The night of November 5 was a long one in Riyadh. Saudi authorities began a widespread crackdown aimed, on the one hand, against former economic policymakers and business leaders and, on the other, against the chiefs of the Saudi National Guard and Saudi Royal Navy. This had the look of a political purge – but it is much bigger than that.
The first sign of how serious this was came on November 4 with the removal of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, eldest son of the late King Abdullah and head of a powerful fiefdom, the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Essentially a force of tribal recruits from throughout Saudi Arabia, the guard’s structure still bears the mark of King Abdullah, who oversaw it from its foundation in 1962 before passing it to Mutaib in 2015.
Then it was the turn of Saudi economic moguls, who have influenced financial policymaking and its implementation for years. The most remarkable takedowns were those of Prince Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world and a nephew of King Salman; Ibrahim Assaf, former finance minister and father of Prince Waleed’s daughter-in-law; Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the former governor of Riyadh; and Adel Fakeih, minister for economy and planning.
Also taken into custody were Khaled al-Tuweijri, the extremely influential advisor to King Abdullah and head of his royal court, and Amar al-Dabbagh, former head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority. Business magnates were seized too, among them Saleh Kamel, Walid al-Ibrahim, and Bakr bin Laden, owner of the Saudi Bin Laden group.
Most of those arrested were prime figures in the political order under King Abdullah, with Khaled al-Tuweijri, Mutaib, and Turki among the most powerful members of the royal court. Ibrahim Assaf and Amar al-Dabbagh were vital to economic policy. Adel Fakeih the minister of economy and planning and formerly of Health and Labour had also remained the mayor of Jeddah for five years. The notorious Jeddah floods in which scores died, occurred during his tenure.
In the world of money and communications, Walid al-Ibrahim was owner of the Middle East Broadcasting Company and its subsidiary channels. Walid also launched al-Arabiya News TV, in which Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd – also a nephew of Walid and the youngest son of King Fahd – reportedly had major shares. Saleh Abdullah Kamel is another prominent businessman, and the chairman of Dallah Albaraka Group.
This shakeup is not just a consolidation of power by the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, but an act of persecution against members of King Abdullah’s policymaking circle. To properly move on from the Abdullah era, the leftovers of the old order had to be scrapped, and suddenly their time was up. The removal of Mutaib Bin Abdullah is merely a continuation of Mohammad bin Salman’s strategy to bring the various royals’ security fiefdoms under his direct control. The removal of former crown prince and interior minister Mohammad bin Nayef, King Salman’s nephew, was only the first step.
The Saudi government has framed the arrests as an anti-corruption drive and touted them as proof it is prepared to act against even the kingdom’s richest and most powerful figures. Even Prince Mutaib has been purportedly accused of graft in the purchase of bulletproof vests. Mohammad Bin Salman has stuck to the anti-corruption line in public, as have his lieutenants; in an interview with Bloomberg, the crown prince’s advisor, Mohammad al-Sheikh, spoke of uncontrolled spending during the oil boom of 2010-2014, with US$80-100 billion lost to inefficiency each year.
These financial habits and dealings led Saudi Arabia into a difficult situation, and at the time, Mohammad bin Salman – then “only” the defence minister – was not powerful enough to take on these influential royals and business elites. But once he became crown prince in June 2017 and saw Mohammad bin Nayef dispatched, the stage was set for a big political leap.
Bringing the state’s axe down on the Abdullah circle could fulfil an economic motive and satisfy a PR objective, raising the crown prince’s profile with the Saudi populace. And for now, Mohammad bin Salman has checked any attempts by the Saudi elite to question his grand schemes of the Economic Transformation Plan and Vision 2030. Having already detained religious dissenters, the crown prince has secured the economic and business fronts in his strategy, and managed to reshape his country’s security apparatuses. The way is clear, if all goes to plan, for him to take the Saudi throne.