Saudi Arabia’s Dramatic Transformation Continues with Weekend Arrests

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) attends a meeting with US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in Riyadh on April 19, 2017

The sweeping arrests of dozens of Saudi businessmen, officials, and even royalty on Saturday – culminating in the arrest of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is all three, and one of the richest men in the world – is one of the most dramatic events in the Kingdom’s modern history.

It is a clear sign of power consolidating around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, upon whom a great deal of President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy is based. The chips are down, the wheel is spinning, and Trump is all-in on the 32-year-old future king.

The Associated Press summarizes the scope of the arrests, and their clear connection to the ascension of Mohammed bin Salman, or “MBS” as he is often called:

The surprise arrests, which also reportedly include two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, were hailed by pro-government media outlets as the greatest sign yet that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is keeping his promise to reform the country, long been plagued by allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government.

Analysts have suggested the arrest of once-untouchable members of the royal family is the latest sign that the 32-year-old crown prince is moving to quash potential rivals or critics. The prince’s swift rise to power has unnerved more experienced, elder members of the ruling Al Saud family, which has long ruled by consensus, though ultimate decision-making remains with the monarch.

The king named his son, the crown prince, as head of an anti-corruption committee established late Saturday, just hours before its arrest of top officials.

A Saudi government official with close ties to security says 11 princes and 38 others are being held in five-star hotels across the capital, Riyadh. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Saudi Twitter accounts released several other names of those arrested, such as: Alwalid al-Ibrahim, a Saudi businessman with ties to the royal family who runs the Arabic satellite group MBC; Amr al-Dabbagh, the former head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority; Ibrahim Assaf, the former finance minister; and Bakr Binladin, head of the Saudi Binladin Group, a major business conglomerate.

As the Associated Press notes, this weekend’s arrests are unprecedented; the royals and top officials have been largely considered above the law, especially when they have extensive connections to major foreign business ventures.

Prince Alwaleed is the consummate example, with holdings in Twitter, Lyft, Citigroup, and several prominent international hotel chains, notably including the Savoy in London and the Plaza in New York. He just dropped $800 million into the Egyptian tourism industry.

The New York Times points out that he can count Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and Michael Bloomberg among his business partners. He is also a global media celebrity whose vacation movies are professional cut and edited like Hollywood blockbusters. There is hardly a corner of the globe that will not feel the shockwaves from his arrest.

It does not take the New York Times long to bring Donald Trump into the picture, remarking upon the president’s relationships with both Prince Alwaleed and MBS:

The arrests also come as Crown Prince Mohammed has forged a close relationship with President Trump, who shares his aggressive approach to Saudi’s regional rival, Iran, and a penchant for bold decisions.

Prince Alwaleed sparred with Mr. Trump on Twitter during the American presidential election, referring to him as a “disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.” Mr. Trump fired back, also on Twitter, that he was a “dopey prince” trying to “control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money.”

President Trump spoke with the current King Salman at great length on Saturday and praised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts. “The king and crown prince’s recent public statements regarding the need to build a moderate, peaceful and tolerant region are essential to ensuring a hopeful future for the Saudi people, to curtailing terrorist funding, and to defeating radical ideology – once and for all – so the world can be safe from its evil,” the president said, according to the White House statement on the call.

The White House did not say whether President Trump directly addressed the arrests of Prince Alwaleed and the others during his conversation with King Salman, and would not comment on whether Trump endorsed the arrests. Trump did, however, talk about the potential sale of stock in Saudi Arabia’s national oil company on the U.S. stock market. He told reporters aboard Air Force One that he very much wants Aramco stock on the market, but thought the Kingdom was nervous about “litigation risk and other risk, which is very sad.”

Trump said this even more plainly on Twitter:

The possibility of Aramco going public is the pivotal event in Saudi Arabia’s unfolding history. It is a major component of Crown Prince bin Salman’s reform agenda for modernizing the Kingdom and making it less dependent on oil, the idea being to use the enormous income from selling Aramco stock to diversify the Saudi economy. Everything happening in Saudi Arabia right now, from anti-corruption arrests to the liberalization of Islamic law, is part of the push to make the country more compatible with the Western world, more attractive to foreign investment and more appealing as a business partner for Americans and Europeans.

It is also an acknowledgment of the demographic reality that the enormous younger generation in Saudi Arabia wants to be part of the new century. The younger generation in countries around the world has made it clear, in a variety of ways, that corruption is one of their top concerns. The dark side of this trend is that people across the globe may be growing more comfortable with authoritarian government, provided they believe it is “honest,” accountable authoritarianism.

Saudi Arabia’s religious transformation is also a factor in this weekend’s arrests. “The kingdom’s top council of clerics issued a statement saying it is an Islamic duty to fight corruption – essentially giving religious backing to the high-level arrests being reported,” the Associated Press observes.

