Tabula Rasa in Saudi Arabia

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Images of the reception of members of the Saudi royal family and other dignitaries, exchanging loyalty and complicity, were boring, but the purge of last weekend in Riyadh may end all this. Could the young crown prince be Saudi’s form of populism? We do not know. We also don’t know if the announced reforms will stop the cruelty and discrimination of a regime that can only be compared to North Korea. What we do know is that the change in Saudi Arabia might shake the world.


When the world was focused on North Korea and the Pacific, fearing an escalation of the nuclear crisis, a bomb exploded at the other end of the globe–in the middle of the desert. President Trump was in the air, traveling to Japan on the first leg of his 12-day Asian tour when a massive purge began deep in the Riyadh night. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old son of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, ordered the arrest of some of the most powerful and recognizable names in the country, including princes and members of the Saudi royal family, cabinet ministers, media and industry untouchables, government officials. The detainees, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a wealthy investor who owns major stakes in such companies as Twitter and Citigroup, were all locked up in Riyadh’s luxury hotels.

Not only did the massive arrest sweep up the richest of the rich, but for the first time in the eighty year history of the regime, all the power is concentrated in the hands of the person who, as a teenager, wanted to become Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. He rose to power with the help of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who reversed the old tradition of choosing the crown princes from among the monarch’s younger brothers and picked his own son as the heir of the kingdom. Prince Salman now pledges to revolutionize the regime, enriched endlessly by oil sales to America and other superpowers. While commanding the army, intelligence and the royal guard, and challenging conservative clerics, he aims to transform the kingdom of terror into a modern country that no longer depends solely on oil.  

Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was appointed in June, but it was few months before, in April, that he, as the head of the newly established Council for Economic and Development Affairs, imposed the vast range of social and economic reforms for the monarchy.

“The vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” includes the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, which will eventually hold more than $2 trillion in assets—enough to buy all of Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Berkshire Hathaway, the world’s four largest public companies. The prince plans an IPO that could sell off “less than five percent” of Saudi Aramco, the national oil producer (worth from 2 to 7 trillion dollars), which will be turned into the world’s biggest industrial conglomerate. The fund will diversify into non petroleum assets, hedging the kingdom’s nearly total dependence on oil for revenue. The tectonic moves “will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil,” the prince told Bloomberg.

Together with the news of dramatic developments in the isolated Kingdom traveled the explanation that the massive arrest of the old guard in the monarchy was the consequence of an investigation that discovered huge amounts of misused or embezzled money. Reuters reported:

Saudi officials in Riyadh have frozen over 1,700 domestic bank accounts as part of the crackdown. The UAE, particularly its most commercially prominent emirate Dubai, is one of the main places where wealthy Saudis park their money abroad. In addition to bank accounts, they buy luxury apartments and villas in Dubai and invest in the emirate’s volatile stock market.

Huge amounts of money may be at stake. Corruption has over the years siphoned off 800 billion dollars from Saudi state revenues, an official at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry has estimated; bankers believe much of it is held abroad, in countries including Switzerland and Britain.

Nothing new here, one might assume, except that the figures are mind-boggling. And almost nobody was so naive to believe that the reason for the crackdown was corruption. Such was the conviction at least of all the speakers during a conference call, a few days after the purge, organized by the Wilson Center. Entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones,” most participants argued that the crackdown against corruption and the arrests resulting served for the consolidation of power of the young prince.

David Ottaway, Middle East Specialist and Former Washington Post correspondent, thinks that Saudis have opened Pandora’s box, warning that when family members start fighting amongst one another, one never knows the outcome. Power in one set of hands is nothing else but trouble in a monarchy full of intrigue, said Ottaway, who mentioned the resemblance between the young prince and Trump. “Salman resembles Trump in the sense that he too is a strong and impulsive leader. Trump sees in him someone of his own character. So the relationship is close. He may escalate the war against Iran, and the US will have to decide whether they will back his war with Iran and with Yemen,” he said.

