The last week has been baffling for anyone reading the headlines on Saudi Arabia. In an unprecedented shake up, over 50 princes, former ministers and millionaires have been placed under house arrest in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh on charges of corruption, several officials have been sacked, and prominent political figures have also been killed, allegedly by the Saudi government. Up to 500 people have also been arrested, and 1,200 have had their bank accounts have been frozen.
The move comes after numerous changes in the Kingdom in recent months, and significantly, just weeks after dozens of senior Islamic scholars have been arrested. The current purge appears to be simply the latest in a series of drastic changes observed in the Kingdom, in an attempt to consolidate the power and wealth of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, who has promised take the country in a new direction entirely.
Who has been arrested?
On the 4th of November, after a royal decree established an ‘anti-corruption committee’ headed by Prince Mohammed, which has the power to seize assets of suspects, 11 princes, 4 government ministers and tens of former ministers were arrested.
Among them was international investor Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal who is worth nearly $17 billion according to Forbes magazine, Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre and construction magnate Bakr Bin Laden of the Saudi Bin Laden group.
Senior ministers Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, and Adel Faqih, the economy minister, among others, were also sacked, sending shockwaves through Saudi investment circles.
The next day, it was revealed that numerous senior government officials, some of whom were critics of the Crown Prince, were killed in a helicopter crash near Yemen. Sources close to the government revealed this week that the helicopter was deliberately targeted.
This is not the first spate of arrests to take place in recent weeks. Last month, dozens of prominent sheikhs were arrested; symbolic of the monarchy’s long control over the region’s Islamic clerics, despite implying the contrary in the eyes of the international community. Whilst the scholars have not been officially charged, it is suspected that they are being held due to alleged affiliations to Islamic political groups, all of which are banned in the country.
Who is Muhammad Bin Salman?
Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, referred to online as “the wild bear”, was a controversial figure even prior the arrests.
Having unexpectedly replaced his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef as crown prince in July earlier this year, the 32 year old has pledged on numerous occasions to modernise the Kingdom. He is believed to have been behind the lifting of the driving ban for Saudi women and has
Charged with heading Saudi Arabia’s economic ministry, he has announced the country’s Vision 2030 advocating for diversification away from oil and economic liberalisation. This also involves the developing the country’s Red Sea coastline into a global tourism destination, which will be “semi-autonomous”, such that it will allow foreigners to drink and women to wear bikinis; both of which are currently not permitted.
Bin Salman has also been vocal on the need for the Kingdom to drive out extremism, which in Saudi Arabia, is considered to be merging Islam with holistic political implementation, and return to “moderate Islam”. He is believed to have been behind the arrests of the scholars last month, in an attempt to root out any of those who endorse aspects of Islam which could see them oppose some of the country’s future modernising policies.
Is this really about corruption?
Saudi Arabia has been no stranger to corruption; the royal family have regularly used the public’s wealth to fund their extravagant lifestyle, and have offered grants to the public on numerous occasions to prevent political revolt.
Bin Salman himself bought a cruise ship for $500 million in 2015, and his father spent $100 million on a holiday in Morocco earlier this year. The idea that a government, which has persecuted its critics and hoarded its wealth for decades, is seeking to crack down on corruption is laughable.
What is more likely is that the government is seeking to secure further wealth to aid their debilitating economy and development programme. By seizing the assets of some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen and declaring them government property, it is estimated that Bin Salman could raise $2 trillion.
Another undoubted motivation for the purge is the elimination of all possible competition or obstacles to Bin Salman’s expected leadership. With rumours of his elderly and ailing father, the King, being expected to resign within weeks if not days, Bin Salman hopes to attain the throne with all power firmly in his grasp.
Supporters of the purge also indicate whose interests it really serves, with US President Donald Trump backing the mass arrests, tweeting:
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing. Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”
The Islamic viewpoint
Many Muslims around the world have been accustomed to thinking of Saudi Arabia as an Islamic country, or one that holds a high religious status due to it being home to the two holiest mosques of Islam. Recent actions show that if the Kingdom ever did deserve such recognition, it is increasingly keen to be rid of it in favour of a more modern and secular alternative.
Saudi Arabia’s open plans for modernisation and secularisation should not be celebrated by the Ummah. Securing the rule and wealth of the royal family clearly remains the ultimate priority, rather than securing any strength for Islam or the Ummah. Yet again the Saudi government presents another face to the rest of the world, justifying its latest corruption as a sign of keeping up with the times.