Saudi crown prince’s actions raising concerns about regional instability
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – With the tacit backing of his father, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince has established himself as the most powerful figure in the Arab world, rushing into confrontations on all sides at once.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of 11 princes in his royal family and nearly 200 members of the Saudi business elite, and has begun to take power from the kingdom’s conservative clerics. He has blockaded neighboring Qatar, accused Iran of acts of war and encouraged the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister. And in Yemen, his armed forces are fighting an Iranian-aligned faction in an intractable war that created a humanitarian crisis.
The crown prince has moved so quickly that U.S. officials and others worry that he is destabilizing the region. Signs of potential blowback are growing.
Investors, nervous about his plans, have been moving money out of the kingdom. Prince Mohammed has sought to counter the capital flight by squeezing detainees and others to surrender assets. He has presented the arrests as a campaign against corruption, but his targets call it a shakedown, and he has turned for advice to a former Egyptian security chief who has been pilloried at home for brutality and graft.
Prince Mohammed’s supporters say he is simply taking the drastic measures needed to turn around the kingdom’s graft-ridden and oil-dependent economy while pushing back against Iranian aggression.
But analysts around the region debate whether the headlong rush might be driven more by a desire to consolidate power before a possible royal succession, desperation for cash to pay for his plans or simply unchecked ambition to put his stamp on the broader Middle East. And despite President Trump’s enthusiasm for the prince, some in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies say they fear that his impulsiveness could both set back his own goals and destabilize the region.
“He’s decided he doesn’t do anything cautiously,” said Philip Gordon, the White House Middle East coordinator under President Barack Obama. But, Gordon said, “if the crown prince alienates too many other princes and other pillars of the regime, pursues costly regional conflicts and scares off foreign investors, he could undermine the prospects for the very reforms he is trying to implement.”
The extrajudicial arrests have spooked investors enough, analysts say, to extinguish the prince’s plans for a public stock offering of Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, in New York or London next year. It had been a centerpiece of his overhaul.
The crown prince’s threats against Iran and Lebanon have raised the specter of wars that the Saudi military, already bogged down in Yemen, is illequipped to fight. Riyadh would be forced to depend on the United States or Israel in any new conflict.
His corruption purge at home, meanwhile, risks alienating parts of the royal family and the financial elite at a moment that would appear to demand unity, either to smooth a succession or to face off against Iran. As many as 17 people detained in the anti-corruption campaign have required medical treatment for abuse by their captors, according to a doctor from the nearest hospital and a U.S. official tracking the situation.
The former Egyptian security chief, Habib el-Adli, said by one of his advisers and a former Egyptian interior minister to be advising Prince Mohammed, earned a reputation for brutality and torture under President Hosni Mubarak. His lawyers say he plans to appeal his recent sentence in absentia in Egypt to seven years in prison on charges of corruption.
Officials of the Saudi Royal Court referred press queries about these reports to the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, where a spokeswoman, Fatimah Baeshen, said the embassy could not confirm or dispute them.
With the decline in the price of oil in recent years, Saudi Arabia has frozen projects and spent more than a third of its financial reserves, draining them to about $475 billion this fall from a peak of $737 billion in August 2014. At that burn rate, the kingdom has only a few years to lift its revenue or slash its spending to forestall a financial crisis.
Against that backdrop, the prince’s supporters argue that the anti-corruption campaign aims to recapture hundreds of billions of dollars that have leaked from the state budget through graft and self-dealing – money he needs to fund his development plans.
Prince Mohammed had appealed to the kingdom’s wealthy for months to invest in his modernization program. But some groused privately that his plans – like a new $500 billion business hub “for the dreamers of the world,” built from scratch and fueled entirely by clean energy – were ill-conceived and grandiose, and instead of investing at home they quietly moved their assets abroad.
Now, he is no longer merely asking. The Saudi government is pressing some of those detained and others still at large to sign over large sums in exchange for better treatment, according to a U.S. official briefed on the crackdown and associates of the royal family. Employees of some of those arrested had been summoned months before to answer questions about their bosses, a sign that the purge was planned well in advance.
A senior Saudi official defending the crackdown said this week that it was meant to show that the old rules of business in the kingdom had changed.
“Corruption is at every level, and there are hundreds of billions of riyals that are lost from the national economy every year,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government matters.