In a dramatic turn of events, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has initiated a significant purge within the Saudi State, arresting many princes and sacking notable people from positions of power.
A superficial assessment would suggest that this is all about Bin Salman consolidating power and removing threats standing in the way of his impending power inheritance. While this is largely true, the underlying motive is ultimately financial and geopolitical.
Saudi Budget under Strain
Bin Salman is already acting to work with Russia to corner the oil market in order to rally sunken oil prices, as I covered here. He is also embracing China, and flirting with a possible Petro-Yuan to diversify Saudi relations. As Bin Salman proves to be sticking with his ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 program, – no easy feat for a extremely reactionary country hooked on oil exports, this ultimately requires a radical shake-up of Saudi finances. And that means domestic problems need to be addressed. If Bin Salman is hoping to attract potential investors for a badly-needed IPO to help raise funds for his visionary modernisation program, this necessitates a strong political will to clean up corruption and streamline finances. Too many Saudi Princes have been allowed to become filthy rich and pursue runaway corrupt lives, living under the umbrella of Saudi State largesse. Bin Salman has realised that this has grown out of control and become a cost to Saudi reputation, and more importantly, finances. He sees potentially part of a combined $33 billion in emir wealth up for grabs. During times of financial strain, this appears to be a golden egg ready for the taking in authoritative Saudi Arabia.
However, if Bin Salman reckons that seizing assets at will is going to be a smooth process, he may need to re-think the consequences: this could end up triggering a backlash from insiders to the extent of an actual coup, as well as freaking out investors, who are always a nervous bunch when it comes to arbitrary asset forfeiture. Notable names under arrest include Alwaleed Bin Talal, the richest emir in the Kingdom, and a massive shareholder in CitiGroup, Twitter, 21st Century Fox and Four Seasons Hotel. Mohammad al Amoudi (second richest emir in the Kingdom), Saleh Kamel (third richest emir in the Kingdom) as well as Bakr Binladin, owner of the famous Binladin Group, – a household name across the Arab world in construction and engineering. This purge is somewhat similar to what Vladimir Putin did in the 1990s, after smashing the Russian-Jewish Oligarchs from power by seizing their assets and exiling/jailing most of them, which I covered here.
Are the Sauds finally turning on the Wahhabs?
Besides the business moguls, one other notable purge has been Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the Saudi National Guard. This is quite significant. The Saudi National Guard are what the Ikhwan spawned into. The Ikhwan were Wahhabi warriors who back in time, helped Bin Saud seize power and consolidate the first Saudi State. Modern day Saudi Arabia is governed by an uneasy marriage of Saud Monarchs, and Wahhabi clergy. Thus, the purge of Miteb bin Abdullah looks to be an attack against Wahhabi power itself. I covered a very deep and detailed history of Saudi Arabia here, worth reading for background knowledge. In 1979, the Ikhwan perpetrated a bold and brazen seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, resulting in hundreds of casualties. Bin Salman could be pre-empting a broader movement against the Wahhabis, who have disappointed Saudi Arabia in its foreign adventures and whose ideologies have rallied outrage across the world.
Why might Bin Salman be turning on the Wahhabis? Having been largely pacified and defeated in Syria, the mounting losses of Wahhabi proxies in the failed regime change project in Syria have embarrassed Saudi Arabia with a humiliating loss of face, not to mention the amount of money wasted. The Saudi “return on investment” in Syria by way of supporting various terrorists in Ghouta, Idlib and Daraa, has been nothing short of dismal. Every group Saudi Arabia has pledged to support against Bashar Assad, has been defeated strategically. To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia is suffering from a significant budget deficit. The war in Syria has taken a heavy toll on Saudi finances, and the Wahhabis have not delivered. This may have proved to have been too much for the House of Saud, resulting in what could be an emerging clampdown and isolation of Wahhabi elements within Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads between Modernisation and Backwardation
This is ultimately the choice the young Bin Salman is faced with, and he has opted for the former. To that end, it will require deep structural changes to the Saudi economy and reigning in the Wahhabi elements within the Kingdom, who are now quite obviously an impediment not only to the Saudi State, but to almost everybody else. Their religious vision is antiquated and their methods have backfired and brought massive disrepute to the House of Saud, and Islam itself. The Saudis are therefore faced with a lot of homework to do, and mistakes to correct (failed policies vis-a-vis Yemen, Syria, Qatar, Lebanon and Iran just to name a few). Bin Salman had better step up and start making some good decisions, before the blowback boomerangs back and erodes his power. The power of pre-emption here is key, and he appears to be willing to use it. Whether or not it will succeed remains to be seen, but it is a step in the right direction.