The death of King Abdullah in January 2015 resuscitated a debate about reforms in Saudi Arabia. Many suggested at the time that perhaps the inclusion of younger princes in the leadership of the Kingdom might hasten necessary changes.
There were positive comments expressed across the region when the 54-year-old Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef was appointed as Crown Prince in April 2015. As a “young” appointment by Saudi leadership standards, this suggested that the Saudi royal family was indeed moving towards reform. The rise of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a favourite son of King Salman, first as the Minister of Defence and later in charge of the economic transformation process further confirmed the sense of positivity.
In June this year, during the holy month of Ramadan, the world woke up to the news that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) had imposed a land, sea and road blockade against the State of Qatar. It was an overnight decision which left most people flabbergasted. Soon afterwards, on 21 June, Bin Nayef was sacked as Crown Prince and replaced by Bin Salman. Taken together, these were unprecedented moves.
Bin Salman is relatively popular amongst the young people in Saudi Arabia; many youth identify themselves with him. He was born and bred in Saudi and spent his entire youth and university years in the country. Most rich families send their children overseas to study, but King Salman kept his son within the Kingdom.
The new Crown Prince’s proposed reforms include the privatisation of the oil giant Aramco, the biggest company in the Arab world. The privatisation has the prospect of providing employment and socioeconomic development in Saudi Arabia. Such prospects have added to Bin Salman’s popularity, especially amongst the young.
However, he seems to be exasperated by the religious leadership which still dominates social and political space in Saudi Arabia. His tone and attitude suggest that he sees it as an impediment to his reform programmes and, indeed, his leadership. Over the past couple of months he has detained a number of prominent Muslim scholars.
The manner in which he is pushing ahead with reform has inevitably invited criticism; among his critics are members of his own family. His decision, for example, to endorse the construction of a bikini beach resort on the Red Sea coast is a problem for many conservative Saudis. Equally, the decision to allow women to drive has not only attracted positive media coverage but also added to his popularity, again particularly amongst young people. Notwithstanding all of this, his political immaturity and inexperience continue to manifest themselves in various ways.
The crackdown on dissent in the Kingdom took another turn this weekend. Scores of princes, politicians and prominent members of Saudi society were arrested, amongst them Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. One of the richest men in the world, Bin Talal’s arrest came moments after the creation of the Anti-Corruption Committee headed by the now ubiquitous Mohammad Bin Salman. Strangely, amidst all the confusion in Riyadh, US President Donald Trump chose the moment to send a tweet urging Saudi Arabia to list Aramco on the New York Stock Exchange: “Would very much appreciate Saudi Arabia doing their IPO of Aramco with the New York Stock Exchange. Important to the United States!”
Soon after the announcement of the launch of the Anti-Corruption Committee, reports emerged that a missile fired at Saudi Arabia by the Houthis in Yemen had been intercepted on the outskirts of Riyadh. What was suspicious about the news was that the reports also alleged that certain regional leaders within the Kingdom were collaborating with the Houthis. It sounded like a pretext for something major to happen.
These events were flanked by other occurrences affecting the region. The Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, announced his resignation while he was in Riyadh, citing possible assassination attempts against him. In his resignation speech, Hariri accused Iran of meddling in the affairs of his country. When the news became public, social media in Lebanon was buzzing with comments. Some joked about it, likening Hariri’s choice of venue for the announcement of his resignation to “divorcing through a WhatsApp message”. It remains a mystery why Hariri decided to make such an important announcement while in Riyadh.
On Sunday, Lebanon’s security agencies disputed his allegations. “There is no evidence of any assassination attempts against Hariri,” they insisted. Furthermore, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said that he would not accept Hariri’s resignation until he returns to Beirut. Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah lambasted Hariri’s move, alleging that the resignation speech was “dictated to Hariri by Saudi Arabia.”
Meanwhile, Bahrain resurrected an old border dispute with Qatar, which has in the past been settled by the intervention of the International Court of Justice. According to Al-Jazeera, “In 1991, Qatar referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), after decades of failed Saudi mediation and a narrowly avoided armed confrontation between the two countries. The issue was resolved in 2001…”
The events in the Gulf over the weekend remain extremely confusing; suffice to say that they are all just too coincidental; the order in which they occurred and were announced suggest some degree of coordination. They also give an indication of things to come, and the level of impunity and disregard for due legal process in Saudi Arabia. While some of those detained by the Saudi authorities might indeed be guilty of something or another, history reminds us that reforms which begin with a crackdown on dissent rarely, if ever, succeed.
How did the Anti-Corruption Committee be in a position to detain so many people so quickly after its launch? It makes a mockery of the justice system, and reduces the credibility of the Saudi “reforms”, turning them into a political witch hunt. The events of the past 36 hours also expose the political naiveté of Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman in a region which is in dire need of quality political leadership.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.