Saudi Crown Prince's unprecedented shakeup changes Kingdom

Arrest of numerous princes and businessmen in corruption probe aims to consolidate power and remake country, experts say.

Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal attends a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia August 30, 2009.  (photo credit: FAHAD SHADEED/ REUTERS/ FILE PHOTO)
Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal attends a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia August 30, 2009.
Saudi Arabia has placed itself front and center of the news in the Middle East. First the country enabled former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to make his momentous resignation from Riyadh. Now a swath of senior princes and officials have been rounded up with allegations of corruption. Amidst the momentous news, a missile was also fired from Yemen at the capital city’s airport Saturday night.
Foremost among the potentates carted off in Saudi’s anti-corruption probe is Al-Waleed bin Talal, a prince whose vast holdings include a web of the most important media and financial groups in the United States: Twitter, News Corp, 21st Century Fox and Citigroup. A dozen other princes, and businessmen have been arrested as well.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies says that charges are also part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)’s attempt to reshape the Saudi government in his own image. “MBS is looking to bring in new blood, fresh thinking and younger leadership to bring the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into the modern era,” says Schanzer. He argues that “these corruption charges appear to be one part of that effort.” MBS, who was born in 1985 and is the eldest son of King Salman, has been crown prince since June 2017. Since 2015 he has been Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia. When he was appointed to that role at age 29 he was the youngest defense minister in the world.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, says the attempt to consolidate power is unprecedented and could also be dangerous for the Kingdom. “Israelis and the establishment [in Israel] I assume look favorably on the foreign policy that MBS initiated. We like his boldness and activity and aggressiveness against Iran and against Iran proxies in Yemen etc.” However while his conduct against Iran is welcomed, there is a potential downside. “I’m not so sure if what is going on inside Saudi reassures Israelis. In the long run any instability or conflict inside the palace can affect the tacit relations behind closed doors. Any damage to Saudi regional status is not something that Israel would be happy about because of the shared interests between the countries.” Before the shakeup, MBS had carved out a niche as a reformer looking to the future. He supported privatization and changes in Saudi Arabia that would affect health care, education and military sectors of the economy, according to a profile in Egypt Today. He has also supported the potential massive IPO of ARAMCO and been outspoken on bringing women into the economy. US President Donald Trump has reportedly welcomed the listing of Aramco on US stock exchanges, part of Trump’s overall policy to work closely with the Saudis on numerous regional issues. The Crown Prince is also involved in other reforms. In September the Kingdom announced the women would begin to receive the right to drive a car.
The overall picture of the shakeup in Saudi Arabia is that if affects numerous high profile people. According to a list tweeted by policy analyst and visiting Professor at the University of Miami Rula Jebreal, it includes Prince Mitaib bin Abdullah, Minister of the National Guard, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former Governor of Riyadh and Khaled Al-Tuwaijri, former President of the Royal Court, as well as a raft of other former ministers of labor and finance, chiefs of the investment authority, a former head of Saudi Arabian airlines and the CEO of the Bin Ladin Group and Saudi Telecom. According to The Daily Sabah in Turkey, the arrests include the heads of three state-owned TV networks. At least two of those arrested are sons of the late King Abdullah who died in 2015. Those detained range in age from 47 to 67 years old.
Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya presents the arrests as a widespread anti-corruption campaign. It says that Mohammed Bin Salman’s new “anti-corruption committee” has sweeping powers to “investigate, arrest, ban from travel, freeze accounts and portfolios, track funds and assets of individuals.” In addition the reporting seeks to link those arrests to the floods that affected Jeddah in 2009 and responses to a health crisis. The Kingdom highlights this as a clear indication that “no one is above the law.” Another Saudi news outlet described the Crown Prince's actions as a “war against corruption.” The hashtag “king fights corruption” is now trending.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, was quoted in Daily Sabah saying that MBS is setting his sights to remain in power for decades. He is “remaking the kingdom in his own image and signaling a potentially significant move away from the consensual balancing of competing interests that characterized Saudi rule in the past.” Ian Black at the London School of Economics told Al-Jazeera a similar message. “Since Mohammed bin Salman became the crown prince in June, we’ve seen a lot of upheaval. We’ve seen the announcement of this very ambitious Saudi plan to transform the Saudi economy, [called] Vision 2030.”
Saudi Arabia’s actions do not come in a vacuum. It is part of a larger alliance with the gulf states and Egypt. The United Arab Emirates has said it stands firmly with the Saudis, although its comments don’t clearly reference the arrests, but rather the Yemenite missile. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed said that foreign hands “will not undermine the resolve of our brothers in the Kingdom.”