Saudi Arabia’s crown prince makes a power play at home and abroad
ByIshaan Tharoor
November 5, 2017 at 10:00 p.m. PST
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In the Middle East right now, all eyes are on Riyadh. The Saudi capital was the site of a series of events over the weekend that dramatized the ruthless ambition of the kingdom's new leadership.
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First, Saudi officials reported they had intercepted and destroyed a "ballistic missile" northeast of Riyadh fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a Saudi-led intervention has turned into a protracted, ruinous war — and now a full blockade of Yemen, announced late Sunday. Second, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation while on a visit to Saudi Arabia, a move that surprised many analysts and plunged his country into yet another political crisis. Then, in the late hours of Saturday, Saudi authorities conducted what appears to be a far-reaching purge, detaining more than two dozen royal family members, cabinet ministers and prominent businessmen in a sweep that further consolidates the position of the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
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Among those caught up in the crackdown is Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, head of the elite Saudi National Guard and a favored son of the late King Abdullah. Also rounded up was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a flamboyant billionaire with a record of investments in high-profile Western companies and a conspicuous Twitter feud with President Trump. Reports indicate that those detained are being quartered in Riyadh's posh Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Full list those purged by #Saudi Regime: detainees include 30 Saudi Minsters, and many of the most influential businessmen in the Kingdom.
— Rula Jebreal (@rulajebreal) November 5, 2017
As my colleague Kareem Fahim wrote, the detentions come at "a time of unprecedented political, social and economic upheaval in Saudi Arabia," with the kingdom pursuing dramatic measures to loosen up its economy and attract foreign investment as it seeks to move beyond its dependence on oil. The effort requires cleaning up endemic graft in a country where a burgeoning young population increasingly feels shut out from the lavish realm of wealth and power inhabited by the vast royal family and its allies.
"Saudi Arabia is an executive monarchy without a written Constitution or independent government institutions like a Parliament or courts, so accusations of corruption are difficult to evaluate," wrote David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times. "The boundaries between the public funds and the wealth of the royal family are murky at best, and corruption, as other countries would describe it, is believed to be widespread."
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On Saturday morning, the official Saudi news agency carried a statement from King Salman announcing the formation of a commission to monitor and investigate corruption — what the official communique deemed the "exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest." The committee is chaired by the crown prince, who many believe is on the precipice of taking power from his ailing father. The arrests have likely been in the works for more than a year.
In a separate incident that led to feverish speculation among some observers, Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, deputy governor of the Asir region, died in a helicopter crash on Sunday along with a number of other officials. The prince was the son of another former crown prince who was sidelined by King Salman's ascension.
Some analysts see the crackdown as a clear message both to the country's rich and powerful and to a wider population yearning for greater reform. "Cynics are calling this a power play but it's actually a message to the people that an era of elite indulgence is coming to an end," said Ali Shihabi, the executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank with close ties to the kingdom, in a series of tweets. "This is also a move that will have a wide resonance with the masses since elite indulgence has been a sore issue for decades."
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But others argue that this is part of the crown prince's rush to secure his base of power. "Knowledgeable observers of Saudi internal politics point to the many arrests of prominent clerics and intellectuals this summer as a sign of tensions inside the kingdom," wrote Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. "There is no guarantee that if Mohammed bin Salman's father dies or abdicates that the succession will be smooth. The latest round of arrests only reinforces the sense that the succession debate is more difficult than the king and his son want."
Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, invoked the anti-corruption campaign led by Chinese President Xi Jinping as a useful analogy for the crown prince's own approach. "Xi's campaign against public corruption is meant to clean up the perception of the Communist Party, but it also was used as an opportunity to sideline opponents and consolidate his own position," Bowen told Today's WorldView.
Trump and Hariri appear at the White House on July 25. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Beyond the domestic politicking, the crown prince has also forged a controversial path abroad as "the architect of an increasingly muscular and confrontational Saudi foreign policy" — as Fahim put it — sculpted around confronting Iran. That seems to have been the cause of the Lebanese prime minister's sudden resignation. While Hariri is a Sunni Muslim and a longtime Riyadh ally, he led a fragile political alliance with Hezbollah, a Shiite group closely tied to Iran. It's impossible to see Hariri's move — which led to dueling accusations that Iranian agents had attempted to kill him and that Saudi officials had forced him to step downoutside the prism of the broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
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Hariri pinned the blame on Iran's meddling in Lebanon, saying Tehran had created "a state within a state" through its support for Hezbollah. The organization's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, delivered an address Sunday criticizing Hariri's decision and insisting that he would "wait and see why Saudi Arabia obligated the head of the government to resign."
The crown prince has also been emboldened by Trump, who is bent on confrontation with the Islamic Republic and now often seems to be parroting Saudi talking points. On Sunday, while in Asia, Trump pointed to the Houthi rocket reportedly fired at Riyadh as "a shot just taken by Iran." Trump also seemed to give the crown prince carte blanche earlier this year when Riyadh and a number of other Arab nations decided to boycott and isolate Qatar, leading to a geopolitical standoff that still shadows the region.
But Riedel sees the current upheavals in a less flattering light for Riyadh. "The kingdom is at a crossroads: Its economy has flatlined with low oil prices; the war in Yemen is a quagmire; the blockade of Qatar is a failure; Iranian influence is rampant in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and the succession is a question mark," he wrote. "It is the most volatile period in Saudi history in over a half-century."
Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.
By Ishaan Tharoor
Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today's WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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