Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

All eyes on Saudi Arabia

Unprecedented changes sweep the Saudi kingdom, writes Haitham Nouri


All eyes on Saudi Arabia
All eyes on Saudi Arabia

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Is Saudi Arabia really the “kingdom of mystery” as some pretend, or are recent events in Riyadh normal for a “reformist prince in a hurry” as one Western observer has described the country’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman?

On 4 November and on the orders of Saudi King Salman, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah was removed from his post as head of the country’s National Guard and replaced by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf. Mohamed Al-Tuwaijri replaced former minister of economy and planning Adel Al-Fakieh, who had been instrumental in formulating the crown prince’s economic reforms, and Fahd Al-Ghofaili replaced former commander of the Saudi Navy Abdullah Al-Sultan.

In tandem with these three sets of dismissals and appointments, the Saudi monarch decreed the creation of an anti-corruption committee headed by his son the crown prince. Within a matter of hours that same Saturday night there were reports of sweeping arrests that included 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers and officials in a country in which members of the royal family have long been above public accountability.

International news agencies have placed the number of detainees so far at 49, though the number is likely to increase.

According to some observers, the arrests are designed to further smooth the young crown prince’s eventual succession to the throne.

“As a leader who is set to remain in power for decades, Mohamed bin Salman is remaking the kingdom in his own image and signalling a potentially significant move away from the consensual balancing of competing interests that characterised Saudi rule in the past,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Crown Prince Mohamed has put forward ambitious economic and social changes, from permitting women to drive and mix with men in sports stadiums, to selling off a part of the kingdom’s key asset, Aramco Oil Company, to challenging the ideology of the Wahhabi clerics. He has spoken of a more modern Saudi Arabia to “return to a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world”. 

Moreover, the crackd=own might not only consolidate Prince Mohamed’s power but it has also sent a clear warning to much of the traditional business establishment.

Among the arrested are Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, accused of awarding major construction contracts to his own companies, and his brother Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a former governor of Riyadh, accused of embezzlement through the Riyadh Metro project. Both princes are sons of the previous Saudi monarch king Abdullah who passed away in January 2015.

Also arrested was Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohamed, former deputy commander of the Saudi Air Force and the main Saudi negotiator in the Yamamah arms deal with the UK.

From the world of business and finance, the list of those arrested includes Prince Al-Walid bin Talal (the richest Arab in the world, according to the US magazine Forbes), who was charged with money laundering, Saleh Kamel, founder of the Islamic Bank and another prominent tycoon, along with two of his sons (they were charged with bribery), and Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the Saudi Bin Laden Group, one of the largest construction and contracting firms in the Arab region.

Al-Walid bin Talal’s investment company Kingdom Holdings fell by 10 per cent on Sunday, the day after his arrest. The business magnate holds shares in some of the world’s top multinationals, such as Amazon and Twitter, and he owns the Four Seasons hotel chain and a number of television stations. In 2016, Forbes estimated his total wealth at $17 billion.

Other influential persons caught up in the purge are Walid Ibrahim, owner of the TV network MBC, former finance minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf (charged with embezzlement in the Haram Al-Sharif expansion project in Mecca), former economy and planning minister Adel Al-Fakieh (facing charges in connection with the Jeddah floods disaster of 2009), former director-general of Saudi Airlines Khaled Mulhem, and the former chief of the royal court Khaled Al-Tuwaijri (charged with accepting bribes).

Former officials, such as the former governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (fraud and embezzlement) and the former head of protocol at the royal court (abuse of office), were also arrested.

Citing an anonymous source, the French Press Agency (AFP) reported that Saudi security forces had grounded private aircraft at Jeddah airport in order to prevent suspects from fleeing the country. According to the Saudi Arabian daily Okaz, Interpol is on the lookout for businessmen who had been tried and found guilty in connection with the Jeddah floods disaster in 2009.

It has been estimated that some 60 million riyals have been paid in bribes to Jeddah municipality officials in plans to expand the city’s suburbs. Some of those arrested are alleged to have used bank accounts of some of their family members to evade suspicions of wrongdoing. Others are reported to have millions of riyals in cash stashed in their homes or offices.

