Saudi prince reform: A class suicide or survival strategy?
Saudi princes and government officials have been under arrest since last week on the order of the 32-year old crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Is the prince sacrificing the ‘corrupt’ members of the royal family in favour of the oppressed who cheer his radical policy? Or is his action a subterfuge to preserve absolute power in a kingdom that is gradually becoming vulnerable to regime change? AJIBOLA AMZAT (Features Editor) writes.
Recently, Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman ordered the arrest of dozens of princes and bureaucrats deemed to be corrupt. Some observers think the move may bring transparency and accountability to governance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), though at the expense of power loss to the royal family. But others think the arrest is a smokescreen for the prince to consolidate power.
Either of the two outcomes are probable.
Saudi Arabia, like other petrodollar-dependent nations, has lost huge oil revenue to corruption perpetrated by the power elite. In Saudi, the elite are members of the royal family. Corrupt practices by Saudi royals and officials have cost the kingdom at least $100 billion over decades, Saudi Arabia’s attorney general, Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb said in a statement.
With that amount, the desert kingdom can build additional 60 King Fahd International Airports estimated at the cost of $1.7 billion in 1999, or build nearly 160 King Fahd Medical Cities, a medical facility in Riyadh with four hospitals estimated at $633 million.
Saudi media has reported about a government contractor who was accused of absconding with millions of dollars allocated for a Jidda sewage system and never installing any pipes.
At different times, princes have cornered the wealth of the kingdom for self-enrichment.For example, there is an official allegation of embezzlement against ex-Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, a board member of national oil giant Saudi Aramco.Al-Assaf is accused of taking advantage of his position and inside information to benefit from land deals in the expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
Similarly, former Riyadh Governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah is accused of corruption in the Riyadh Metro project and of taking advantage of his influence to award contracts to his own companies.The billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of the king and owner of investment firm Kingdom Holding, is being accused of money laundering, bribery and extorting officials.
Prince Miteb bin Abdullah former head of National Guard was accused of embezzlement, hiring ghost employees and awarding contracts to his own companies. The prince allegedly awarded his company a $10 billion deal for walkie-talkies and bulletproof military gear worth billions of Saudi royals.
Wikileaks cables have also detailed the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives as well as various money-making schemes some have used to finance costly lifestyles.Saudi Arabia indeed is one of the countries with high corruption perception index, according to Transparency International reports. The country’s score drops from 52 percent to 46 last year.
To curb the culture of corruption, the future king has established a new anti-corruption committee, which has the power to investigate, arrest, issue travel bans and freeze the assets of those it finds corrupt.Already, many of those arrested are being detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh and about $800bn-worth of assets frozen, according to reports.
In a bid to reposition the kingdom for economic progress, the crown prince popularly known as MBS has also rolled out a reform plan last year. In the document tagged Vision 2030, the prince announced the plan to wean his country of dependence on oil, diversify its revenue through investment and take advantage of its strategic location in the globe and make the kingdom an epicentre of global trade and commerce within the next 15 years.
He has also taken on the conservatives in the religious establishment in an attempt to relax strict moral codes.The decision to lift ban on women driving in the kingdom, and to cut down the power of the religious police as well as to promote public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists are considered a manifestation of his liberal leaning.
Though all of these moves could transform Saudi Arabia into a more liberal society, observers think the future king may be committing class suicide capable of hurting even his own privileged position. For the more accountable the royal house is, the less power they wield in an open society.
Yet, there are those who read the action of the crown prince differently. They are of the view that the future king is only neutralising the opposition in order to consolidate his power. “This looks like the final step to consolidate MBS’s authority by removing possible challengers,” Colin Kahl, a professor at Georgetown University who served as deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East in the Obama administration, told Vox.
In fact, many saw the move coming when King Salman announced MBS in June as crown prince, in a situation deemed to be a palace coup against his predecessor, Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) who is more experienced and respected. The intrigue actually started in 2015 when King Salman, then 79 years old succeeded king Abdullah who died of pneumonia.
The new King appointed his nephew, MBN, as crown prince and his young son, MBS as his deputy and the defence minister. In Saudi Arabia the crown prince is the heir to the throne, and thus the most powerful next to the king.
But shortly after, the king relieved his nephew of duty and announced his son as new crown prince without a deputy. The decision was a clear signal that the king has chosen a new successor. Today, MBS is regarded as the most powerful crown prince in the history of the kingdom, holding both political and economic power. He is minister of defence, president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs and chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee with power to arrest and detain.
As defence minister, he has used his power to intervene in neighbouring Yemen’s civil war in April 2015 by providing support for the government against the Houthi rebel group, viewed in Riyadh as a proxy for Iran. He also reportedly spearheads the standoff against Qatar alongside with United Arab Emirates and Egypt. To him, Iran with its strong influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is an existential threat. The prince, therefore, views his task as expanding Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East.
As the president of the economic council, he is the major driver of vision 2030, whose goal among others is to increase government non-oil revenue from $163 billion to $1 trillion annually. As Chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, MBS according to many analysts, has removed the final obstacles to his gaining total control of the kingdom by arresting and detaining key members of the royal house.
If he succeeds with his plans, the crown prince may have a smooth ride to power when his father finally leaves the scene, but he will also have to deal with unintended consequence that will redefine the future of Saudi Arabia.
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