Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Repercussions of Saudi purge

What is behind Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia, asks Haitham Nouri


A video distributed by Yemen’s pro-Houthi Al-Masira television station shows what it says was the launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh’s King Khaled Airport last week (photo: Reuters)
A video distributed by Yemen’s pro-Houthi Al-Masira television station shows what it says was the launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh’s King Khaled Airport last week (photo: Reuters)

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The repercussions of the Saudi anti-corruption purge led by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman are still making the news headlines.

Observers monitoring the events, which have quickly become known as the “Saudi Game of Thrones”, are divided between proponents who regard the 33-year-old crown prince as a reformist on a fast track in a slow-paced kingdom and those who see him as wanting to control the game and be more occupied with Saudi Arabia’s conflict with its enemy Iran.

The division in opinion is not taking place only within the confines of Saudi Arabia, but extends to the international level. Every day the international media publishes articles and analyses about what is happening on the Arabian Peninsula.

“It’s only natural as Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading oil producer. What happens there affects the whole world,” said Said Al-Lawendi, an expert on international relations.

“But it is difficult to form a clear picture as the Saudi government’s position is shrouded in mystery. With a campaign this size to apprehend businessmen on corruption charges, there should have been more detailed information given out about the arrests. As a result, both local and regional observers are providing analysis that lacks crucial information,” he added.

Saudi Arabia arrested some 300 leading figures, including princes, ministers, former ministers and government officials last week. Many of them are being held in the luxury Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh pending further investigation.

The Saudi prosecutor-general announced that the money involved in these corruption cases could exceed a trillion Saudi riyals ($300 billion). The Anti-Corruption Committee formed by Bin Salman a few hours before the royal decree on the crackdown was issued said the defendants had squandered more than $100 billion in recent years.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudi government, led by Bin Salman, was aiming to collect $800 billion.

Adding to the mystery of the arrests was a statement from exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in which he said that Prince Al-Walid bin Talal, one of those arrested, had asked him to return to the kingdom because he was convinced by Bin Salman’s reformist projects.

Interpreting the crown prince’s actions, unprecedented in Saudi Arabia, Al-Lawendi said Bin Salman was likely to be “obsessed by the Saudi-Iranian conflict”.

“The crackdown on Saudi officials and the arrest campaign that preceded it targeting Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood clerics, in addition to the confusing situation regarding Lebanese prime minister [Saad Al-Hariri], can be traced back to the fixation on Iran,” he said.

Al-Hariri resigned last week as Lebanon’s prime minister in a television statement from Riyadh in a move that went against Lebanese constitutional norms that dictate that such a resignation should be presented in written form to the president.

Al-Hariri’s move raised fears in Beirut that the leader of the Lebanese Sunni sect may be under house arrest in Saudi Arabia.

While the anti-corruption campaign was going on in Saudi Arabia, the Arab Coalition led by Riyadh closed all Yemeni sea, air and land ports, a decision which the United Nations said could risk the lives of millions on the brink of famine.

International rights groups have accused Riyadh and the Arab Coalition, together with their enemies the Houthi rebels in Yemen that Saudi Arabia accuses of being supported by Iran, of being behind the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, including the growing famine and cholera outbreaks.

“Riyadh under the leadership of Bin Salman is responsible for what is happening in Yemen,” Al-Lawendi said. He added that the Saudi crown prince’s moves were “hasty and lacking in the experience previous rulers enjoyed”.

Saudi commentator Anwar Eshqi disagreed, saying that Bin Salman was “a reformist who moves quickly. The kingdom is in need of this speed.”

He said that “70 per cent of Saudis are below the age of 35, and they belong to the same age bracket as the crown prince. This is the source of his popularity, and this is a generation that wants to see quick, strong and radical reform.”

Western media reports also say that Bin Salman is popular among the kingdom’s young people, of whom 25 per cent are unemployed, according to Khashoggi. Some 12 per cent of the unemployed hold university degrees.

“I don’t deny that there is a conflict with Iran, but this has nothing to do with developments on the local front which aim to uphold the rule of law and reassure world financial markets that Riyadh does not tolerate corruption,” Eshqi said.

Turki Sl-Hamad, a Saudi professor of political science, tweeted that “the corrupt don’t care if the state rises or falls as long as they maintain their luxurious lifestyles. Citizens whose futures are tied to that of the state care about its strength. Don’t show them any mercy, crown prince,” he wrote.

In another tweet, Al-Hamad wrote that “I was asked whether I was a supporter of the regime. I said I don’t oppose the regime, only its practices. But today I am enchanted by its practices.”

Khashoggi said Prince “Al-Walid bin Talal asked me to return to Saudi Arabia… but I will not return until I am certain I will not be arrested.” Eshqi, close to decision-making circles in Riyadh, denied that Al-Hariri was being held against his will in Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with the Lebanese Al-Mostakbal TV channel, which is owned by Al-Hariri, Eshqi said that Al-Hariri was “free to move” and that he would return to Lebanon to present his resignation “according to constitutional norms” and “have a long conversation with Lebanese President [Michel Aoun].”

However, others, including Khashoggi, think that Al-Hariri could be held in Saudi Arabia on corruption charges. He tweeted that “it is not possible to go after a major Saudi company like Bin Laden Construction and leave another one alone like Saudi Oger,” a company whose chairman is Al-Hariri.

But Iran is still widely perceived as a threat among many Saudis, and this may explain Bin Salman’s actions. Al-Hamad wrote on Twitter that “if the head of the Iranian octopus is hit, its arms will automatically disappear.”

Riyadh has accused Tehran of supporting the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, which Riyadh has accused of war crimes in their support for the Iraqi army during the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

It says Tehran is behind Hizbullah, currently the strongest political faction in Lebanon, in addition to the Houthi rebels in Yemen and President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

“We cannot stand by in silence in the face of Iranian meddling in Arab affairs, especially those of the Gulf,” Eshqi said.

“Saudi Arabia is not responsible for what is taking place in Yemen. When mistakes are made, we investigate them. We do not tolerate mistakes, whether locally or abroad, and whether they are economic, political or military,” he added.

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