When it comes to Iran, the intrigue that smells of conspiracy looms larger. Just a few hours before the purge, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned during his visit to Saudi Arabia. In a televised address from Riyadh, Hariri said, he feared an assassination plot and accused Iran of meddling in the region, causing “devastation and chaos.” Saudi-Iranian tensions were growing for years and, for bin Salman, Tehran is the source of all regional evils. He could no longer tolerate that Hariri would continue to preside over a government that includes Hezbollah, Tehran’s most loyal partner. Hariri thought that coexistence with Hezbollah, and by extension with Iran, was possible, despite close ties with the Saudis. His departure is designed, by Salman, to show that he was wrong. With Hariri gone, Lebanon has joined the league of Saudi Arabian enemies.

Since Saudis pressured the Sunni Lebanese prime minister to resign in an effort to expose an Iranian- and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, the remaining question is what will they do when the Lebanese find themselves plunged into domestic crisis or a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah?

None of the participants of the debate in the conference call (Gerald Feierstein, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen; Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi journalist; Aaron David Miller, a scholar at Woodrow Wilson) could not even guess what turn the Saudi Arabian coup may be taking. There is only one thing that is certain: Prince Salman is not alone in all this. President Trump publicly endorsed the purge, indicating that Saudi Arabia knows exactly what it’s doing. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also Trump’s diplomatic adviser, was in Saudi Arabia on an unannounced visit just a few days before the crackdown, and the suspicion is that he too knew what the Prince was doing. In other words, the people in the White House are happy to see Saudis join their campaign against Iran and including Riyadh in the strategy for reorganizing the Middle East peace process.

But the question is if there is a such a strategy. Another hint that something is cooking came from the Jerusalem Post, which wrote that times are changing in the Middle East as alien nations find common ground in a bid to avert Iran supremacy within the region. The paper confirms the opening of the dialogue between Israel and Saudi Arabia, adding: “News of a secret visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Israel in September suggests that the need for stronger ties is ever increasing. Adding to the media frenzy over the possible opening of diplomatic relations between the two nations was news of Kushner visiting both countries last month.”

Has the sausage been made? Far from it, though there are few hints. We know that the former President Obama had very little sympathy for Israel and Saudi Arabia and that Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. As Aaron Miller said:

The Middle East is usually a place where U.S. schemes and dreams for transforming this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region go to die. But the Saudis turned Trump’s first foray outside the United States into a veritable love fest and string of hyperboles: He cut “tremendous” deals and expressed his pride in the new relationship and the “like-minded” goals the two nations share. The Saudis, having mesmerized and disarmed the president and official Washington with their glowing orb, were given a series of blank checks and a margin to maneuver in the region — without giving much in return.

We know that Israel and the U.S. are now bound together as never before. But are the three potential new plotters able to carry out a strategy that would reshape the Middle East’s desperate and entangled situation? This story is definitely bigger than the proposed triangle between Washington, Riyadh, and Jerusalem.

For instance, we do not know what exactly happened last October during the first official trip of a ruling Saudi monarch to Moscow since the foundation of the Kingdom. King Salman went to Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as Saudi concerns about Iran’s regional policies. But he also wanted to introduce his son, Muhammad bin Salman, as successor and, thus, secure Russian support for him. Was he successful? The Russians did not mind engaging the Saudis, and both sides apparently signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” for the purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense missile system, which Moscow already sold to Beijing and New Delhi. Together with the Kalashnikov assembly line, Russian arms sales amount to $1.5 billion. That is one hundred times less than the arms the U.S. is selling to Saudis.

There is no doubt that Mohammed bin Salman’s priority is to maintain his kingdom’s alliance with the United States. Some time ago, in an interview with Reuters, he said, “We have been influenced by you in the U.S. a lot. Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “we would have ended up like North Korea.” With the United States as a continuing ally, “undoubtedly, we’re going to merge more with the world.”

Salman wanted to do this without seeming to be America’s puppet. But Saudi Arabia, no matter how cruel and conservative its regime, could never become North Korea. The reason for this is not Hollywood, but the private economy and above all the foreign assets and investments. Protecting those interests is now the biggest worry of the West. The folks with the money in Iran would like to hear and receive certain guarantees from the young Saudi leader. They could not care less whether he is to become reformer or dictator.  

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