Earlier this year, King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia abruptly changed the order of succession, promoting his favorite son Mohammed bin Salman over the previous crown prince, Salman’s nephew Muhammed bin Nayaf. The new prince seemed to herald a victory of moderates over hardliners in the kingdom, raising hopes of improved human rights and personal liberty. Subsequent decrees allowing women to drive and for “the return to … moderate Islam” appeared to bear out that analysis.
A purge over the last few days suggests that the royal family has something much broader in mind — or perhaps much more narrow:
A campaign of mass arrests of Saudi Arabian royals, ministers and businessmen widened on Monday after a top entrepreneur was reportedly held in the biggest anti-corruption purge of the kingdom’s affluent elite in its modern history. …
The crackdown has drawn no public opposition within the kingdom either on the street or social media. Many ordinary Saudis applauded the arrests, the latest in a series of domestic and international moves asserting the prince’s authority.
But outside the kingdom, critics perceive the purge as a further sign of intolerance from a power-hungry leader keen to stop influential opponents blocking his economic reforms or reversing the expansion of his own political clout.
The New York Times reports that the royal family has planned this out for some time:
The Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, the de facto royal hotel, was evacuated on Saturday, stirring rumors that it would be used to house detained royals. The airport for private planes was closed, arousing speculation that the crown prince was seeking to block rich businessmen from fleeing before more arrests.
Well, if you have to endure forced detention, the Ritz Carlton isn’t the worst place imaginable. Saudi Royals might still consider that “roughing it,” in the same way that house arrest for Paul Manafort is a burden requiring relief. It could be worse — in fact, a lot worse; Zero Hedge links to Middle East media outlets that report two princes have been killed resisting arrest.
The Saudis have detained one of the richest men in the world in the dragnet, and he may have been the overall target:
Saudi Arabia announced the arrest on Saturday night of the prominent billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, plus at least 10 other princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers. …
He controls the investment firm Kingdom Holding and is one of the world’s richest men, owning or having owned major stakes in 21st Century Fox, Citigroup, Apple, Twitter and many other well-known companies. The prince also controls satellite television networks watched across the Arab world.
Is this reform, or is this simply a way for the new crown prince to consolidate power? The Washington Post’s Kareem Fahim reports that it could be both, but it looks more like the latter:
On Sunday, Saudi officials cast the arrests as the first shot in a battle against the country’s notorious and deeply rooted corruption, and as part of a broader effort by the country’s young and ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to refresh the stagnating Saudi state.
For others, though, the detentions seemed more like the continuation of a process that had been accelerating over the past two years: the ruthless consolidation of power by the crown prince before his father, King Salman, dies or abdicates the throne. That process — which included eliminating critics and rivals, but also elite figures who presided over independent power centers — amounted to a radical restructuring of the Saudi order, analysts said.
“Mohammed bin Salman wants to destroy the game of checks and balances that had characterized Saudi Arabia over the past few decades,” said Stéphane Lacroix, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris and the author of “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia.” The goal was “autocratic monarchy,” he said. “No fiefdoms that could counter his decisions.”
Bin Salman would need his father around to complete this process, and to avoid a power struggle later that could break out into open civil war. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of the end of The Godfather, although in this case, Michael is taking care of all family business up front.
However, that does not also mean that reform is not part of the point. As noted earlier, any effort aimed at “returning” Saudia Arabia to a status of “moderate Islam” would run into extremely heavy headwinds. (It also conflicts with a century of the history of the House of Saud, but that’s another issue altogether.) If bin Salman is serious about that kind of reform as a way to curtail radical Islamist terrorism, he’d have to conduct the same kind of purge, and perhaps purge the very same people.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi sounds a skeptical tone in his column at the Washington Post, comparing bin Salman to Vladimir Putin and the purge to the early Nazi destruction of their storm troopers in the Night of the Long Knives. If this truly is reform, Khashoggi calls on bin Salman to promote an independent media to provide true transparency:
Saudi royals view themselves as The Party, sharing power and ruling by consent, in an arrangement that is largely opaque. What is absolutely clear after Saturday’s “Night of the Long Knives” is that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is upending this arrangement and centralizing all power within his position as crown prince.
This purge comes on the heels of complete intolerance for even mild criticism of Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms, resulting in at least 70 arrests that have, unfortunately, garnered far less attention. Many of us living outside Saudi Arabia will not return home for fear of the same fate. Our families have been targeted instead. …
So while I applaud the public campaign to end corruption, I call on the Saudi media to assume a proactive role in encouraging impartial and transparent investigations as these corruption cases unfold. We Saudis deserve more than the spectacle of royals and officials interred at the Ritz Carlton. We also should have the right to speak about these important and impactful changes — and the many more needed to achieve the crown prince’s vision for our country.
We are a kingdom of silence no longer.
Don’t bet on it, at least not yet. Real reform still appears a long way off, but perhaps some of the ancillary benefits of this purge of hardliners will provide openings for it in the long term.