It was clear from the moment he formally announced this plan to the Saudi public on television in April 2016 that MBS would require an unprecedented level of efficient and decisive power concentrated in his person to implement such sweeping changes. For example, he was not the Crown Prince when he made that speech in the spring of 2016, but he is now, having briskly displaced a former heir apparent 25 years his senior. He authorized a wave of unprecedented arrests just one day after being named the Kingdom’s top anti-corruption official. Saudi government generally does not move at anything resembling this speed.

Some of the things MBS has done make observers in America and Europe uncomfortable. The displaced Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, had solid connections with Western intelligence agencies. A series of lower-profile arrests made in early October for “inciting public feelings” struck many as MBS cracking down on dissent in a manner that would not be tolerated in Western democracies. The concept of sedition is always difficult to reconcile with the ideals of free speech.

From a strategic perspective, the ultimate goal of liberalization and modernization can be seen as worth a bit of illiberalism along the way. The relationship taking shape is a marriage of U.S. and Saudi interests, with a modernized and liberalized Kingdom becoming the linchpin of American policy in the Middle East, while the revamped Saudi economy becomes dependent upon integration with the United States. Not to mention Saudi Arabia’s physical security, a point highlighted by the weekend missile attack from Yemen against Riyadh, which the Saudis say was ordered by Iran.

President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May included a landmark speech that made it very clear he intended to reverse President Obama’s reckless realignment of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. Trump was effusive with praise toward Saudi Arabia for taking a leading role in combatting radicalization, citing its importance as “home to the holiest sites in one of the world’s great faiths,” as well as its interest in modernization. The strategy he laid out in that speech will not work without a Saudi Arabia remade along the lines Crown Prince bin Salman envisions.

Former White House chief strategist and Breitbart News Executive Editor Steve Bannon pointed out in a speech at the Hudson Institute two weeks ago that Trump’s “America First” foreign policy looks for allies, not “protectorates,” citing the swift action against Qatar for supporting terrorism soon after Trump gave his speech in Saudi Arabia.

“Allies understand that we are there for them, but it’s not our fight. It’s your fight. If you’re going to reform Islam and bring it into modernity, that’s a huge civilizational and cultural aspect, and it’s yours,” Bannon explained. That is a fair description of the project Crown Prince bin Salman is engaged in, a project Bannon praised in his remarks.

Bannon was as critical of Turkey as he was supportive of Saudi Arabia. The foreign policy establishment he lambasted in his speech has always seen Turkey, a NATO ally, as key to U.S. policy in the Islamic world, but Bannon described modern Turkey as a threat, heading the wrong way down the highway of modernization and passing the Saudis as they drive in the opposite direction, with increasingly Islamist Ankara a mirror image of modernizing Riyadh.

He faulted Qatar for its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and its engagement with “Iran, and quite frankly Turkey,” while praising the Saudis and their partner nations for executing a “well thought-through plan” for forcing Qatar to cease funding extremism. In an interview with a Saudi paper soon after his Hudson Institute speech, Bannon was even blunter, calling Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “the biggest danger for us,” even more so than Iran.

A review of Bannon’s speech at The Intercept notes that quite a few participants in the conference who have spoken poorly of Bannon in the past seem to have come around to his views on Qatar and Saudi Arabia, at least in terms of diagnosing the problem. Even the strident dissent at the conference from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) excoriated Saudi Arabia for exporting extremist Wahabbi Muslim ideology, which is clearly not the direction Crown Prince bin Salman is trying to push the country. Where countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey were ten or twenty years ago is not as important strategically as where they are going.

Predicting the course of a country is a difficult business. The supreme folly of President Obama’s Iran policy was his estimation that the theatrical argument between “moderates” and “hardliners” in Tehran presented an opportunity for America to win Iran’s friendship, or at least cool its hostility, by dumping off a few pallets of cash. There is simply no sense that Iran wants to be part of a pro-Western, pro-U.S. alignment – quite the reverse – and no logical reason they would prefer that to forging a hegemonic relationship with allies like China, Russia, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the other hand, there are solid reasons to think Saudi Arabia’s government wants to move in a direction agreeable to the West, forging a relationship based on tangible economic benefits and security needs, not airy abstractions. The Saudis are dramatically doing the sort of things Obama foreign policy naively crossed its fingers and hoped Iran might contemplate, once sanctions were lifted and foreign business deals flowed in.

CNN sees the Saudis gearing up for battle – possibly including literal warfare – against Iran in the post-Islamic State Middle East, and detects a “near consensus” that MBS is dramatically steering Saudi Arabia into “uncharted waters.” That’s good, because the charted waters are awful.


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