The arrest of Prince Waleed bin Talal bin Abdelaziz Al Sa’ud and several other princes in Saudi Arabia is a clear sign that the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Sa’ud (MBS) intends openly to govern Sa’udi Arabia as the absolutist monarch that he is. Up until now the key ruling princes of the Al Sa’ud family have used a combination of patronage and force to maintain power, in other words a mailed fist in a velvet glove. The glove is off.
The ostensible official reason for the arrests is a crackdown on corruption. This is playing to the galleries. Although many in the middle classes in Sa’udi Arabia will be happy to see some of the princes brought low, particularly ones that have been milking the country’s wealth for years, the real reason for this move is clearly a consolidation of power by MBS within both the country as a whole and within the royal family. This is borne out by the list of those arrested.
MBS basically eviscerated the lines of the two previous Kings, the Al Abdullah and the Al Fahd. Why? In the case of the Al Abdullah line he arrested Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, Turki bin Abdullah and Abdulaziz bin Abdullah. This basically removes this line from competing for the succession and organizing the Shammari tribe in opposition to either King Salman or MBS. Abdullah’s mother had been a Shammari tribeswoman and the Shammari were the rulers of Ha’il until their defeat by King Abdelaziz in 1921. The most important of these three princes is Miteb who commanded the Sa’udi National Guard. The SANG is the only military formation in Sa’udi Arabia that could possibly have opposed the new regime so Miteb’s removal neutralizes that potential threat.
In respect of the Al Fahd Iine I suspect that money is a very important motive. Sa’ud and Abdelaziz Al Fahd were relatively unimportant and there is a rumor circulating that Abdelaziz, the youngest and reputedly most spoiled son of King Fahd was killed shooting it out with the forces sent to arrest him in this purge. Muhammad bin Fahd was relieved of his duties as Governor of the Eastern Province in 2013. However, while in office he was allocated 500,000 barrels of oil a day from ARAMCO production. It is the money controlled by the Al Fahd that is the nexus that led to the arrest of Prince Waleed bin Talal. Waleed had been used as a front by King Fahd and the Al Fahd to manage their private investments. Taking the three brothers eliminates that line of rivals and taking Waleed on charges of corruption opens the way to expropriate assets belonging to the Al Fahd which may well be in excess of $50 billion. Given the current financial state of the Kingdom, this together with expropriations from the other detainees is a strong motivating factor behind these arrests.
No other princes were arrested. That fact is telling. Thus only the Al Abdullah and Al Fahd lines were broken as well as the front man for the Al Fahd. It has been announced that this is only the start of the anti- corruption drive so that will most likely mean that there will be substantial expropriation of assets by the new regime. This could very well extend to the sons of Prince Sultan bin Abdelaziz the late Minister of Defense and the late Mishal bin Abdelaziz both of whom used their positions to extraordinary financial advantage. The asset appropriation may also extend beyond Sa’udi Arabia as well. The firing of Saad Al Harriri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon is an example. Saad was deeply in bed in Lebanon with Waleed who had extensive investments in that country. The congruence of Saad’s position and the proxy war against Iran and their ally Hizbollah are additional complicating elements. It can be reasonably assumed that MBS was intent on killing two birds with one stone and that there will be an escalation of the regional conflict between Sa’udi Arabia and Iran played out in the Lebanon shortly.
In addition to ex Ministers there were a number of arrests of clerics or religious leaders. This is being spun by the state as in keeping with a new policy to move away from the hardline Salafi interpretation of Islam and to create a newer, open, moderate Islamic polity in the Kingdom. This is disingenuous and is PR for the West’s consumption. The religious authorities (‘ulema) in Sa’udi Arabia have over the years been the only check on the growth of royal absolutism in that country. They have positioned themselves as the upholders of the true Islam and of Islamic ideals. One of the core political tenants of Islam is that there is no kingship in Islam. This has always been a nuisance to the absolutist tendencies of the Al Sa’ud and they have always walked a tightrope between their inclination to absolutist rule and appeasing the religious establishment. This led King Fahd to go so far as to change his official title from King (Malik) to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Thus breaking the power of the ‘ulema consolidates further power in the hands of the new rulers of the country. I think it is fair to assume that with nearly half the population below the age of 25 that the power of the clerics has already weakened in the society and that MBS is in touch with that trend and is using this moment to sweep away the old order. The fact that he is implementing certain liberal reforms such as allowing women to drive and attend soccer matches, and allowing music concerts to take place means merely that in order to rule there must be some consensus between ruler and ruled and some of the desires of the ruled must be met. Breaking the power of elements within the ruling family and of the clerics clearly taps into the desires held by many of the younger members of the society.
However, I learned in my time in the region that there are certain things that do not change and that there are cultural patterns that have endured for centuries if not millennia. One of these is the tendency to paternal absolutism in Arab culture. I see MBS’s actions taken straight from the political philosophy of the second Khalif ‘Umar ibn Al Khattab who famously summed up his approach to governance thusly: “The Arab in an unruly camel but I will tame him with my whip”.