Saudi Arabia Begins System Reform
On November 4, 11 princes of the royal Al Saud Family, 38 active and retired ministers, as well as several dozen senior officials, were arrested in Saudi Arabia. This was formally done under the guise of fighting corruption. In reality, however, this action is part of a purge of the ruling circles in the run-up to the transfer of power from the sick and elderly King Salman to his 32-year-old son and Defense Minister Mohammad Bin Salman. As not everyone in the ruling family supports this, the Sudairi Clan, to which the king and the Crown Prince belong, have decided to strike a preemptive blow to their potential rivals. This is the first time that this kind of mass purges has been carried out. And it is possible that this will further weaken the already fragile situation in the country, which has been undermined by the war in Yemen, the rendering of assistance to extremist organizations in Syria and the low oil prices.
The action taken to combat corruption is, of course, very distant to these realities. It is simply a convenient way to execute some political maneuvers and reprisals under a specious pretext. The detentions and arrests are most directly related to the struggle that took place years ago under King Abdullah to replace the principle of succession to the throne. The former principle introduced by the founder of the kingdom abdel-Aziz Al Saud, where the power was handed over from brother to brother, has exhausted itself; Salman is actually the last of the first generation of the descendants of abdel-Aziz who can occupy the throne, followed by younger generations. The essence of such a system of succession to the throne is directly related to the patchwork nature of the Saudi Arabian assembly, where the different regions of the peninsula and the different clans ruling in these areas were granted access to power in the kingdom through the family hierarchy of the Al-Saud dynasty. To this end, abdel-Aziz arranged several of his own political marriages with representatives of other clans whose descendants were also entitled to the crown. Such a system only works in the first generation, and then is followed by mixing both blood and interests, such that in the future, the ladder to the crown becomes more likely the cause of the growing contradictions than the mechanism for their resolution.
King Salman and his son Muhammad belong to the Sudairi clan, which is the largest, although even the other clans do not appear weak, and also have clan interests and groups. The arrested prince al-Waleed bin Syrian Talal, the richest prince of the dynasty, is the head of the group of “young princes”, an informal clan-based group, along with the traditional tribal groups with a very strong influence. The main competitors of Crown Prince Muhammad are just the “young princes”, the as-Sunan clan and the Shammar tribe, whose representative was the previous monarch King Abdullah. Incidentally, this king also tried to solve the problem of inheritance through the principle of the transfer of power, but he did so less resolutely, although his son Mutaib was seriously promoted in the hierarchy. In fact, Mutaib is therefore also one of the “corrupt”, and his name is also mentioned among the 11 detained princes. However, the patchwork nature of the kingdom is now posing major threats: The governance structure of Saudi Arabia is spread across the clans and, in the event of a war between them, the very governance of the country can be paralyzed. The Sunan clan traditionally controls a number of special services and foreign policy. The Shammar tribe has its own power structure – the National Guard. The al-Jiluwi clan has influence in the oil-bearing Eastern Province. The “young princes” largely control the financial system of the country. Although not part of the dynasty, just like the Jiluwi clan, the clan of the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab al Sheikh has a tremendous influence on the ideological and religious life of the kingdom.
They are unofficially declaring that the authorities shall be suspending those who balked the “new policy” of Saudi Arabia, representing the interests of the family of the late King Abdullah. In addition, the flights of the private jets and ships of the royal family are temporarily suspended to prevent the yet-to-be-arrested “intruders” from fleeing the country. Given the repressions against the security-service chiefs and directors of Saudi media outlets, it can even be assumed that there was some conspiracy to seize power and change government in Saudi Arabia.
The desire to consolidate power by means of repression could result in the opposite effect– its dissolution, and then – the collapse of the kingdom itself. Which, under the current circumstances, is more than likely. Without external support, such events are doomed, and are most likely coordinated with the main ally of Saudi Arabia, the United States. Only the United States has sufficient resources to influence the rebel clans, although it is clear that the clumsiness of the US actions is creating its own problems.
The reasons for the changes that are taking place are rather transparent; Riyadh is suffering significant losses on the foreign front: the failed intervention in Yemen, from where ballistic missiles have already begun flying towards the capital (on November 3, one of them almost reached the airport), and where tens of billions of dollars expended for the maintenance of local puppets, mercenaries and other interventionists are flowing away without a trace. The attempts to overthrow President Assad in Syria have failed: the plans of Riyadh have dismally failed, with control over some of the previously-controlled groups having passed on to Erdoğan, and Iran’s positions have only strengthened, while DAESH and Al-Qaeda have been significantly weakened. The attempts to intimidate Qatar have failed, thanks to the intercession of Iran and Turkey. The proxy-war against Iran as a whole is being unsuccessful. Tehran has grown stronger in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Indeed, Qatar has come out of the anti-Iran coalition, while Tehran is pressuring American influence in Iraq and is building various links with Russia and Turkey.
The situation has been developing rather interestingly since October 5, when Salman flew in to Moscow. The circles that advocate maintaining an aggressive stance against Iran, Russia, Syria and Yemen and are unhappy with the replacement of the heir, are all the more less than happy with the attempts being taken by Salman and his entourage to somewhat smooth the situation by mean of concessions. Especially since most of the local elites are in one way or another tied to the United States, which is also not thrilled by the wags of the elderly king, who, after having failed at every possible turn, then visited Moscow to negotiate. Thus, the events of November 4 are only the beginning of an open struggle at the foot of the Saudi throne.
