Why the Saudi “purge” is not what it seems to be

Daily Trust - - OPINION -

This past week­end, Saudi Ara­bia de­tained nu­mer­ous mem­bers of the royal fam­ily, as well as cur­rent and for­mer min­is­ters and prom­i­nent busi­ness­men, on charges of cor­rup­tion. Many ar­gued that the de­ten­tions con­sti­tute a thinly veiled at­tempt by the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sal­man (MBS) to con­sol­i­date po­lit­i­cal power. How­ever, this nar­ra­tive misses the mark; the “purge” is not about re­mov­ing po­lit­i­cal ri­vals who threat­ened MBS’s po­si­tion as heir ap­par­ent but rather about send­ing a mes­sage to po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic elites that their en­ti­tle­ment to ex­treme wealth and priv­i­lege, and their im­punity, is com­ing to an end.

In in­su­lar non­demo­cratic sys­tems, trumped-up cor­rup­tion charges are of­ten used as a pre­text to elim­i­nate po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. In this con­text, the sweep­ing na­ture of the ar­rests, the high pro­files of the de­tainees (e.g., celebrity in­vestor Prince Waleed bin Talal), and the gen­eral opaque­ness of Saudi pol­i­tics fu­eled spec­u­la­tion that this past week­end’s events con­sti­tuted ex­actly that.

How­ever, a care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of the list of de­tainees be­lies this as­ser­tion. With the ex­cep­tion of Min­is­ter of the Na­tional Guard Prince Mu­taib bin Ab­dal­lah, the de­tainee list is made up en­tirely of in­di­vid­u­als who had no ca­pac­ity to chal­lenge the suc­ces­sion. In­deed, many of those ar­rested, such as Prince Waleed, had gone out of their way to pub­licly ex­press their sup­port for the Crown Prince and curry fa­vor with the new lead­er­ship.

As for Prince Mu­taib, de­spite lead­ing the na­tional guard, he posed no po­lit­i­cal threat to the Crown Prince. Saudi watch­ers have con­sis­tently mis­read a royal fam­ily mem­ber’s com­mand of key mil­i­tary ap­pa­ra­tuses, specif­i­cally, the Min­istry of In­te­rior, the Min­istry of De­fense, and the na­tional guard, as some­thing that gives that fam­ily mem­ber in­de­pen­dent con­trol over his re­spec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion. This is a flawed in­ter­pre­ta­tion. These min­istries have al­ways be­haved as part of the ex­tended gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy that looks to the King, rather than to the in­di­vid­ual min­is­ter, as the ul­ti­mate source of au­thor­ity. This is why no ele­ments in the Min­istry of In­te­rior or in the na­tional guard re­sisted or re­acted to the re­moval of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) or Prince Mu­taib. For these two men, their in­di­vid­ual au­thor­ity over the en­ti­ties they were re­spon­si­ble for ended with the loss of their com­mand. What­ever au­thor­ity they en­joyed had been del­e­gated to them by the king, and once this was with­drawn, that au­thor­ity ended.

In ac­tu­al­ity, Saudi Ara­bia com­pleted its po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion last June when King Sal­man re­placed MBN with MBS as heir to the throne. The tran­si­tion (mis­la­beled a coup by some) saw the el­der MBN be­ing re­lieved of all gov­ern­ment re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, swear­ing an oath of al­le­giance to his younger cousin, and ex­it­ing pol­i­tics. MBN’s re­moval was swiftly fol­lowed by the ap­point­ment of a new gen­er­a­tion of young princes and tech­nocrats to key min­is­te­rial posts and gov­er­norates.

This step in­evitably cre­ated win­ners and losers within the royal fam­ily. Given the rel­a­tively young age of the new Crown Prince, the ac­tion nat­u­rally alien­ated many of MBS’s older cousins, and even some un­cles, who sud­denly found them­selves po­lit­i­cally marginal­ized as a re­sult of their younger rel­a­tive’s rapid rise to power. But alien­ation does not mean that these princes pos­sess the power to threaten the throne or to de­ter­mine the suc­ces­sion. This has been par­tic­u­larly true since the pass­ing of the found­ing gen­er­a­tion of princes who orig­i­nally united the coun­try with the founder, King Ab­dul Aziz. Just as MBN and Prince Mu­taib de­rived their stature and in­flu­ence solely by virtue of the del­e­gated au­thor­ity granted to them by the rul­ing monarch, other mem­bers of the royal fam­ily do too. No royal main­tains an in­de­pen­dent con­stituency among the pop­u­la­tion at large. And, un­like politi­cians in, say, mod­ern Le­banon, or the dukes of medieval Europe, in­di­vid­ual Saudi roy­als lack any di­rect con­stituen­cies among the peo­ple that they can gal­va­nize against the monar­chy by, for ex­am­ple, or­der­ing them to take to the streets, let alone have the ca­pac­ity to mo­bi­lize sec­tions of the mil­i­tary on their own be­half. This is why it is wrong to in­ter­pret last week­end’s ar­rests as an ac­tion that ma­te­ri­ally in­creases the po­lit­i­cal risk to the monar­chy.

