The stunning arrest of dozens of prominent princes, ministers, and businessmen once thought untouchable, and indications of a broadening campaign against corruption, raise fundamental questions about the future direction of Saudi Arabia. The debate on whether the current round of arrests is a genuine campaign against corruption or a power grab by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman misses the fundamental point: The Saudi state is being remade before our eyes. While not inevitable, the timing of this transformation does make logical sense. Saudi Arabia is at an inflection point, where the old rules of powersharing, wealth distribution, and patrimonial management of the public will no longer work.
Eradicating the Fiefdoms
For the past several decades, power in Saudi Arabia has been shared among the sons of the founder, King Abdulaziz al-Saud. It has been an imperfect system – Saudi Arabia has had its share of assassination, weak leaders, and excessive graft – but the consensus forged among the key leadership has kept the Al Saud family in power with a sufficiently consistent economic and foreign policy to maintain its critical alliances. This system of powersharing is becoming much more difficult to sustain, as the kingdom passes from the rule of the sons to that of the third generation of princes. Competition inevitably intensifies as whole lines of prominent families are removed from future succession and deprived of the power and wealth that status confers. And the growth of the Al Saud family taxes a system already straining under conditions of austerity.
The removal and reported detention of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), alongside the removal and now reported freezing of the bank accounts of the former interior minister – and crown prince – Mohammed bin Nayef, eliminates two generational rivals. But it also demolishes the base of the independent “fiefdoms” within the “power” ministries, of defense, the interior, and the SANG, which for generations structured political authority in the kingdom. The reorganization of Saudi security and intelligence in a more centralized fashion is sure to follow, and is indeed already underway as seen in the inauguration of the Saudi National Security Center and Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.
Other princes established their influence through ownership of media outlets and connections with global finance and business. Those targeted in the current crackdown include prominent princes in these fields, notably the international investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The specific targeting of media moguls is perhaps underappreciated given the central importance of media and communications to any transition of power. In addition to Prince Alwaleed, who is the majority owner of the Rotana consortium of satellite media channels, Waleed al-Ibrahim, the founder of the Middle East Broadcasting Center, which also owns Al Arabiya news, and Saleh Kamel, founder of the Arab Radio and Television Network, were reportedly detained. Together they represent the largest media empires in the Arab world, potentially dramatically expanding the government’s already considerable command of regional airwaves.
The rules of the corruption commission empower it to “return funds to the state’s public treasury, registering the assets and funds as state property,” raising the prospect that the state will assume ownership. Thus far, however, other statements issued by the government indicate that only individual accounts are being frozen. Still, there is no question that Mohammed bin Salman, as a new generation prince, appreciates the importance of managing both traditional and new media and is eager to control the message as he undertakes the difficult process of restructuring the Saudi state and economy. Indeed, the current campaign against Qatar is also formulated, in part, to discipline the often critical coverage of Al Jazeera, both for the domestic political scene and for Saudi Arabia’s growing regional interventions.
Courting – and Conditioning – Youth
The need for a stepped up media strategy speaks to the increasing engagement of the kingdom’s citizens, especially the younger generation. In today’s kingdom, it is no longer possible to issue diktats from above without explanation, just as it is not possible to grow the economy without opening more social space. The attention to message is apparent in the conduct of the current anti-corruption campaign, especially in its appeal to the critical youth demographic. As austerity inevitably sets in and Saudi youth find government jobs more difficult to come by and subsidies reduced, reigning in select profligate royals and elites will be essential to keeping their support for the emerging new national pact.
The initial targets of the anti-corruption commission appear especially tailored to appeal to youth concerns. The commission has specifically announced its intention to reopen the investigation of the 2009 Jeddah floods, including the prosecution of authorities and businessmen found to be negligent in public preparation and urban construction. There are reports that several hundred people could come under investigation, and some have reportedly been detained, including a former minister and a prominent businessman from Jeddah.
The Jeddah floods were a formative experience for Saudi millennials, and the crucible from which new forms of youth volunteerism and activism first took root and came to public light. Reopening prosecution of this period shows an acute awareness of youth concerns and directly addresses a seminal grievance in the creation of independent youth politics in the kingdom.
Other arrests are being cast in terms of populist appeal or to deflect blame for unpopular programs. For instance, former Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf is much resented among youth populations for his public comments supporting the reduction of housing stocks and stipends for students studying abroad. Media magnate Kamel is strongly associated with the implementation of the Saher traffic cameras for remote ticketing. Around the same time of the arrests, new measures were announced related to traffic monitoring.
The mounting detentions have been reported and applauded on social media, including by important influencers cultivated through the numerous and expertly run programs of the Mohammed bin Salman Foundation, MiSK. Religious authorities have also inveighed with their approval and statements of the religious necessity of battling corruption.
A New Saudi Arabia
The implications of these profound changes pursued at dizzying speed are difficult to weigh. But two clear trends are emerging that bear reflection. The first is a clear march toward the centralization of power in all its aspects: political, security, media, and economic planning. This consolidation of power will have the benefit of accelerating the decision making needed to meet the multiple challenges the kingdom faces. The flip side is that it will eliminate the caution and royal consensus building once associated with Saudi leadership. Unless the legal system progresses in line with this centralization, accountability and other checks on power will be sorely lacking. The sacking and reported detention of the current Economy and Planning Minister Adel Fakeih suggests that ministers may be held to account for difficult and unpopular programs.
The appeals to populist sentiment and national interest mark another new and important trend in the kingdom. The new Saudi Arabia is distinguished by a more engaged public and the greater contributions required by Saudis in the economy. As more is demanded from a wired and connected generation, the mobilization of the public in support of leadership and its programs – through cultivation and crackdown – is becoming a necessity.