and those of other prominent business executives will encourage the foreign investors and partners that MbS needs for his long-range economic plan known as Vision 2013.
Photo: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal