by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 10, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1439)
Has Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bitten more than he can chew? The November 4 arrest of 11 princes, dozens of ministers (both current and former), bankers, businessmen and media moguls and their allies has lunged the medieval kingdom into a huge crisis. Bin Salman (BS) has taken on such titans of the ruling family as Mu‘tib ibn ‘Abdullah, hitherto head of the National Guard, as well as Prince al-Walid ibn Talal, the most prominent Saudi investor and businessman whose personal fortune is estimated to be around $19 billion. He is an American citizen but Donald Trump is not losing any sleep over it since the Saudi had opposed his run for the presidency!
Couched in the language of “fighting corruption,” Bin Salman’s real aim is to try and eliminate all potential rivals and their supporters in his drive to grab absolute power as well as grab some of their wealth. Reports say that as many as 500 people have been arrested. Bloomberg news reported (November 9) that the accounts of more than 1,200 people had been frozen and the sums involved varied from $100 billion to as high as $800 billion. The arrests are also part of an extortion racket through which Bin Salman wants to finance some of his grandiose plans.
BS has been described both as “reckless” and “bold,” depending on one’s outlook. Aside from personal preferences, the fact is that BS has opened up too many fronts simultaneously. It is never wise to fight too many enemies at the same time.
The latest crisis in the medieval kingdom followed soon after the forced resignation of Sa‘d al-Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister. Al-Hariri was summoned to Riyadh and handed a resignation statement to read on Saudi television channel al-‘Arabiya.
Those familiar with the Arabic language immediately noticed the Saudi colloquial in which al-Hariri delivered his speech. Full of venom against Hizbullah and Islamic Iran, it was written for him by his Saudi paymasters. Al-Hariri had violated Lebanon’s constitution under which he had taken the oath of office. The constitution requires him to submit his resignation to President Michel Aoun in Beirut, not announce it on the TV channel of a foreign country. Like his late father, al-Hariri also holds both Lebanese and Saudi citizenship but as prime minister of Lebanon, he is obliged to follow Lebanon’s law!
Al-Hariri’s resignation is one part of the jigsaw puzzle that has wider regional implications including plans for a regional war involving Zionist Israel’s attack on Hizbullah and Syria with the ultimate aim of attacking Islamic Iran. The Saudis are too incompetent to fight but they will pay the Zionists to do their dirty work for them. It could easily draw in other players including the US and Russia into a direct military confrontation in Syria. The consequences would be catastrophic.
As this frightening scenario was evolving and its implications being digested, Bin Salman launched the wholesale arrest of senior princes, ministers, and businessmen under the rubric of routing out “corruption Every member of the Bani Saud clan and their cronies are mired in corruption to their necks. The regime’s machinery runs entirely on corruption and patronage. There is no line dividing state revenues from the ruling family’s personal fortunes.
Bin Salman is hardly Mr. Clean even if many Saudis are happy about the arrest of some royal crooks. Only a few months earlier, he bought a yacht for more than $500 million. Where did this money come from? His father, the ailing and aged King Salman, also owns tens of millions of dollars worth of properties in London. When state revenues are treated as personal fortune, the question of the source of money becomes academic but the arrest of dozens of princes and others raises questions about Bin Salman’s real motives.
The arrests give a clue to the trouble that has been brewing in the inner sanctums of the Bani Saud clan where other, more senior and experienced royals have expressed unease with the way BS has handled (or mishandled) policy, internally as well as externally. Hitherto such disagreements were kept away from the public domain presenting a united front but they have now exploded into the open.
The real target of the purge was Mut‘ib ibn ‘Abdullah, head of the National Guard, who was seen as the main challenger to his assumption of absolute power on the basis of his control of the National Guard. Mut‘ib’s dismissal was widely expected but it is surprising that he did not take precautionary measures to defend his position and allowed Bin Salman to strike first.
Mut‘ib’s brother and one time governor of Riyadh province Turki ibn ‘Abdullah was also arrested, as was Khalid al-Tuwayjiri, former head of the royal court. Mut‘ib and al-Tuwayjiri were the specific targets of Bin Salman. The two men were involved in a plot to grab power before King ‘Abdullah died (he was in a coma in hospital) in January 2015. Then, Crown Prince Salman was to be sidelined and replaced by Mut‘ib ibn ‘Abdullah by forging the comatose king’s signature on the transfer decree (everything in the Kingdom is done through decrees!).
Mut‘ib and al-Tuwayjiri had kept this a tightly guarded secret but Salman and his son got wind of it and the plot was blocked before it could be put into action.
To get a sense of how wide Bin Salman has cast his net against opponents — real and imagined — here is a short list of detainees:
• al-Walid ibn Talal, owner of Kingdom Holding group and the most prominent Saudi foreign investor;
• Walid al-Ibrahim, chairman of MBC media group and brother-in-law of the late King Fahd;
• ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Fahd (favorite son of former King Fahd); there were rumors that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had been killed but it was later denied by the Saudi Ministry of Information, however there is still no confirmed news about ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s fate.
• Bandar ibn Sultan, former ambassador to Washington and later intelligence chief;
• Prince Turki ibn Nasir, former head of meteorology, environment;
• ‘Adil Faqih, minister of economy and planning and former mayor of Jiddah;
• Amr al-Dabbagh, former president of the General Investment Authority;
• Salih ‘Abdullah Kamil, chairman of Dallah al-Baraka Group (including al-Baraka Bank); he is reported to have close links with the Muslim Brotherhood;
• Sa‘ud al-Tubayshi, head of Royal ceremonies and protocols;
• Ibrahim al-Assaf, Former Fi-nance Minister, state minister and executive of Saudi Aramco;
• Bakr ibn Ladin, owner of construction company Saudi Bin-ladin Group;
• Sa‘ud al-Dawish, former CEO of Saudi Telecom Company;
• Khalid al-Mulhim, former di-rector general of Saudi Arabian Airlines.
In addition, the dismissal of Saudi navy chief ‘Abdullah al-Sultan as well as several high-ranking army officers suggests that they had disagreed with Bin Salman’s policy vis-à-vis Yemen. The Saudi-led war on Yemen is going nowhere. Instead, it has raised the possibility of war crimes charges being brought against those prosecuting it.
Bin Salman’s arrest of so many princes is unprecedented. Some detainees have also been tortured to extract confessions and force them to divulge their bank account details. Those arrested or killed (Mansur ibn Muqrin, whose father was unceremoniously dismissed as crown prince in May 2015, was killed in a mysterious helicopter crash on November 5) include members of the Bin Nayif, Bin Sultan, Bin ‘Abdullah, Bin Talal, Bin Muqrin, and Bin Fahd lines within Bani Saud. That is a whole lot of bins to throw into the dustbin. Surely, members of these other bins also have supporters in the Kingdom.
In his ruthless drive to become king, Bin Salman has taken on too many opponents at once. If he is counting on the imperialists and Zionists to help him, he might find that they may be setting him up for a fall. The medieval kingdom has entered a dangerous phase and Bani Saud’s rule is no longer assured.