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4 November 2017 will go down in the history of the Middle East as the day Saudi Arabia took a step away from its traditional power-sharing agreement and mode of governance, potentially changing its political discourse forever.
One of the world’s most lavish hotels – Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton – known for its meticulously landscaped gardens and extravagant accommodations, was the stage for what many observers have dubbed the ‘greatest shakedown’ in the kingdom’s history. Following recent events, the hotel’s luxury trappings are unlikely to be the first thing that come to the mind of passers-by on Mecca Road outside.
So what exactly happened? And why?
In an interview with the New York Times, published on 23 November 2017, journalist Thomas Friedman asked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) why the Saudi authorities had rounded up some 200 members of the country’s elite and detained them in the Ritz-Carlton on allegations of corruption, money laundering and embezzling state funds.
According to MBS, the claims that the detentions were a power play to eliminate his family and private sector rivals before his ailing father, King Salman, hands the keys of the kingdom over to him, are “ludicrous”. Instead, he insisted that the round-up was part of an anti-corruption campaign, saying, “Our country has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980s until today. The calculation of our experts is that roughly 10 per cent of all government spending was siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom. Over the years the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all started from the bottom up.”
His subsequent comments to the newspaper indicated that the arrests, which came as a surprise to many, had in fact been in the works since 2015, when King Salman ascended to the throne and appointed MBS as deputy crown prince. One of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption at the top. “This team worked for two years until they collected the most accurate information, and then they came up with about 200 names,” MBS said.
The day before the arrests began, King Salman issued a decree pledging to go after ‘weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money’. The decree also put MBS at the top of the supreme committee set up to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions, and seize assets. The appointment gave him sweeping powers to go after anyone regardless of their status in pursuit of the committee’s tasks.
About 95 per cent of those arrested agreed to a settlement involving the return of state funds – some $100 billion of them in total – MBS said. He also noted that about 1 per cent of the accused were able to prove their innocence and their cases were dropped. The remaining 4 per cent denied the charges and said they were prepared to take the matter to court.
Among those arrested are 11 princes, ministers and wealthy businessmen who at one point were ambassadors for the kingdom’s commercial interests. They include billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of the king and owner of the investment firm Kingdom Holding, which invests in global firms such as Citigroup and Twitter; and Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the construction conglomerate Saudi Binladin Group and the half-brother of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Also arrested was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah on allegations of embezzlement, hiring ghost employees and awarding contracts to his own companies including a $10 billion deal for walkie-talkies and bulletproof military gear. A former head of the powerful National Guard and the favourite son of the late King Abdullah, he was once regarded as a contender to the throne. His removal gives MBS an opportunity to extend his control to all of the country’s security branches.
Three weeks since the crackdown, Saudi officials and their supporters are attempting to justify the detentions as an ordinary part of a ‘plea-bargaining process’, similar to the approach Western prosecutors use with white-collar criminals.
However, human rights groups say the comparison ignores critical differences, like legal protections for the accused and an independent judiciary to weigh allegations. Instead, such comparisons appear to point to the desire to raise money as a primary motivation behind the sudden arrests.
Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who monitors Saudi Arabia, said, “[T]his appears to be taking place outside anything that resembles a clear legal process. If the Saudi authorities don’t offer a chance for legal defence, then this is nothing other than a shakedown.”
Middle East Eye, a Qatari-funded news website, reported that some senior figures detained were beaten and tortured so badly during their arrest or subsequent interrogations that they required hospital treatment. The report, which was based on leaks from ‘inside the royal court’, claimed that some of the detainees suffered ‘wounds to the body sustained by classic torture methods’. Some were allegedly tortured to reveal details of their bank accounts.
According to Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, MBS is “trying to make people understand that this is no longer business as usual, because if it remains business as usual, there is no way that he will ever be able to succeed with Vision 2030 [the country’s long-term strategy to reduce the economy’s reliance on oil]. And I think there’s a real realization that, for him to succeed, he has to crack the whip,” Haykel said.
The stakes are indeed high for the 32-year-old. The Saudis – and the world – are watching, and they are divided between those who fully support him, calling the recent arrests “an overdue corruption purge”, and those, mostly traditionalists, who see this latest dose of “shock therapy“ as nothing more than a power grab ahead of the king’s rumoured abdication.
Whatever the case, such dramatic changes come at a price. The crown prince is consolidating power to a degree Saudi Arabia has not seen in generations. Recent monarchs tried to build consensus among all the branches of the royal family, creating an unwieldy system that was at times incapable of making decisions. MBS has dismantled that system, alienating almost everyone and fundamentally altering the governance dynamics of the kingdom.
Furthermore, this purported anti-corruption drive is not the only initiative MBS has launched. He has also cracked down on political Islamists, called for the curbing of extremism, announced that women will be allowed to drive from June 2018, lifted a ban on public concerts and is expected to open cinemas across the kingdom in 2018.
Although some observers have praised his efforts – going so far as calling them Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, concerns have been raised about the extent and pace of the reforms in a society that is barely accustomed to stepwise change.
By consolidating power, MBS seems to be offering a larger degree of social freedom, but there can surely be little room for dissent during this mega-transformation.