Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has won the first round of what could prove to be an unprecedented power grab that comes to haunt him. The prince’s frontal assault on significant segments of the kingdom’s elite; assertions of unease in the military and the national guard, and the expansion to Lebanon of the kingdom’s proxy war with Iran suggest that there could be a tail end.
There is little doubt that Prince Mohammed is in firm control for now. However, there is also little doubt that many in the kingdom’s elite are licking their wounds and that the crown prince believes that bold action, crackdowns, and repression is the best way of ensuring that he retains increasingly absolute power.
There is equally little doubt that the prince sees the Trump administration’s tougher stand on Iran as a window of opportunity to turn the tide in what has been a four-decades-long proxy war with the Islamic Republic of Iran in the kingdom’s favor.
Criticism and potential opposition to Prince Mohammed’s reform plans and style of governing ranges from those that feel shut out of the corridors of power to those who see their vested interests threatened by his reforms and actions; the war in Yemen, the Gulf crisis that pits the Kingdom and some of its allies against Qatar, his putting limits on ultra-conservative social codes, his power-hungry, autocratic style, and ultra-conservatives who oppose social liberalization.
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Al Saud & Wahabi Clergy Power-Sharing Agreement?
Prince Mohammed’s reform plans, articulated in a document entitled Vision 2030, challenge the power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al Saud family and the ultra-conservative religious establishment on which the kingdom was founded, the consensus-based decision-making process within the family, social codes that are rooted in Bedouin tradition and an ultra-conservative strand of Islam, and these amount to a unilateral rewriting of the social contract in which the population was pampered by a cradle-to-grave state in exchange for the surrender of political rights and adherence to restrictive social norms.
Future of Desert Kingdom: Legitimacy through Reforms
Restructuring, if not abolishing, of the agreement, may be long overdue but remains politically risky. The agreement gave the ruling family the kind of religious legitimacy no other Gulf ruler has possessed.
It allowed the family to fall back on the ultra-conservative establishment in times of crisis like in 1979 when after the Iranian revolution and the attack by militants on the Ka’aba, the government gave the conservative establishment greater sway over education and social life in its bid to shore up its own religious credentials.
Going forward, the Al Sauds’ legitimacy will have to stem from their ability to provide goods and services or in other words from the success of Prince Mohammed’s planned reforms as well as his ability to win his multiple regional battles. So far Prince Mohammed’s track record on reforms is mixed; with the lifting of a ban on women’s driving perhaps his biggest success.
There is also little doubt that many in the kingdom’s elite are licking their wounds and that the crown prince believes that bold action, crackdowns and repression is the best way of ensuring that he retains increasingly absolute power.
By and large, however, he has yet to deliver on the economic reforms that will make or break him. His regional track record is dismal with his ill-fated war in Yemen, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the ascendancy six years into a war in which the kingdom supported rebel groups, increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, and Lebanon teetering on the brink.
The reforms were designed to take the Saudi economy and the kingdom’s autocracy into the 21st century in a bid to secure the ruling family’s grip on power. In other words, the reforms sought to prepare Saudi Arabia for a post-oil era through diversification and streamlining, and introducing social reforms necessary for economic change.
Social reforms would also satisfy aspirations of a population – of which more than half is under the age of 30. Political change was not part of Prince Mohammed’s vision, and if anything, political control has been tightened.
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Purge against Corruption or Power & Asset Grab?
Many in the kingdom saw merit in the reforms. Youth yearned for greater freedom and recreational and economic opportunities. Businessmen saw an opportunity while activists envisioned change. The kingdom’s religious establishment, although critical of the social reforms and curbs on its power to enforce ultra-conservative norms, backed Prince Mohammed in a bid to salvage whatever influence it could.
Various grandsons of King Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s founder, resented Prince Mohammed’s mercurial rise and almost unprecedented powers. Nonetheless, potential threats are rooted less in the fact that Prince Mohammed is in a position of near-absolute power or the difficult nature of the reforms.
These threats are primarily grounded in his insistence on being exclusive rather than inclusive in his approach: his failure to manage expectations; his top-down execution and naïve belief that change can be imposed through repression and a stroke of the pen; and a perception that he is impetuous, impulsive and a gambler.
Prince Mohammed’s most recent purge of the kingdom’s elite is a case in point. Corruption and concepts of conflict of interest were embedded in the kingdom’s DNA from the day it was founded.
Rooted in a system that until the late 1950s made no distinction between the budgets of the state and the ruling family, Saudi laws still only barely delineate the dividing lines between them and contain nothing that would amount to a code to prevent conflict of interest or regulate the way members of the ruling family do business with the state.
Reinforcing the perception of a power grab, is the fact that Prince Mohammed has used the purge to control the narrative domestically as well as across the Arab world by including the kingdom’s media moguls in the purge.
In fact, business deals often amount to insider baseball in a country in which the family’s finances and sources of revenue are closely held secret. In fact, if revealed, the Fortune 500 billionaire’s list could well look very different given that it would be populated by many more Saudis.
