A month has passed since Saudi Arabia launched “a grim struggle” against corruption. On November 4, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud decreed setting up a committee with a broad range of powers. Chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the committee is authorized to conduct investigations, make arrests, and impose travel bans, freeze bank assets and other actions as part of anti-corruption campaign.
At the end of November, the committee’s activity has grown into “a pretrial process” i.e. no charges are brought against persons named in official investigations, they are not persecuted. Most of the detainees, including dozens of princes and over 150 former ministers, businesspersons and other outstanding persons in the largest Arab monarchy, have agreed on the so-called “pretrial settlement.” In other words, they made a deal with the committee chair, Prince Mohammed and transferred lion’s shares from their assets under his management.
The amount of the handouts totaled about $100 billion. It is not surprising given the wealth of the detainees, including Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, one of the richest men in the Middle East, the former minister of finance in Saudi Arabia. According to Western sources, some “corrupt” officials had to give 70% of their capitals to avoid imprisonment.
In an interview with The New York Times (Nov 23), Prince Mohammed told about the pardon granted to the corrupt officials: “We show them all the files that we have and as soon as they see those about 95 percent agree to a settlement,” which means signing over cash or shares of their business to the Saudi state treasury, the paper wrote. The prince hushed up about how the detainees were treated and what made them give “king’s ransom.” Meantime, NYT wrote: “…government arrested scores of Saudi princes and businessmen on charges of corruption and threw them into a makeshift gilded jail — the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton — until they agreed to surrender their ill-gotten gains.”
The old monarch’s beloved son was appointed Crown Prince on June 21, 2017. The committee was set up on November 4, on the 135th day of Prince Mohammed’s access to the Saudi throne. He reached top power three years ago, after his father’s enthronement in January 2015. He was appointed as defense minister of the Saudi Kingdom.
Over its history, since 1930, Saudi Arabia’s domestic policy depended on two departments: Interior Ministry and National Guard. Three years ago, Al Sudairi Clan, to which King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed belong, took control over the defense ministry. Since then, especially after the Yemen campaign launched in March 2015, the defense department has overshadowed the above two departments. As a result, Mohammed bin Salman’s brothers, the clans and factions that traditionally managed the Interior Ministry and the National Guard appeared to be a spent force.
Appointed as Crown Prince, Mohammed has replaced his cousin Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (the interior minister belonging to Al Sudairi Clan) who was dismissed from all posts and put under home arrest, according to sources familiar with the situation. Another cousin of Mohammed, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (belongs to “secondary” Shammar Clan like his father, the former king Abdallah who passed away on January 23, 2015) who traditionally headed the National Guard has appeared in dishonor with the establishment of the anti-corruption committee.
So far, things were settled without serious incidents, “within the family,” since the crown prince’s cousins have not dared to oppose their pretentious relative.
Nevertheless, it is early to speak about successful anti-corruption campaign of Crown Prince Mohammed, though the main rivals inside the country have been demoralized or discredited and a very impressive amount of money was collected - $100 billion. For comparison, the military budget of Saudi Arabia is $51 billion in 2017.
The crown prince with its plans of reforms needs additional cash as never before. He is to implement the largest project in the Middle East – construction of a high-tech mega city NEOM on a 26.5 thousand sq/km area on the Red Sea coast. The cost of the project is $500 billion. The kingdom needs money for its military campaign in Yemen, to deter Iran and support social stability in the Kingdom where domestic problems have reached a critical level during the protracted period of cheap oil.
The reformist prince with his widely publicized project Vision 2023 constantly works on his image and approval rating inside the Kingdom. Therefore, he needs money not only to support the generous system of social payments in the oil-bearing monarchy, but also to hold a large-scale domestic campaign.
Public opinion polls are not practiced in Arab monarchies, since the monarchical system without elected agencies a priori implies public approval of the monarch’s activity. However, Mohammed bin Salman demonstrates an innovative approach in this field as well. Public opinion polls that have been conducted since his appointment as Crown Prince have ensured a 90% approval rating for him.
The demonstratively high rating of the crown prince is mostly a result of his conflict with the “parallel clans.” During some 3 years of his power, Crown Prince Mohammed has broken the consensus that had been achieved inside the Saudi elite for decades. No faction has ever felt itself so deprived of power and dishonored as the rivals of Al Sudairi Clan do.
The prince has breached the status quo of the government hierarchy and is now seeking support of younger generation he belongs to. His “revolutionary steps” are a good chance to enlist that support. So far, the Crown Prince makes careful innovations, such as, for instance, giving more rights to women i.e. the right to drive, attend and participate in sports competitions and matches. These steps were approved by the younger generation and silently tolerated by the rivals.
The prince needs to maintain his positions and get more public support through a large-scale hiring program at all branches of power. He needs to bring new human resources to all ministries, including the defense ministry. After all, the future king cannot lead the defense ministry forever.
Certain misbalance inside the largest Arab monarchy has prompted changes in status quo also outside it. The ongoing crisis around Qatar is the best evidence of it. Foreign initiatives of the reformist-prince are not less pretentious than the domestic ones – the Arab-Islamic coalition to fight terrorism (“Arab NATO”), frontal confrontation with Iran, attempts to outplay Tehran in Lebanon and Yemen and flirting with Israel against Iran – something that seemed impossible yet no so long ago.
Mohammed bin Salman has surrounded himself with evident Iranophobes, including Minister for Gulf Affairs* Thamer al-Sabhan. He called Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei as “New Hitler of the Middle East” and may provoke a military conflict with the neighbor Shiite country. Protracted conflict in Yemen and lack of success in Syria coupled with the uncertainty in Lebanon make the crown prince compensate failures in the foreign policy by raising the stakes in the fight against Iran. He seeks more resources to consolidate its supporters inside the Kingdom and outside it.
Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of Saudi “perestroika” has breached the internal consensus and endangered the status quo. He may not cope with such high level of responsibility. Silence of Saudi elites is not unlimited. The rivals have been discredited but not neutralized. Besides, under 32-year-old crown prince, Riyadh is getting more and more enemies in the region. As a result, the reforms and forced subordination of the elites may spark symmetric actions by his rivals.
* In Arab countries of the region, the Persian Gulf is called “Arab”
EADaily Middle East Bureau