The detention of King Al-Waleed’s nephew is highly symbolic, especially among his business partners. Charges of money laundering, bribery and extortion of money from officials have been brought against him. Forbes estimates the fortune of Prince Al-Waleedd at USD 18 billion. The arrest of the prince was made against the backdrop of the strengthening friendship between Prince Mohammad and President Donald Trump. At the same time, Al-Waleed was about to invest in the Iranian economy a few years ago, but abandoned this idea on the instructions of King Salman. In his views on Tehran, Mohammad is fully in solidarity with Trump, whom al-Waleed does not appreciate, considering him “a disgrace to America”, as he so stated during the election campaign. In addition, the rapprochement of Al-Valid with Russia has become apparent. In August 2017, for example, it was reported that in the event of the resumption of operations of the Yugra Bank, which was deprived of its license, the prince may enter the capital. In September 2017, Al-Waleed travelled to Chechnya, where he held talks with the head of the region Ramzan Kadyrov. In summing up their results, Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram that the prince was ready to invest in the republic. It is clear that Al-Waleed’s Russian projects are now under considerable suspicion.
Thus, it seems that the arrests in Saudi Arabia are due not only to the fight against corruption and not only to the maneuvering around the crown, but also to the success of the pro-American part of the political elite of the kingdom. And that is very typical: the previous day, pro-Saudi Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri had resigned, citing his suspicions that he could be killed, just like his father Rafik Hariri was killed. And he did this almost immediately following his visit to Russia. In the threat on his life, he implicated Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose relations with him had completely deteriorated after he had frequented talks in Saudi Arabia. What is amusing is that he did not choose to hold to his seat, but rather preferred to not risk his life. The leadership of Hezbollah, in turn, denies these accusations, calling them a heinous Zionist slander. At the same time, the military wing of the organization promised to significantly increase its military presence in Syria (suffice to recall the hysterical howls of Israel in the style of “Hezbollah is fleeing Syria!”) and expand the variety of its methods of warfare against the enemies of President Assad. It is no accident that on November 6, in the Abu-Kamal area along the Syrian-Iraqi border, as part of the Syrian assault, several T-90 tanks flying “Hezbollah” flags were detected.
Another dimension of the events in Saudi Arabia is the objective need to modernize the ideological base of the ruling regime. Saudi Arabia is, of course, a very serious paradox and a totally unbalanced contradiction between the two basic factors of the existence of any system – stability and development. The backward and archaic Wahhabism has long hampered the development of the country, but the Saudis cannot abandon it. Being a very unstable entity, assembled from several seriously different territories, the kingdom can provide for its existence with an extremely orthodox and inflexible ideological value system, where a step to the right or to the left is not even a violation, but a crime.
Nevertheless, such total non-acceptance of innovations is hindering the development of the country, and at some point, a choice shall have to be made. The problem, as always, is that issues that are overripe and prolonged cannot be solved simply. The Saudis would like to avoid such a scenario, but they have in the process also dragged out everything that is possible, and therefore, it is now unclear whether they will be able to resolve the whole complex of stratified problems without inflicting a catastrophe upon the country.
This means that, in addition to the “traditional” clans within and around the dynasty, Mohammed bin Salman is challenging the most influential clan of Al ash-Sheikh, the clan of hereditary supreme muftis, who are descendants of Mohammed Abdel Wahhab. This clan is tied to the teachings of its ancestor, and has taken an exceptional position in the hierarchy of the kingdom because it is precisely this doctrine that has become the instrument of the Saudi Arabian assembly, and has ensured its existence, and therefore, the modernization of Wahhabism is either impossible in principle or must be associated with a cruel “sweep” of the Al ash-Sheikhs.
There is no escape for the Saudis in any case – in the regional rivalry with Iran, they will almost certainly lose in the current situation precisely because of their obsolescence, inflexibility and deadlock in development. With today’s developments, it will be increasingly difficult for Saudi Arabia to compete with Iran, and the internal problems caused by the artificial inhibition of the development of society are already excessive. In a sense, Wahhabism is re-experiencing the fate of Soviet ideology. Wahhabism also inhibits development. However, the main thing is that it does not respond to contemporary challenges at all, and the niche is beginning to fill with ideas that are far divorced from the Saudi interests. Here, the Islamic state for the lower classes, and the shine of Western liberalism for the upper strata, the contradictions are mounting, and will inevitably tear apart the Saudi society if it does not offer a different alternative that suits the majority. The question is, can this young and ambitious Mohammad pull all these strings into place?
On November 8, the media reported that Saudi Arabia could confiscate the assets of all those accused of corruption. Apparently, the KSA decided that the Saudi dynasty itself would pay for the modernization leap. Although not all of it, but the part that does not agree with the idea of a transition from an oil economy to an innovative one. It should be noted that Prince Mohammad had previously invited his relatives to gratuitously allocate funds to implement his “Vision-20130″ project, but was denied. All in all, about IRR 2 trillion (about USD 800 billion) can be confiscated. A significant part of this amount is in offshore accounts, so at best, it will be possible to recover between USD 500 billion and USD 600 billion, but even this amount would suffice for the implementation of most of the program. At the same time, the cleanup concerns for the most part the very family of Al-Saud, so investors may not be too wary of the fate of their investments. The opposite may be true
The other issue is that Mohammad bin Salman is actually burning bridges behind him, antagonizing the powerful clans of the family. However, the young generations of princes enjoy the support of Mohammad, since the dominance of older generations actually closes the path to power and career growth before them. In this sense, Mohammad’s support base is available, and very serious. The conflict of generations is evident, and he has someone to rely on. It is true that Mohammad is still too young and lacks the usual real-life and direct experience that has to be present here in large numbers. Any mistake could cost him everything, including his own life.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”