Analysis

An Ambitious Heir and a Bitter Family Feud Are Shaking Up Saudi Arabia

The arrest of some of the kingdom’s richest officials, ostensibly for corruption, is a pretext for clearing the crown prince’s ruthless path to power

In this Wednesday, June 21 , 2017 photo, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, kisses the hand of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef at the royal palace in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The surprise dismissal and arrest of dozens of ministers, royals, officials and senior military officers by the crown prince on November 4, 2017, is unprecedented.
Al-Ekhbariya via AP,

Will the Saudi crown prince make do with the arrest of 11 wealthy political rivals or does this herald the first steps in a move that will culminate in crowning Mohammed bin Salman king? Is the timing of the arrests related to a sudden surge of morality intended to wipe clean corruption in the kingdom, or does it stem from a sense of urgency to bring about regime change while the king is still alive?

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This shake-up, the results of which are still hard to predict, is the outcome of a process that beganright after the coronation of King Salman in 2015 and was accompanied from the start by a wholesale ousting of loyalists to the late King Abdullah. The 82-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is the last of the “Sudairi Seven” – the seven brothers intended to inherit the monarchy, the offspring of King Abdul Aziz and Hussa el-Sudairi. (Ahmed, the other living brother, was booted off the list of candidates for the throne in 2014.) The throne is now to pass to the next generation, which is crowded with candidates, some of them rivals of Mohammed bin Salman and others who don’t consider themselves in the running or have no chance. In June, King Salman ousted the most serious rival, Mohammed bin Nayef, who in 2015 had been appointed crown prince. The king appointed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince instead. According to reports, denied in Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef was arrested or had been placed under house arrest. Now all that remains is to ensure no one undermines the smooth transition of power from father to son.

The list of those arrested attests to careful selection of rivals from the highest economic and political circles, like prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who is considered the richest man in the coterie, or Salah Kamel, whose name is frequently included among the world’s wealthiest people and who publicly threw his support behind Syrian President Bashar Assad, or Khaled a-Tawijeri, who was the chief of the royal court in King Abdullah’s time and was ousted around the time of King Salman’s coronation.

Also under arrest because they are considered part of a rival faction are Mutaib bin Abdullah, King Abdullah’s son, who was commander of the National Guard and opposed Salman’s policy in Yemen and Syria, and Prince Turki bin Abdullah, another son of King Abdullah’s who was governor of Riyadh.

The Saudi purge: Detained officials

Some of these figures did not hesitate to criticize the king and his son for their foreign policy, which failed time and time again. The war in Yemen is far from reaching a decisive end, with the Saudi army deep in the Yemenite mud. The Saudis lost control of crisis management in Syria and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars bestowed on certain militias, Riyadh has been unable to topple Assad. The deep rift with Qatar and the sanctions imposed on it by Saudi Arabia, joined by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrein and Egypt, now seem like a serious diplomatic error that led to a split in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and effected no change in Qatar’s policies. Mohammed’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also not borne fruit so far. Forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign was a desperate Saudi move that is unlikely to achieve its goal of spawning chaos in Lebanon in order to disrupt Iran’s attempts to manage the country. It seems that close cooperation with President Donald Trump is the only achievement of which the kingdom can boast.

It’s possible that drunk with power and lacking political experience, the 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman will be tempted to use the kingdom’s raw power, as opposed to the behind-the-scenes diplomacy typical of King Abdullah’s reign. To the prince’s show of strength can be added showy projects, such as “Saudi Vision 2030,” which predicts huge economic growth, variegating financial resources and reducing dependence on oil, or the plan to establish the city of the future as part of the NEUM project, at an investment of $500 billion to $ 1 trillion.

These all create the impression of a country marching toward the future, but where will the workers come from to build these projects? Saudi Arabia is very rich, with foreign currency reserves estimated at about $700 billion, but it depends not only on oil but on some 10 million foreign workers. On the one hand, the government announced an ambitious plan to reduce the number of foreigners and on the other, it wants grandiose projects without a skilled local workforce. That’s just one example of the gap between decisions and implementation.

The new Economy and Planning Minister, Mohammad al-Tuwaijri, right and the new National Guard chief, Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, left, with King Salman during a swearing in ceremony, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 6, 2017.
/AP

The war on corruption, which provided the pretext for the recent arrests, has chalked up no real achievements so far. That’s because in Saudi Arabia, corruption is built in and not limited to the wealthiest people in the country. The bureaucracy demands payment under the table, importers and exporters must channel money to those who grant them permits, connections with the rulers to obtain tax breaks cost money, good grades in school or university are reserved mainly for the well-connected, as are government jobs that promise a fair wage and a pension but don’t require real work. There’s not much point in holding our breath in anticipation of a corruption-free kingdom.