Bear­ing this in mind, King Sal­man and MBS have cho­sen to go the pop­ulist route by ap­peal­ing to the Saudi pub­lic, and specif­i­cally to the youth, rather than seek­ing to pla­cate the many “losers” in this suc­ces­sion by lav­ish­ing them with money (a tac­tic widely used in the past that was highly un­pop­u­lar with the Saudi pub­lic and that has be­come in­creas­ingly un­af­ford­able). Now there will be no pay­ing-off of dis­con­tented princes in ex­change for their loy­alty and ac­qui­es­cence.

The very pub­lic ar­rest of these high-pro­file in­di­vid­u­als serves an im­por­tant ob­jec­tive. To be­gin with, the choice of the par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als who were ar­rested is highly sym­bolic. The sys­tem in the Kingdom over the years has cer­tainly pro­duced many more ex­am­ples of cor­rup­tion and ill-got­ten wealth than just these spe­cific peo­ple. Rather than ar­rest ev­ery of­fender, the gov­ern­ment made a de­lib­er­ate choice, se­lect­ing a num­ber of very high-pro­file in­di­vid­u­als with wide name recog­ni­tion, most of whom are in­stantly rec­og­niz­able to the pub­lic and seen as ben­e­fi­cia­ries of ill-got­ten wealth. By do­ing this, the gov­ern­ment sent the mes­sage to all elites that ac­tion will be taken and that no­body is im­mune, en­cour­ag­ing them all to co­op­er­ate with the state in re­turn­ing as­sets and to face the new re­al­ity that the old order has been re­placed with a new one and they had bet­ter rec­on­cile them­selves to it.

In the short term, these de­ten­tions will lead, di­rectly and in­di­rectly to the re­cov­ery of sub­stan­tial ill-got­ten as­sets from many mem­bers of the elite, in­clud­ing, in all prob­a­bil­ity, vast tracts of ur­ban land that were “ac­quired” by se­nior roy­als in decades past.

More im­por­tantly, in a coun­try be­set by an ex­tremely wide po­lit­i­cal spec­trum rang­ing from the ex­treme re­li­gious right to the lib­eral left, achiev­ing con­sen­sus on key is­sues is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble. Hence, if any re­form is to take place within a rea­son­able time frame, it will have to be au­to­crat­i­cally man­aged. Re­forms such as re­mov­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion on women’s driv­ing, com­bat­ing ex­trem­ism, and curb­ing elite en­ti­tle­ments would have been im­pos­si­ble to ac­com­plish through de­lib­er­a­tion and con­sen­sus. Co­er­cive ac­tion and an au­thor­i­tar­ian hand, rather than end­less de­bate, dis­cus­sion, and ne­go­ti­a­tion with thou­sands of roy­als and po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and re­li­gious elites, was needed to drive home to these in­di­vid­u­als that the monar­chy is se­ri­ous about fun­da­men­tal re­form and that the “old guard” needs to get with the pro­gram or face dire con­se­quences.

Ar­rest­ing high-pro­file house­hold names, peo­ple long considered to be un­touch­able, was the best way for the King and the Crown Prince to de­liver the shock needed to re­cal­i­brate the be­hav­ior and ex­pec­ta­tions of the elite class.

What the King and MBS are at­tempt­ing is not new for de­vel­op­ing states pur­su­ing com­pre­hen­sive so­cioe­co­nomic trans­for­ma­tion.

The de­ten­tion of the Kingdom’s own princelings, while clearly au­thor­i­tar­ian and also pop­ulist in na­ture, is nec­es­sary to bring about the type of so­cial and eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion the Kingdom needs to re­struc­ture the so­cial con­tract be­tween the throne and the peo­ple. Are these ac­tions risky? Ab­so­lutely. But when com­pre­hen­sive re­form is re­quired to safe­guard the Kingdom’s post­petroleum fu­ture, and when the sta­tus quo (with, at best, a glacial ap­proach to re­form) threat­ens the coun­try’s present, de­ci­sive ac­tion is not only prefer­able to inaction but also ac­tu­ally far less risky.

Para­dox­i­cally, the Saudi “purge” may very well se­cure the fu­ture of Saudi elites as a class, and even the fu­ture of the very elites who were ar­rested. In Dubai, the crack­down ended when con­victed elites were qui­etly re­leased af­ter they had re­turned looted state as­sets. It is prob­a­ble that the Kingdom will fol­low a sim­i­lar path. For Saudi elites, suc­cumb­ing to a “revo­lu­tion” from above that re­quires them to for­feit some of their ex­treme wealth and priv­i­lege is still prefer­able to a real pop­ulist revo­lu­tion from be­low, which would wipe them out com­pletely and de­stroy the coun­try.

Shi­habi is the founder and the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ara­bia Foun­da­tion.

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