The Blacklist: Saudi Arabia’s High-profile Political Detainees
Princes, imams and former ministers are among those whom Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS) has jailed since beginning his ascent to power in January 2015. More than 200 people have so far been rounded up on charges of corruption or terrorism.
Most recently, 11 princes were detained for protesting the cut in water and electricity subsidies. The men also demanded compensation for their dead cousin, Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer, who was convicted of murder and then executed by the state in 2016. Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the former head of the royal court, and media mogul Waleed al-Ibrahim were among those arrested.
At least that’s the official narrative. But Dr Sad Fiqah, who heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in London, which advocates greater religious and political freedom in the kingdom, and claims to have sources inside the royal family, told Fanack chronicle a different version of the story.
He said that the princes were arrested for protesting the imprisonment of another cousin named Sul-tan bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabeer, who owns al-Maraii, one of the largest dairy companies in the Middle East.
Fiqah claims that MBS demanded Sultan bin Mohammed hand over half the shares of his company. The latter refused because he feared that his assets would not be given to the state but to MBS him-self. MBS then arrested him for failing to comply, sparking outrage among his cousins who protested soon after.
“The arrest of Sultan bin Mohammed wasn’t just seen as an insult to his cousins, they thought that MBS might also try to take away their wealth in the future,” Fiqah told Fanack over the phone.
Bloomberg also reported that a member of the royal family circulated a voice message on WhatsApp, claiming that the official accusation against the 11 princes was not believable and clearly false.
The voice on the recording was that of Prince Abdullah bin Saud bin Mohammed, who was at the time the head of the Maritime Sports Federation. On the audio, he claimed that detained princes had ac-companied a relative who was summoned for questioning by the authorities about one of his former jobs. When the princes arrived at the Riyadh governorate building, guards prevented them from en-tering. A small skirmish then broke out, resulting in their arrest.
The sequence of events remains murky, though it appears that not even wealth can protect those whom MBS considers a threat.
This became crystal clear after higher profile figures were rounded up and held at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh on 4 November 2017, a date now referred to as the night of the long knives. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose investment firm Kingdom Holding has shares in companies including the Four Seasons hotel chain and Twitter, was one of them. Fiqah said that MBS has demanded that bin Talal hand over many of his assets, which he is ostensibly unable to do until he is released to speak with his personnel.
“They are in a deadlock,” Fiqah said. “MBS wants bin Talal’s assets but doesn’t want to release him. Bin Talal is willing to hand them over but says that he needs to be released to do so.” Dr Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics, suggested that MBS is targeting individuals who could use their wealth or influence to jeopardize his position.
Also arrested that night was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah (MBA), head of the National Guard, the elite tribal force responsible for protecting the royal family and the kingdom’s key oil assets. MBS considered MBA a real threat, noted al-Rasheed, because he could have used the National Guard to make a move against him. In the past, the commander of the National Guard has gone on to become the crown prince or even the king.
“No real challenge to MBS can come from princes with no militia,” al-Rasheed wrote for the news website Middle East Eye. “[That’s why] he was keen to end his senior cousin’s control over the last security body that can potentially undermine his rule.”
Other arrests included Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former finance minister who has served in the government since 2016. Adel Fakieh, an economy minister, was detained along with the former Riyadh governor. Also notable was the arrest of Bakr bin Laden, the brother of the late al-Qaeda lead-er Osama bin Laden. Bakr bin Laden remained relatively loyal to the royal family after severing relations with his brother decades ago. Nonetheless, he was detained and jailed with many others in the Ritz Carlton.
The official explanation for the arrests was corruption, but critics say this is a pretext for MBS to consol-idate power and collect billions of dollars. Most of those arrested were given an ultimatum to hand over their assets or face years in prison. Some princes, including MBA, were released after choosing the former.
Bloomberg journalists Glen Carey and Alaa Shahine point out that the definition of corruption is opaque in a country that is embedded in a system of patronage, enabling princes to grow rich off gov-ernment contracts and lucrative deals with transnational corporations. Compounding this sentiment, MBS himself was recently identified as the buyer of a $336 million chateau in France, the world’s most expensive home.
Corruption, it seems, is only a crime when people outside MBS’ clique are implicated. James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, nonetheless told Reuters that the crackdown broke from a long strategy in the House of Saud. “Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war,” he said.
In September 2017, MBS arrested renowned religious clerics as part of a wider campaign against per-ceived opponents, including human rights activists, bloggers and journalists. Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari were the most prominent religious figures who were seized that day. The three are considered a moderating influence in the region, when compared to other sheikhs in the ultra-conservative country.
However, they are all outside the state-backed clerical establishment and failed to back some of MBS’ brash policies publically. Specifically, they kept silent at the beginning of the blockade of Qatar, which Saudi Arabia accuses of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsoring terrorism. Saudi Arabia has long considered Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which challenge the state’s authority as the greatest threat to the kingdom.
Al-Awda was sentenced to five years in prison in 1994, for his ostensible leadership of the Sahwah (‘awakening’) movement, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. At the time, the movement was lobbying for political reforms that would have scaled back the power of the ruling family. “MBS is very likely to be the next king, but any dissenting voices that could challenge this succession could also be considered destabilizing from the regime perspective,” Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global risk at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told Reuters.
Intellectuals and writers were also caught up in the crackdown. Abdullah al-Maliki, an academic who has supported calls for reforms and human rights, was seized. So was Essam al-Zamel, an entrepre-neur who has written about the need to adopt economic reforms in the oil-dependent kingdom.
Human rights defenders have also been muzzled. In August 2017, Issa al-Nukheifi and Essam Koshak were charged with a number of offences relating to their human rights activism and social media posts, according to Amnesty International. In July 2017, the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court upheld the eight-year sentence of Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).
Samah Hadid, the deputy director of Amnesty International, said that most human rights activists in the country are either in prison or on trial, their whereabouts still undisclosed. The others, she added, risk arrest at any time. MBS is clearly remaking Saudi Arabia in his image, while proving to be just as authoritarian as the rulers before him.