Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Markaz.
When Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the former head of the powerful Saudi National Guard, woke up last Saturday in his palace, he probably had no idea that by the end of the day he would be arrested and stripped of his position. Several other prominent princes, technocrats, and business tycoons were also arrested in an unprecedented purge.
The arrests, which have sent shockwaves through Saudi Arabia and the region, are the design of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as he seeks to establish a new political order. They send important signals to the country’s political and religious establishments, as well as its huge youth population—but can he pull off the power consolidation in the longer term?
Three Groups Targeted
On Saturday, King Salman decreed the creation of an anti-corruption committee to be headed by MBS, who made his move hours after the announcement. Broadly, those targeted can be divided into three broad categories.
First, 11 princes were arrested, including Mutaib bin Abdullah, his half brother Turki (the former governor of Riyadh), and business tycoon Alwaleed bin Talal. Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, son of the former crown prince and deputy governor of Asir Province, also died in a suspicious helicopter crash on the day following the arrests.
Second, technocrats and non-royal officials were also detained. These have so far included Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the powerful former head of King Abdullah’s court; Adel Fakieh, a former economy and planning minister; and Ibrahim Abdel Aziz al-Assaf, a former finance minister.
Third, businessmen and corporate leaders have also been rounded up. Among the most notable are Saleh Kamel, owner of the ART network and the Dallah al-Barakah group; Bakr Binladin, chairman of the Saudi Binladin Group; and Amr al-Dabbagh, CEO of al-Dabbagh Group.
Signals to Key Constituencies
The arrests of each of these broad groups are designed to send powerful signals to a number of key constituencies in the kingdom.
First, by targeting more senior and prominent princes, MBS is signaling to the House of Saud and its estimated 15,000 princes that the old, consensus-based order and previous power-sharing arrangements amongst the various branches of the ruling family is effectively over. In the new political order, power is to be consolidated in the office of the king and the crown prince. MBS has established control over all coercive arms of the state apparatus: the army, the police, and now the national guard. The message is clear: Kinship does not guarantee safety; fall in line or be purged.
The message is clear: Kinship does not guarantee safety; fall in line or be purged.
The arrest of technocrats and businessmen is a signal to the public and private sectors that no one is above reproach. Previously, non-royal administrators such as Khaled al-Tuwaijri were able to carve out considerable power for themselves, and to enrich themselves and their families on an unprecedented scale, becoming quasi-royals. Saudi businessmen, some of them former ministers like Amr al-Dabbagh, were also able to use their government contacts to win lucrative deals, sometimes in dubious circumstances. The message to this cadre is also clear: MBS will no longer tolerate technocrats and businessmen who think they are above the law. On a more practical note, the confiscation of assets of those arrested can inject the Saudi treasury with billions of dollars.
Naturally, there will be a selective application of anti-corruption and transparency laws, with the crown prince and his close entourage practically untouchable. The purchase of a $550 million yacht on a whim while on holidays in the south of France and other extravagant spending by MBS and King Salman does cast a shadow over the push for more transparency and accountability, in a country where speaking out could be dangerous. Last month, the authorities arrested 30 clerics, intellectuals, and activists in what Human Rights Watch described as a “crackdown on dissent.”
A Youthful Prince for a Youthful People
Finally, the arrests send a powerful signal to a key constituency for MBS: Saudi youth. Corruption in the kingdom has been a thorny issue for decades, and the arrests indicate MBS’s seriousness in (selectively) combatting it. Nearly half of the Saudi population is under 25, and youth unemployment is forecast to exceed 42 percent by 2030. According to the International Monetary Fund, job growth will not be able to keep up with the Saudi youth bulge.
MBS, who is 32 years old himself, understands that having buy-in from this key constituency will be key to achieving his ambitions. To Saudi youth, economic problems—including unemployment and corruption—and the kingdom’s social conservatism are key issues. The kingdom’s ambitious development plan—Saudi Vision 2030, inspired by a report from the McKinsey Global Institute—is an attempt to tackle those issues and more, albeit at a frenzied pace, and the ongoing crackdown continues that effort. So far, the arrests have already been met with approval from youth and the population at large.
So far, the arrests have already been met with approval from youth and the population at large.
A key challenge to MBS’s consolidation of power over the next decade will be the success or failure of Vision 2030 and the kingdom’s ongoing economic transformation. If he is able to deliver on his economic promises to the population, his popularity would strengthen him against any internal opposition. If his vision is not realized, dissatisfaction among the population may provide an opening by disenfranchised elites to challenge his rule.
The arrests of businessmen do not bode well for the investment climate of the kingdom, and can have a negative economic impact. Foreign investors will be very cautious about entering into commercial agreements with Saudi entities or businesspersons who may at any later stage fall out of favor and be prosecuted.
Facing Down the Religious Establishment
Besides the previous consensus-based order within the Saud family, the other political foundation of the kingdom is the alliance between the Al Saud clan and the Wahhabi clerics, who provided religious legitimacy to their rule. This pact is increasingly coming under strain. As part of the new emerging political order, MBS has shown his willingness to take on the religious establishment as he attempts to liberalize the kingdom socially and “return to moderate Islam,” as he put it.
The government has already limited the powers of the notorious religious police. It has also announced that women will soon be allowed to drive, and made more entertainment options available. As the government pushes these largely popular changes through, there could be blowback from the religious establishment, as well as more conservative elements of the population.
No Guts, No Glory
MBS has certainly shown a strong drive to tackle challenges head on. However, he has acted aggressively on a number of domestic and international fronts, which creates a danger of overreach. Internally, he has taken on the Saud clan, the religious establishment, and business leaders. Externally, the Saudi campaign in Yemen rages on, the spat with Qatar continues, and now there are indications that Hezbollah is also in MBS’s crosshairs. All this is occurring in conjunction with a historical attempt to recalibrate the Saudi economy. It will be increasingly challenging to tackle all these issues at the same time.
According to my colleague Bruce Riedel, the breakdown of consensus within the royal family is likely to create “a much less stable kingdom with increasingly impulsive and erratic policies.” While the arrests will help MBS consolidate power in the short term, they will create friction within the royal family, as well as among business elites, that is likely to flare up at a later stage. Should MBS succeed in taming his domestic and regional environment, he will reign over this new political order for decades to come. Should he not deliver, he is setting himself up for a failure of colossal proportions.