After decades of meticulously upholding a tradition largely favouring the Royal House of Saud, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a ‘purge’; and very rapidly. November 4th marked the first, of now 208 arrests, of some of the most prominent Saudi Arabian billionaires, including princes and government ministers, on charges of corruption and embezzlement. For almost eighty years, the Al Saud clan distributed power and wealth amongst themselves, ensuring their survival, and keeping internal rivalries to a minimum. The sudden emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his ruthless resolve for change shook this delicately crafted system, spreading confusion and panic throughout the family. The Saudi Arabia we once knew, a country plagued with extremism, inaction, and vigilant leaders, seems to be coming to an end.
In a bid to diversify revenues and strengthen the economy, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to free up the Saudi economy from the oil sector, making Saudi Arabia appealing and inviting to foreign businessmen and investors while ridding it of corruption. Accordingly, the Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee was created to crack down on corruption and reclaim a suspected $100 billion USD of embezzled public funds mere hours before the arrests.
However, most people are skeptical about the true motives behind these arrests; Prince Salman’s entire rhetoric of reclaiming Saudi Arabia and moderating its society for the people is predictably molded to attract the majority, which happen to be Saudi youth. Unsurprisingly, the corruption sweep, like the decree passed granting Saudi women the right to drive, was met with widespread support from the disillusioned, yet positive and change-driven youth. With the Arab Spring still raging in some parts of the Middle East, gaining the admiration and support of the disappointed and unemployed youth is the first step of the Prince’s attempt to consolidate power.
Analysts argue that the crackdown is a strategic tactic to centralize power and defeat potential opposition. The plot started months earlier with the ousting of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef from the line of succession to the throne and from his post as interior minister. It was then rejuvenated on the eve of November 4th, with the removal and detainment of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the head of the Saudi National Guard, which is an armed force dedicated to protecting the Royal family. Targeting Prince Mutaib is a clear sign that there was an attempt to consolidate power and minimize opposition—especially as the national guard could have kept him in check. Additionally, among the arrested are dozens of conservative religious clerics, who formerly had a strong influence on public policies. He plans to strip them of any tangible power, and transform their status into a mere cultural and religious force. Consequently, he now has, or very soon will have, full control over Saudi’s economy, armed forces, and internal and foreign policies.
Economically, the implications remain uncertain. While oil prices surged and reached a two-year high—as prices typically do following instability in the Middle East—analysts argue that fear of arrest will likely deter foreign investors. Realistically, the outcome depends on how the Saudi government acts in the following few months. If the promised economic reforms are implemented, opening up new opportunities, the heat might die down, and the new regime could attract foreign interest. Regardless, a lot of changes have yet to be implemented to truly free up Saudi’s economy.
Domestically, these arrests may result in a backlash from the country’s elite, but the effectiveness of such a backlash can only be determined as developments pan out. It is possible that the opposition could muster up enough internal support to overthrow Prince Mohammed, but his careful and tight hold on power is a major obstacle against such an initiative. Unless the blow is quick and severe, it is unlikely to be successful.
The anti-corruption sweep is not an isolated incident and should be interpreted within the context of the entire region. The charismatic and risk-taking crown prince claims to want to bring back a moderate Saudi Arabia—and Islam—by battling extremist ideology and terrorism at home and in the Middle East. To achieve this, he is being more assertive and aggressive with Iran—seemingly the source of the region’s ‘recent’ hardline and ultra-conservative society. However, Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran goes way past extremism and ideology; Saudi Arabia aspires to take its place as ‘the hub connecting three continents’. That is, achieving regional power and defeating Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East.
His foreign and defense policies are as, if not more, aggressive than his domestic policies. By cutting off ties with Qatar—cold turkey—Saudi Arabia destabilized and damaged a longstanding diplomatic, economic, cultural, and political alliance beneficial to all GCC countries. Additionally, the proxy wars with Iran in more than one country (i.e. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon), have seriously damaged its reputation and undermined the already fragile stability of the entire region. Along with the domestic unrest, these drastic and severe actions, in a dangerously short period of time, have already resulted in damaging repercussions—fortunately, noted by the young prince.
Following the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia attempted to de-escalate tensions by reopening airports and seaports in Yemen, despite the interception of the Houthi ballistic missile attack on Riyadh’s airport. This indicates that Saudi Arabia is not insensitive to regional reactions, providing a glimmer of hope for the de-escalation of tensions. Again, how this pans out largely depends on the Prince’s next moves. While unlikely and farfetched, should he play his cards meticulously as he did internally, then there might be hope for a Middle East with two regional powers and a less radicalized region. Prince Mohammed bin Salman might be the leader Saudi Arabia and the Middle East needs, whether directly or indirectly.