Anti-Corruption Arrests Sweep Saudi Arabia

Targets include potential obstacles to crown prince’s consolidation of power.

Saudi Arabia has announced a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption with the arrest of the prominent billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, along with at least ten other princes, four ministers, and tens of former ministers. Other significant targets of the purge included former Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf and Khaled al-Tuwaijri, former head of the royal court. Saudi King Salman had placed his 32-year-old son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in charge of an anti-corruption committee, which was established by royal decree so that “corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable.” The New York Times quoted the official Saudi news agency Al Arabiya in explaining that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “anticorruption committee has the right to investigate, arrest, ban from travel, or freeze the assets of anyone it deems corrupt.” Embezzlement of public money, money laundering and mishandling state-owned enterprise for personal financial gain are among the charges, according to Saudi media reports. 

The crown prince wasted no time in using his newly conferred authority to purge power brokers in Saudi Arabia’s political and business upper circles, ostensibly on corruption charges, who might also be seen as potential threats to the crown prince’s consolidation of power. Moreover, shortly before the arrests, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who has headed the Saudi Arabian national guard for years and had formerly been considered  a leading contender for the crown himself, was relieved of his position by the king. The national guard was the last element of the Saudi armed forces not already within the crown prince’s orbit of control.

“In the sweeping arrests, the Saudi authorities are continuing a trend that we’ve seen over the past few months — consolidation, consolidation, consolidation,” said H.A. Hellyer, a scholar at the Atlantic Council. “What makes this unusual is the speed at which it took place. But the message is clear. The authorities want everyone to know that they have a particular direction they want to pursue. Precisely what that direction is, though, remains somewhat hazy.”

Mohammed bin Salman had already moved last June to oust the individual then considered to be the immediate heir to the throne, his elder cousin Mohammed bin Nayef. Bin Salman was thereupon named the crown prince by his father. According to Reuters, Mohammed bin Salman “has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among parts of the Al Saud dynasty frustrated by his meteoric rise.”

The crown prince is positioning himself as a reformer in Saudi Arabia’s traditionally conservative socio-political and religious environment. The anti-corruption purge helps to bolster that image. He has also called for the Saudis to adopt a more “moderate” version of Islam. He has vowed to "eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon." This no doubt is music to the Trump administration’s ears in its fight against the radical Islamist ideology that Wahhabism embodies. The crown prince is also said to be aligned with President Trump’s strategy in dealing with Iran, while the president had expressed support for bin Salman’s push to isolate Qatar for its alleged support of jihadist terrorists.

In addition to his leadership of the anti-corruption committee, bin Salman leads the Kingdom's "Vision 2030" and the related "National Transformation Plan," which are focused on diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy beyond dependence on its oil resources. He is envisioning privatization of some Saudi state assets, including part of state oil giant Saudi Aramco. The prospect of Saudi Aramco going private attracted President Trump’s attention. The president tweeted that he hoped any Initial Public Offering would go to the New York Stock Exchange for handling. That could possibly explain in part why President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has forged a special relationship with bin Salman, took a recent unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia, as well as to discuss regional issues of interest to both nations.

One of the principal targets of bin Salman’s anti-corruption committee purge, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, has reportedly been charged with money laundering. He represents a major competing center of influence, although he has publicly backed the crown prince’s reform initiatives. The grandson of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has accumulated vast wealth, with investments all around the world. He founded the investment company Kingdom Holding Company and owns major stakes in a variety of companies, including News Corp, Twitter, Lyft, Apple, Citigroup and prominent hotels. Many of his assets and transactions are reportedly difficult to trace. “His arrest seems particularly aimed at demonstrating that no one is beyond the reach of the committee and the crown prince,” wrote Alexandra Stevenson, Anne Barnard and Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times

President Trump is not likely to intercede to assist Prince Talal, with whom he once had a business relationship but more recently had a war of words prior to the presidential election. At least for the time being, the president seems to be betting on the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his stated programs of economic, religious and social reform, support for counter-terrorism, and an aggressive posture towards Iran. Whether the latest purges and moves to further concentrate power in the crown prince will set off some sort of counter-reformation by the more traditionally minded Saudis remains to be seen. 

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