The fourth of November 2017 will go down as a significant date in Saudi history. The purge by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (commonly referred to as MbS) of so many well-known members of the ruling class is completely unprecedented.
Hard facts are scant, but at least eleven princes, four ministers, tens of former ministers and numerous senior businessmen were arrested hours after the promulgation of the new Anti-Corruption Committee headed by MbS. Details of the charges against some are beginning to emerge.
The detention of Al Waleed Bin Talal Al Saud, the billionaire prince at the helm of Kingdom Holding, has received most attention. But other names are just as striking, including well-known figures such Ethiopian-Saudi businessman Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi. Most predictable is that of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, a son of the former king Abdullah. He commanded the Saudi Arabian National Guard, until now the only part of Saudi’s defence apparatus not under MbS’s control and capable of mounting a challenge to him. The targeting of technocrats like former Economy Minister Adel Faqieh is more puzzling.
The move is the most dramatic in a series of steps designed to centralize power within the monarchy and overturn a system hitherto based on consent within the sprawling Al Saud family. It is characteristic of MbS’s increasingly assertive style, which is also on display in his ever more bellicose handling of foreign affairs. But the purge is not simply an assertion of power by MbS. It represents a pre-emptive attack on any potential alternate power base or rival source of capital. There is uncertainty as to the trigger for the purge. Some suggest a potential coup plot was discovered. But there are also claims that the suspects have been under investigation for over two years, suggesting they were in MbS’s sights from early on in his father’s reign. There is speculation that some of the companies owned by those detained may be nationalised, thereby improving the government’s worsening balance sheet.
Moving against real or perceived corruption is an obvious crowd pleaser in an economy experiencing recession and with widespread youth unemployment, but the scale and speed of the arrests raises questions over what legal processes will be followed. There are fears in the bureaucracy, among business families and within the Al Saud family itself over who may be targeted next. Rumours of travel bans are circulating.
For some, the anti-corruption campaign is a necessary step in the economic transformation of the inefficient patronage-based Kingdom. But for most international businesses and investors, the purge can only be deeply troubling. Many of those detained have long-standing investments and relationships with Western financial institutions and companies. The new Anti-Corruption Committee has the power to seize assets before the results of its investigations are known. Whatever the truth of claims of corruption, the purge is a political act which underscores the arbitrary nature of power in the Kingdom.