A new anti-corruption purge in Saudi Arabia reinforces Mohammed bin Salman’s hallmark of sudden, spectacular action designed to signal radical change.
The rapid arrests of senior princes, former ministers and the country’s richest businessman came as regional tensions intensified; on the same day, Lebanon’s prime minister resigned while visiting Riyadh, and the Houthis in Yemen managed to shoot a ballistic missile further into Saudi territory than ever before. Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, thus faces political risks from multiple directions – but the arrests will probably reduce the risk of anyone in the family challenging him in the foreseeable future.
The arrests form part of MBS’s reinvention of the way Saudi Arabia is governed. Saudi media portray this as a much-needed battle against corruption while much of the Western media have viewed it as a political purge. Most likely, it is both. There is widespread public frustration over corruption, patronage and nepotism in Saudi Arabia. By showing that the powerful and wealthy can be brought down by corruption, the crown prince is addressing an issue of public concern, which is probably a popular thing to do.
At the same time, the arrests have removed a one-time rival prince, strengthened his control of the military, and raised questions about the future of powerful media organizations. And in general, anti-corruption efforts are often politically selective in countries where institutions and rule of law are weak and subservient to powerful individuals.
Since his father came to the throne in early 2015, MBS has launched several simultaneous projects– overhauling the economy, liberalizing social life, adopting a new confrontational foreign policy and most recently reforming the country’s interpretation of Islam – while restructuring the traditional royals-plus-clerics model of government in order to centralize power in his own hands. He has been unafraid of alienating traditional supporters and is betting on a new youth constituency that wants to see change.
The dramatic and high-profile arrests over the weekend serve three of these projects. On the economy, MBS is cutting government spending and courting foreign investment. Tackling corruption can be seen as a way of cutting costs, as well as signalling to foreign investors that this will no longer be such a risk to those doing business in the kingdom.
Arresting the kingdom’s richest man, Prince Waleed bin Talal, as well as princes and ministers, is being pitched as a sign no one is above the law – and fighting corruption is more credible if it starts at the top. But fighting corruption systematically also requires developing institutions and the rule of law. Just before the arrests were announced, MBS was made the head of a new anti-corruption commission, whereas in many countries this would be a judge or bureaucrat rather than a political leader.
That leads into the second theme: the centralization of power in MBS’s hands. Removing Miteb bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi National Guard, and sacking the head of the navy increases MBS’s control over all of the security services. He had already ensured his control of the interior ministry when he overthrew Mohammed bin Nayef, then the crown prince and interior minister, earlier this year. Miteb, a son of former king Abdullah, was himself once seen as a possible future king; now he and his brother Turki are both arrested, along with King Abdullah’s former gatekeeper at the royal court.
The businessmen arrested include a number who were close to the sons of Sultan, another former crown prince, as well as the heads of three major media organizations. They include Saleh Kamel, chairman of Okaz Press and Publishing and a founder of ART and the Dallal Al Baraka conglomerate; Walid Al Ibrahim, head of MBC; and Prince Waleed, whose businesses include Rotana Media.
Thirdly, Mohammed bin Salman needs to reinvent the social contract for the post-oil era, and to find new ways to legitimize his leadership through developmental success and nationalism, as well as an increasingly authoritarian approach. His very visible anti-corruption posture forms part of an attempt to appeal to a younger generation of Saudis, rather than focusing on the traditional supporters among the royals, clerics and merchants. MBS will be conscious that at a time when the population are feeling a fiscal squeeze, they want to see the royal family cutting back too (although he too has been criticized for lavish spending, for instance on a $500 million yacht last year).
More than that, he appears to be betting that a large constituency of young Saudis wants to see radical change in the way the country is governed. He seems to want to harness that sentiment in support of change that is driven from the top down, by him, rather than the bottom up, be that by protests, activists or more radical challengers. The arrests of these senior figures, including the sons of a king who was once seen as revered, come a week after MBS said that the model of interpreting Islam over the past 30 years was ‘not normal’ and ‘not Saudi Arabia’. And the arrests are now likely to be followed by the exposure of many details about high-level corruption among Al Saud princes.
All this adds up to a dramatic break with the past. It is an attempt to a transition to a new model of government while preserving the continuity of Al Saud rule. And it represents an authoritarian populist approach which has an anti-establishment flavour despite coming from the heart of the ruling family.
Overall, the move against senior princes is likely to bolster both MBS’s popular support base and his autocratic tendencies. Questions will remain about dissent within the family, but it is likely that princes will be too wary about their own positions to mobilize against the current leadership. The US has shown no interest in raising any concerns; Donald Trump spoke to the Saudi King on Saturday, praised his stance against extremism and asked for Aramco to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.