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Reconfiguring Saudi Arabia

Prince Mohammed’s political consolidation has come coupled with an ambitious programme dubbed ‘Vision 2030’of social and economic reforms aimed at modernisation of the country.

Reconfiguring Saudi Arabia

By arresting a number of Princes, ministers, and top businessmen ostensibly on the ground of combating corruption, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has put at risk political and regional instability while dismantling the longstanding practice of having consensus among the Kingdom's rulers. The November 9 purge launched by the Crown Prince on his rivals in the royal family and the country's business elite led to the arrests of at least 11 princes including Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia's richest man, four ministers, several ex-ministers, and a number of leading businessmen.

The purge also included removal of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of former King Abdullah, as head of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong elite force that is the cornerstone of the country's internal security. King Abdullah and later his son commanded the force for 51 years. The Bedouin-rooted forces were the only component of the country's security forces that the crown prince did not control and that could have posed a potential rival power centre. By taking over the command of the force he has neutralised that threat.
At least 1,700 bank accounts have been frozen and the number is expected to increase. According to the Wall Street Journal, the newly formed anti-corruption committee aims to seize up to USD 800 billion in assets from those arrested. Since replacing his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef in June as successor to his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Crown Prince, also known as MBS, has embarked on a campaign to consolidate power, taking on rivals within the royal family and religious activists.
Former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has not been seen publicly since June when was replaced and is believed to be under house arrest. His accounts have also been frozen. The consolidation of the power by the 32-year old Crown Prince, who is also Defence Minister as also heading the newly formed anti-corruption committee, may also affect the Kingdom's economy. He is also chairman of the interagency committee responsible for economic affairs including oil policy. He was given the interior ministry, which includes the police, in an earlier shake-up by the 81-year-old King.
Prince Mohammed's political consolidation has come coupled with an ambitious programme dubbed as 'Vision2030'of social and economic reforms aimed at modernisation of the country. Domestically he has promised to return to a "moderate" form of Islam and has also announced permitting women to drive in the country.
Fiscally, he has pledged to transform the country's economy by ending its reliance on oil, develop new technologies, cut welfare costs, introduce taxes an privatise state-owned assets. The government has so far not released the names of those arrested or detained but has also not contested media reports disclosing the names of those put behind bars. In addition to Prince Miteb, another son of late King Abdullah, Prince Turki bin Abdullah has also been arrested.
Analysts are of the view that the purge launched by Mohammed bin Salman could possibly alienate members of the wider Al Saud family at a time when the country struggles to balance its finances amid sustained low oil prices. "By going after the richest, whether fellow princes or media moguls and construction magnates, MBS is demonstrating that nobody is outside his control, as he is now at the top of a more authoritarian, 'one-man-regime', with old consensus-based, dynastic monarchy of the past century having effectively collapsed at some point earlier this year," Christopher Davidson, academic at Durham University, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera.
The event that is still unfolding, marked a significant break with the traditional methods of decision making in the country. Royal family politics have been traditionally consensual and the breaking of this could lead to disorder and instability within the country. Since Mohammed bin Salman's elevation to the deputy crown prince in 2015, Defence Minister and later to crown prince, Saudi Arabia has been following a more aggressive foreign policy particularly with regard to its arch-rival Iran.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have been accusing Iran of trying to overthrow their governments, a charge denied by Teheran. In March 2015, the Kingdom, the world's largest producer of crude oil, went to war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, believed to be backed by Iran. The Yemen conflict, now in its third year with no end in sight, has inflicted incalculable damage on the Arab world's poorest country. In 2016 Saudi Arabia announced severing of diplomatic ties with Iran.
Recently Mohammed bin Salman accused Iran of what could be "considered an act of war", blaming Teheran for supplying the Houthi group a missile that was fired towards Riyadh but was intercepted by Saudi air defence forces. Iran has rejected the accusation as "malicious, irresponsible, destructive, and proactive." The crown prince is also said to be responsible for strain in Saudi Arabia ties with some of its allies and neighbouring Qatar.
The Al Saud (ruling family) have survived all these years because of remarkable and unbreakably consensus among their ranks. It has preferred caution to confrontation in international affairs and has emphasised on domestic stability. The development has put a question mark on these. The purge has also shaken the confidence of investors and in order to allay their fears the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency said "bank accounts that have been frozen for individuals involved in corruption cases do not include the bank accounts of the companies in which they have (businessmen) have ownership."
Only the time will tell if the detention of the princes and others will enhance the family unity, the bedrock of the regime, help replenish the country's diminishing foreign currency reserves which stood at USD487 billion in July this year, down from a high of USD737 billion and find meaningful jobs for the country's fast-growing young population.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

M Shakeel Ahmed

M Shakeel Ahmed

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