A crown prince consolidates power
“These are times of major change for Saudi Arabia,” said (United Arab Emirates) in an editorial. In a sweeping anti-corruption purge last week, the kingdom detained 11 princes, four government ministers, and dozens of former officials and businessmen. This royal housecleaning is taking place “against a backdrop of sweeping social and political changes within the kingdom.” Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old likely successor to his father, King Salman, has spearheaded a modernization drive in recent months— developing ambitious economic plans for the kingdom’s post-oil future, lifting the country’s ban on women drivers, and promising a crackdown on Islamist extremists. But reforms “can only work in a transparent landscape,” one that can’t be realized if money-hoarding royals keep milking the kingdom of billions of dollars through rigged business deals. “In the new Saudi Arabia, no one is above the law.” U.S. President Trump is cheering on this corruption crackdown, said Arab News (Saudi Arabia). “King Salman and the crown prince,” Trump tweeted this week, “know exactly what they’re doing.”
This purge isn’t about corruption, said David Gardner in the Financial Times (U.K.), it’s about consolidating power. The arrests came just hours after the establishment of an anti-corruption commission headed by the crown prince, who earlier this year pushed aside an older cousin to become first in line to the throne. Among those detained was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the 65-year-old former head of the powerful National Guard. “The Guard, built around the kingdom’s intricate tribal networks, is probably the last autonomous power center standing between the crown prince and the throne.” More puzzling is the arrest of billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, said Jamal Elshayyal in Qatar-based AlJazeera .com. On paper, Mohammed and the 62-year-old tycoon—who has investments in Apple, Citigroup, and other Western blue-chip firms—“sound like a match made in heaven.” Both want to transform Saudi Arabia into a “secular” society, and both detest democracy. Alwaleed’s sin may have been his refusal to put up money to support the Saudi economy, which has sputtered since oil prices dropped precipitously in 2014. The message from Prince Mohammed to the elite is “Pay up or get locked up.”
Mohammed is attempting to pull off a difficult balancing act, said Michael Stephens in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). With oil revenue shrinking, Saudi Arabia has to cut its generous welfare state and bloated public sector. But the crown prince knows he can’t ask the public—two-thirds of whom are under 30—to go through austerity while tolerating widespread elite corruption. Hence the purges—“a few fat cats thrown to the fire should mean a few more months of breathing space.” The crown prince still has worries: Conservative clerics are angry at the direction he’s taking the country, as are disgruntled royals. In the long term, his reform agenda might provide stability for Saudi Arabia. “Short-term, however, it could be a bumpy ride.”
Prince Mohammed: Authoritarian or reformer?