Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s apparent purge of royal cousins, high-ranking officials and prominent businessmen over corruption allegations opens a new chapter in the political history of the house of Saud. The arrests come in the wake of a wave of other recent arrests, including of clerics, human rights activists and intellectuals.
It was said that the November 4 decree was created due to “the exploitation of some weaklings who followed their own interests rather than the public interest, who attacked public money without regard for religion, conscience, morals, or patriotism…”. The decree reported that the committee – composed of the crown prince, the head of the Control and Investigation Board, the head of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the head of the General Auditing Bureau, the attorney general and the head of the Presidency of State Security – will have unlimited power to investigate cases, order arrests, impose travel bans and seize assets without judicial review. Though the direct and transparent reason behind these purges remains unclear, there are rumors that suggest that the arrests were made in response to a plot against King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, who took the throne in January 2015 following the death of his half brother, Abdullah. Moreover, it is now well-known that in order for King Salman to crown his son Mohammed bin Salman and name him his chosen successor he had to prepare a palace coup.
These arrests come at a crucial moment in Saudi social and political history. For the past few months there have been moves on the side of the king and his son toward a more moderate version of Wahhabi Islam, without seeking any support from the Saudi clerics or tribal institutions. In this process, King Salman is counting on the approval of the Saudi youth, which represents about two-thirds of the population, in order to counterbalance the attacks of the old guards. Though, it is too early to make any predictions on the outcome of the power struggle, what can be said for sure is that these purges have come at a moment of deep domestic crisis and external challenges for Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia is in despair because its economic problems due to low oil prices and its military and strategic engagements around the Middle East. Riyadh’s inability to deal with external challenges can be analysed and argued by referring to Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. As such, it is not without any reason that the family purges in Riyadh came even as the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Riyadh’s main proxy, resigned after criticising Iranian interference in the politics of his country. By asking Hariri to pull out of the coalition government in Lebanon, King Salman and his son are hoping to weaken the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s strongest proxy in the region. Also, Saudi’s mass purge of elites comes two weeks after the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sealed a new alliance between Saudi Arabia and Iraq that would shut the doors of the Arab world to neighboring Iran. Not surprisingly, following the Saudi palace purge, US President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the action and expressed “great confidence” in the Saudi leaders.
We should then expect the worst in the Middle East in the next few months given a few developments. First, by forcing Hariri to resign, King Salman and his son seem to be paving the path toward a military confrontation with Iran. Second, the open support by Washington and Tel Aviv for a Saudi-Iranian conflict would most probably plunge the Middle East in yet another deadly military confrontation. Third, thanks to the indifference of the White House to the recent events in Saudi Arabia and its immediate consequences, American diplomacy in the Middle East will become marginalised more than ever. Lastly, Saudi Arabia’s open military threat against Iran, even in short term, would complicate matters for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by giving Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other conservatives a good reason not to back the nuclear deal, while increasing their support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In fact, it would appear that the war designed by the Saudis to weaken Iran in Yemen is actually playing against them domestically and internationally. But let us not forget that many countries, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, are in the crossfires of the escalating tension between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran. The Middle East is burning while we witness a royal crackdown in Riyadh and Trump has a magical mystery Asia tour.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.