On 4 November, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), ordered the detention or dismissal of at least 11 prominent Saudi princes, and dozens of officials, including former and current ministers. The move occurred several hours after the establishment of an anti-corruption commission headed by MBS. Those detained include Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, a prominent Saudi billionaire who founded the Kingdom Holding Company, which has investments in major international companies including Citigroup, 21st Century Fox and Twitter. Officials who were either detained or dismissed from their government roles include Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, former head of the National Guard, and Adel bin Mohammed Faqih, the Minister of Economy and Planning. US President Donald Trump has indicated his tacit approval of the arrests via a series of tweets posted on 6 November.
What has triggered the arrests?
While these measures have been superficially portrayed as part of an anti-corruption drive, they are more likely to be part of MBS’s efforts to consolidate his power within Saudi Arabia. Since King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s ascension to the Saudi throne in January 2015, MBS has become increasingly influential, with substantial control over the major levers of power, including the economy and the military. He formally replaced Mohammed bin Nayef as the Crown Prince and Interior Minister in June 2017, gaining control over Saudi Arabia’s internal intelligence apparatus. The removal yesterday of Prince Mitaab as the head of the National Guard, an elite internal security force, further consolidates MBS’s control of the Kingdom’s internal security and military institutions.
Prior to these latest purges that mainly targeted political and business figures, ten influential clerics were also arrested in September this year. These clerics allegedly criticised or did not publicly support Saudi Arabia’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar, which is widely perceived to be an MBS-driven initiative. With the latest round of arrests, MBS has targeted a broad cross-section of Saudi Arabia’s political and economic elite, including representatives of the key major factions within his own family.
Mohammed Bin Salman’s reform programme
Over the past two years, MBS has outlined his ideas about modernising Saudi Arabia and bolstering its geopolitical standing. He is the main driving force behind the Saudi Vision 2030, a plan to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, diversify the economy, and privatise state assets. He is also in favour of certain liberal policies to increase female participation in the economy, including women’s right to drive. On the foreign policy front, MBS has adopted a hawkish position centred on challenging Iran’s regional influence and asserting Saudi Arabia as the dominant regional power. This has seen Saudi Arabia become embroiled in the Yemeni civil war, and impose a blockade on Qatar.
These domestic and foreign policy initiatives – some of which are extremely controversial – have not received the full support of political, business, security and religious establishment figures. MBS has developed a track record of making decisive and unpredictable policy decisions which run counter to the normal pace of political and social change in Saudi Arabia. The recent arrests can be viewed as a continuation of this trend.
By detaining such a prominent collection of businessmen and officials, MBS appears to be making a powerplay to force Saudi Arabia’s elites to get behind his reform programme and submit to his personal authority. Framing the arrests as a crackdown on corruption is also a clear attempt by MBS to cement his support base amongst the Saudi youth and middle class, who have demonstrated a growing intolerance for the graft and personal enrichment which is perceived to be widespread amongst the ruling elite.
What will happen now?
One of the key questions is whether MBS’s latest crackdown is intended to be a short, sharp shock to bring key elites in line, or if instead it marks the start of a broader and further-reaching campaign targeting his political opponents. Possible indications of either scenario could emerge over the next two weeks:
- The Saudi authorities may issue further arrest warrants and widen their detentions to include more junior ministers or members of the clerical establishment; or,
- The more high-profile detainees could be released without trial (Saudi Arabia does not have a formal criminal justice system), having confirmed their support for MBS; or,
- One or more of those detained could face charges and a public trial to serve as a warning to MBS’s would-be opponents.
Despite MBS’s recent drive to portray Saudi Arabia as an investor-friendly destination and stable commercial environment, our enquiries suggest that the crackdown is set to continue, with further arrest warrants being issued over the past 24 hours. This raises serious questions for issues such as the possible listing of Aramco – it is hard to see how any listing can take place while Ibrahim Al Assaf, an Aramco board member and former finance minister, is amongst those arrested.
Looking further ahead, MBS’s consolidation of power is set to continue in the coming months and years, although there remains significant uncertainty over how Saudi Arabia will cope with the radical transformations laid out in MBS’s reform programme. Abrupt changes to the fabric of a deeply conservative country also create a volatile political, economic and security environment. These changes are unprecedented, and MBS risks unnerving foreign investors if he overplays his hand.
Individuals reportedly detained or dismissed
Below we have compiled an initial list of individuals reportedly arrested or dismissed from their official roles. The full list of those affected has not been formally released, and the total number of those affected by the crackdown is still unclear.
- Saleh Kamel, chairman of Dallah Albaraka, and his sons
- Bakr Bin Ladin, chairman of Saudi Binladin Group
- Alwaleed Al Ibrahim, owner of the MBC media conglomerate
- Mohammed Al Amoudi, owner of Corral Petroleum and MIDROC Holding
- Nasser bin Aqeel Al Tayyar, chairman of Al Tayyar Travel
- Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, head of the National Guard
- Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire businessman
- Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former governor of Riyadh
- Prince Turki bin Nasr, former minister of environmental affairs
- Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohamed, former deputy minister of defence
- Khalid Al Tuwaijri, former head of the Royal Court
- Adel Faqih, economy minister
- Mohamed Al Tabishi, head of royal protocol
- Ibrahim Al Asaaf, former finance minister
- Amr Al Dabbagh, former chairman of SAGIA
- Abdullah Al Sultan, commander of the Saudi Royal Navy
- Saud Al Dawish, former CEO of Saudi Telecom Company
- Khalid Al Mulhim, former director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines