Saudi night of the long knives

Summary: “anti-graft” campaign, many arrested including super-rich and the National Guard commander. Possible reasons.

The weekend of 4/5 November saw a number of big stories from Saudi Arabia, some connected, some probably not. On 4 November the King issued a series of orders described as “anti-graft”, because of “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money.” An anticorruption committee was established chaired by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and with Draconian powers. It is reportedly looking into the 2009 floods that devastated parts of Jeddah, as well as the government’s response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus outbreak.

On the same day 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of top business figures and former ministers were arrested. The princes included several “Royal Highnesses”, direct descendants of the founder king Ibn Saud, the core of the royal family. No official list has been published; they include HRH Prince Walid bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world, and many others whose common characteristic is that they are super-rich and that their wealth is mainly inside Saudi Arabia and therefore accessible (whereas other super-rich such as Prince Khalid bin Sultan, not arrested, have most of their money outside). An Al Jazeera report has profiles of some of the “moguls”. Guests at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh were told to leave, presumably to turn it into a sort of prison.

Detained at His Majesty’s pleasure

HRH Prince Mut’ib bin Abdullah, son of the late King Abdullah, was replaced as head of the National Guard by the relatively unknown Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf and also reportedly detained.

Other big stories were explosions over Riyadh airport, apparently a SCUD-type ballistic missile fired from Yemen and destroyed by a Patriot anti-missile missile, the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, described in an Al Jazeera report as “a clearly orchestrated move produced and executed by his paymasters in Riyadh”, and the death of the deputy governor of Asir province and several others in a helicopter crash close to the Yemen border.

This wave of arrests was not of course foreseen, but nor was it entirely unexpected. The leading Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a loyalist in the days of King Abdullah now in self-exile in the USA, wrote in the Washington Post of 18 September of “fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds “, referring to the earlier arrests of intellectuals, clerics and others, the common factor at that time being accusations of “being recipients of Qatari money and part of a grand Qatari-backed conspiracy.” On 24 October in an article headed “Domestic Troubles for the Saudi Arabian Leadership” Imad Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington, described the Saudi leadership as “increasingly on a path toward serious domestic challenges”.

What is behind this wave of arrests, a dramatic move which may probably have unintended and at present unforeseen consequences? The first explanation is that it is in effect a coup, simply intended to reinforce MBS’s position as uncontested leader, in plain language dictator. Unless there is some strong reaction, it will certainly contribute to his strength. But the people who have been arrested were not an obvious threat to it. Of course these arrests and the previous wave of arrests may be intended to intimidate those who are.

A second explanation is that it was a counter-coup, to pre-empt a possible move against MBS. Again that makes little sense as regards most of the arrests. But Prince Mut’ib is an exception. The National Guard was in the past regarded as a force available to protect the royal family, for example from a military coup. Its commander was Prince Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz from 1962 until he became king in 2005 and handed command to his son Prince Mut’ib in 2010. When King Salman succeeded King Abdullah, the National Guard commanded by Prince Mut’ib might be seen as continuing in the same role, but it could also be seen as the last power centre which was not under the control of Salman and his family. His arrest eliminates that.

The third explanation is money. Those arrested can be expected to pay for their release and partial rehabilitation, and the money involved is very large indeed.

The three explanations are not mutually exclusive. The orders issued by the King, and the extraordinary wealth of those arrested, suggest that it may be the third explanation that is the most important. According to the anonymous anti-regime blogger Mujtahidd, MBS may be able to extract two or three trillion riyals of which half a trillion may be used to fill a gap in the state budget and the remainder will be at MBS’s disposal.

Did you know we also produce a newsletter exclusively about Saudi Arabia? Contact the Arab Digest editor for more information.

This is a sample Arab Digest newsletter.

To start receiving complete daily newsletters, click on the link below for your Free 30-day Trial or Join Arab Digest now to receive full membership benefits.

Join TodayBack to Sample NewslettersFree 30-day Trial