Life magazine editor Noel F. Bush on a visit in 1943 during which he traveled in the country with its first king, Ibn Saud, portrayed a ruler who operated on the principle of ‘the state is mine’ and doled out welfare to his subjects. It is a system that has since repeatedly been upgraded but whose fundaments remain in place.
Members of the ruling family and associated businessmen initially often made their money by representing foreign companies and receiving huge commissions on government contracts.
They often took loans from banks which they failed to pay back. National Commercial Bank, where numbered accounts of princes were managed by senior management, nearly collapsed at the beginning of this century because of unpaid loans.
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“Our unemployment rate would drop rather significantly if the billions we squandered on kickbacks and lavish personal enrichment schemes dressed up as public-works projects were spent instead on the development of small to medium enterprises, vocational training, and 21st-century education reforms…
In Saudi Arabia, senior officials and princes become billionaires as contracts are either enormously inflated or, at worst, a complete mirage,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who recently moved to the United States in anticipation of the crown prince’s crackdowns, in a contribution to The Washington Post.
Mr. Khashoggi cited the example of an airport built “in the wrong location simply to benefit the princes who own the land. They received the land for free from the government and then got extravagant compensation for the property.”
What makes Prince Mohammed’s selective purge look more like a power and asset grab than an anti-corruption campaign is the fact that there is no effort to introduce legal and regulatory codes and no element of due process.
The purge’s projection as an effort to root out corruption would have garnered greater credibility had it involved transparency, lived up to Prince Mohammed’s vow that all are equal under the law, and tackled corruption structurally rather than punitively.
Little wonder that Prince Mohammed’s purge struck a popular code among a population long upset with the ruling family’s privileges and corrupt practices.
Similarly, it’s no surprise that the elite that includes Prince Mohammed and his closest relatives was caught by surprise. They were all part of a system and a way of doing business that went back more than eight decades and from which they had all benefitted.
War against Al Jazeera & other Media
The success of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera network, that since its launch in 1996, radically changed the region’s media landscape was one reason why a UAE-Saudi alliance that in June declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state included the shuttering of the Qatari network among its core demands.
Al Jazeera English that in contrast to Al Jazeera Arabic largely adheres to standards of independent reporting, stands out in a tightly state-controlled media landscape in which many outlets, including Mr. Al Waleed’s Al Arabiya network, have lost a degree of credibility by projecting themselves as partisans in a media war rather than purveyors of the truth.
The prospect of bringing the giants of Saudi and Arab media under unified government control is worrying. It raises concern that the diversity of opinion and coverage will be further curtailed.
Reinforcing the perception of a power grab is the fact that Prince Mohammed has used the purge to control the narrative domestically as well as across the Arab world by including the kingdom’s media moguls in the purge. Among those detained was Waleed al-Ibrahim, a founder of Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) that operates the Al Arabiya television network, established to counter Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose Rotana Group has partnered with media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and Salah Abdullah Kamel, whose conglomerate includes the ART TV network.
“The prospect of bringing the giants of Saudi and Arab media under unified government control is worrying. It raises concern that the diversity of opinion and coverage will be further curtailed.
Mohammed bin Salman is clearly intent on controlling the message as he conducts a dramatic restructuring of the Saudi state and economy,” Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told the Financial Times.
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Mr. Al-Ibrahim, Mr. Kamel, and Prince Alwaleed’s media outlets could well change hands as part of Prince Mohammed’s intention to confiscate assets worth $800 billion under the mum of his anti-corruption campaign. With a large portion of the assets of those detained in the purge difficult to access because they are parked outside of the kingdom, media assets take on added significance
Established hours before the purge, the anti-corruption commission was empowered by decree with “returning funds to the state’s public treasury (and) registering the assets and funds as state property.” Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, noted that Prince Mohammed “needs cash to fund the government’s investment plans.”
The group said in a memo to clients that “it was becoming increasingly clear that additional revenue is needed to improve the economy’s performance. The government will also strike deals with businessmen and royals to avoid arrest, but only as part of a greater commitment to the local economy.”
Crown prince’s crackdown on any form of criticism or dissent that manifested itself with an earlier wave of arrests of Islamic scholars, judges, intellectuals and activists as well as his quest to centralize power.
The apparent move to tighten state control of media strokes with the crown prince’s crackdown on any form of criticism or dissent that manifested itself with an earlier wave of arrests of Islamic scholars, judges, intellectuals, and activists as well as his quest to centralize power.
The crackdown and potential takeover of media assets come at a time of the unprecedented, more freewheeling public debate on social media about Prince Mohammed’s reforms and policy changes as well as the kingdom’s foreign policy and national security challenges.
To succeed, Prince Mohammed will have to do far more than crack down employing measures that are populist and enhance expectations of change. He will also have to rely on more than absolute power and the support of the Trump administration.
To succeed, Prince Mohammed will have to include various segments of the elite and the population in the reform process and manage unrealistic expectations that change will occur overnight.
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Bruce Riedel, former CIA official, and Saudi expert, said: following a tweet by President Donald J. Trump in support of Prince Mohammed: “The Trump administration has tied the United States to the impetuous young crown prince of Saudi Arabia and seems to be quite oblivious to the dangers. But they are growing every day.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. This article is republished with the permission of the author.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.