Within hours of a decree by the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Saturday announcing the constitution of a new committee to combat corruption under the chairmanship of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), an unprecedented purge of top establishment figures unfolded, signaling a pre-meditated political move against dissenters and opponents.
The purge involves the sacking and/or detention of dozens of princes, ministers and former ministers. Several senior ministers, including those in charge of the kingdom’s National Guard, economy, and planning have been dismissed.
Notably, billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is among those detained. The security forces grounded private jets in Jeddah to stop any high-profile figures from leaving the country.
King Salman’s decree invests the new anti-corruption committee with draconian powers. The decree says that the anti-corruption committee shall be exempted from “laws, regulations, instructions, orders and decisions”, while performing its task of identifying “offenses, crimes, persons and entities involved in cases of public corruption.”
It empowers MBS to issue “arrest warrants, travel ban, disclosure and freezing of accounts and portfolios, tracking of funds, assets” as well as take “precautionary measures”.
Corruption is synonymous with oligarchies and the House of Saud is no exception. The Saudi way is traditionally to throw money at problems. A purge was seldom if ever needed to tame critics and opponents. But these are extraordinary times.
The great succession question in Saudi Arabia hangs heavily like a cloud. Make no mistake that Saturday’s purge signifies another step in the no-holds-barred attempt by the 32-year-old Crown Prince for consolidating absolute political power and paving the way for his ascension as the next ruler. MBS has been systematically moving against elites who could be rival power centres when the time for succession arrives.
An intriguing twist to the tale lies in the recent speech by MBS at a ceremony launching a $500 billion project on the Red Sea where he vowed to “destroy extremism” and return to a “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” MBS was addressing an international audience and the speech was patently an attempt to give a new face of Saudi Arabia under his pet project known as Vision 2030.
MBS probably also aimed at the Western world by pressing all the buttons that the West may like to hear pushed about entrepreneurship, liberalism and moderate Islam. However, fundamentally, Saudi Arabia is in transition and MBS is responding to the clamor for reform and change.
When establishment figures like the noted journalist Jamal Khashoggi go into exile in the West to be able to voice liberal opinions, a nadir is reached. Indeed, such times of transition in an autocratic system are always fraught with danger as the regime, which is loathe to let go, gropes in the dark for want of precedent. Iran and the Soviet Union are glaring examples.
There is indeed a serious contradiction insofar as the Saudi royal family has traditionally depended on the backing from the ultra-conservative religious establishment to ensure its claim to legitimacy, while under MBS’s watch during the recent months, the regime has begun implementing unprecedented economic and social reforms that might potentially undermine the regime’s deeply conservative power base.
Kashoggi told Deutsche Welle last week, “It is hard to disown Wahhabism… it is the basis on which the Kingdom was built.” Wahhabism created a hard-line Salafi current that has been the life force of the Saudi regime for decades. Saudi Arabia needs to be freed from this approach.
Paradoxically, MBS’ incipient social and economic reforms enjoy a significant level of popular support. (The crackdown on corruption is guaranteed to be a hugely popular move.) Equally, it is improbable that the hardliners who oppose reforms are in a position to block him. Therefore, ideally, MBS’ choice narrows down to introducing modern Islamic ideas without having to openly disown Wahhabism. But then, it sounds easier said than done.
What is needed is, perhaps, a Saudi-style “cultural revolution” where ideology and reform become the leitmotif of what is at core a calibration of the calculus of political power. Through liberalizing rhetoric, MBS is engaging the West and appeasing ordinary Saudis (and even sections of conservative clerics), while on the other hand also consolidating his and his father’s power by removing opposition voices. Arguably, they form two sides of the same coin.
Nonetheless, this is going to be a tricky trapeze act – although MBS already controls the key security organs. It is also a high stakes game for the outside world, since there is a foreign-policy angle to all this, which will impact regional and international security.
Principally, MBS cannot do without American backing. (The former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif, a rival to MBS who was ousted earlier this year, used to be Washington’s favorite.) He has made sure that he enjoys great access to the Trump administration. This will mean that the US-Saudi axis will continue to modulate regional politics for a foreseeable future.
The added feature will be an increasingly overt US-Saudi-Israeli axis. Curiously, this is also a political requirement for MBS to assert his leadership of the GCC system while sealing the succession issue in his favor.
The exit of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Saturday is itself a telling evidence of the acceleration of the US-Saudi-Israeli congruence. A relatively stable set-up in Beirut (involving co-habitation between Hariri and Hezbollah), which acquitted itself remarkably well in the war against terrorist groups, has been suddenly thrown into disarray.
What follows next in Lebanon dovetails into the US-Israeli strategy toward post-ISIS Syria and Iraq where the balance of forces currently appears to favor Iran. A hurried trip to Beirut at the eleventh hour by Ali Abkar Velayati, the influential advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, failed to dissuade Hariri from taking the extreme step.
Interestingly, Hariri announced his resignation on Saturday in a speech broadcast from Saudi Arabia following a meeting with MBS.