Saudi crown prince’s ac­tions rais­ing con­cerns about re­gional in­sta­bil­ity

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Ben Hub­bard and David D. Kirk­patrick

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.