On Monday, two more prominent individuals were added to the list of figures swept up in the corruption probe: Nasser bin Aqeel Al-Tayyar, founder of one of the country’s largest travel companies, Al-Tayyar Travel, and former president of Al-Ittihad Sporting Club Sheikh Mansour Al-Balawi.

The Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television station reported that the authorities in Riyadh would freeze the bank accounts of those accused of corruption and that if proven guilty these assets would revert to the national treasury.

According to Saudi news sources, the demands for misappropriated public funds could come to as much as 1.2 trillion riyals, while other estimates place the figure as high as two or even three billion riyals. The Saudi authorities have furnished no estimates of the overall amount of corruption in the country or even the amounts involved in the cases being investigated by the recently formed anti-corruption committee. According to the royal decree establishing it, this has broad powers to summon, investigate, arrest, impose travel bans and freeze assets.

Analysts believe that the young crown prince’s actions are supported by a broad segment of Saudi young people who make up a large proportion of the kingdom’s population. According to Saudi journalist Iman Al-Hammoud, he is in a strong position for two reasons: “the first is the unpopularity of the persons arrested on corruption charges, and the second is the prince’s popularity among important segments of the Saudi public,” she said on Radio Monte Carlo.

For his part, Mohamed Idris, a Gulf affairs specialist, said “Mohamed bin Salman has huge support in the country, regardless of the reservations of conservatives and members of the older generations.” 

However, he added that the corruption purges were a purely local concern and “have no bearing on Riyadh’s regional or international actions”.

BBC security affairs editor Frank Gardner and commentators in the US New York Times, the UK Guardian and other Western newspapers agreed.

The scale of the crackdown is unprecedented. “These measures are the largest of their kind ever in Saudi Arabia,” said Idris. “They extend to the wealthiest princes, such as Al-Walid bin Talal, and to the most powerful princes, such as National Guard head Mutaib bin Abdullah.”

However, Idris does not believe that the intention behind them is a gambit to consolidate power. “The measures also included ministers and businessmen outside the royal family. It is inconceivable that businessmen or ministers from outside the royal family could pose any competition to the crown prince, who enjoys widespread popularity among young people. Therefore, we cannot see the measures as a means to eliminate bin Salman’s competitors.”

“Instead, this could be a message to international investors, telling them that the kingdom will not tolerate corruption regardless of who commits it. This is the subject of the second message, which is addressed domestically and to everyone who has hidden behind their family members or used their positions to acquire illegitimate wealth.”

Journalist Patrick Wintour of the UK Guardian wondered whether the young reformist crown prince was “taking on too much too fast” and whether he was manoeuvring to monopolise control over the world’s foremost oil producer. 

Idris said that “Bin Salman’s steps aim to restore money acquired through corruption to the national treasury, to reassure investors, and to inaugurate a new era of regulation” in Saudi Arabia.

Of the death of prince Mansour bin Muqrin, deputy governor of the Saudi Asir Province, in a plane crash last week, Idris said that “the plane might have been targeted by a missile from Yemen, or the crash could have been due to a technical flaw or to weather conditions. Aeronautics engineers will find out in due course.”

The Saudi Press Agency had reported that air control officials had lost contact with the plane carrying bin Muqrin and other officials while it was flying over the Rida Nature Reserve in Asir. Prince Mansour was the son of former crown prince Muqrin bin Abdel-Aziz.

In a separate development, the Saudi Air Force intercepted a missile from Yemen that reportedly targeted Riyadh Airport on Friday. Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for firing the ballistic missile.

Riyadh called the attempted missile attack an “act of war” by Iran and vowed to retaliate. The crown prince said on Tuesday that Iran’s decision to supply rockets to militias in Yemen constitutes a “direct military aggression” against the kingdom and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir told CNN that “the attack was an act of war. Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi responded by calling the accusations “false, irresponsible, destructive and provocative,” according to the Iranian news agency Tasnim.

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