Making sense of what's happening in Saudi Arabia


Update: 

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men, was released two months after being detained in Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption purge. An official said Talal was freed after a financial settlement was approved by the state prosecutor.

Prince Alwaleed was detained in November by a new anti-corruption body headed by the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman which saw more than 200 princes, politicians, and wealthy businessmen held in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh.

 

Background:

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has turned over the chessboard of politics in his own country and the wider Middle East in a series of apparently planned but profoundly destabilising moves.

We’ve updated this collection of curated reports on the climate in Saudi Arabia two weeks after we first published it because a new interview with the Saudi Crown Prince with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times gives additional direct insight to his thinking: of which we had very little at the time the story was first published.

Another interview, this time with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, shed not so much light as shade onto the entire affair of his resignation and only added to the sense it was under duress as Al Jazeera captured with its headline: “What happened in Saudi, stays in Saudi”. In the interview, with a French TV station but reported at length by the Qatar-run Al Jazeera Hariri speaks of Iranian-backed Hezbollah as creating a “state within a state” in Lebanon.

Background

In two weeks at the start of November, Mohammed bin Salman, 32, has detained hundreds of his countrymen – including wider family members and one of the world’s richest businessmen – in what purports to be a crackdown on corruption. But this may be more accurately seen as internal power politics (Human Rights Watch).

He’s also been accused of detaining the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, who unexpectedly resigned while in Riyadh rather than Beirut. Hariri this week “suspended” that resignation (New York Times link) on his return to Beirut with the circumstances of his dealing with Riyadh unclear.

This is all while blaming Iran for a missile fired from Yemen, where the young up and comer in the Saudi gerontocracy started a bloody war to confront what Riyadh believes is Iranian interference in its backyard.

Not to mention his engineering of a diplomatic and trade blockade against Qatar, which has brought to a head years of simmering royal and national envy. This is ostensibly linked to alleged Qatari support for terror groups and a readiness by Qatar to maintain diplomatic links to Iran across the Gulf.

As if that was not enough, MbS, as he is known, is also trying to engineer the flotation of Saudi Aramco – the national oil producer and potentially the most valuable company in the world – in part to fund his Vision 2030 plan to wean his state off its dependency on oil revenues, government handouts, and restructure a historic pact between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi branch of Islam. And, he’s in a hurry to do it all.

Friedman interview

That sense of speed and impetus was central to the exclusive interview between Friedman, the New York Times commentator on diplomatic affairs and Mohammed bin Salman.

The lengthy piece by Friedman headlined “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last” was almost exultant in its apparent enthusiasm for the high-speed reforms MbS has instituted in tackling the Muslim fundamentalists who’ve dominated Saudi discourse since 1979 — even appearing to applaud the extraordinary anti-corruption crackdown with hundreds held in luxury hotels.

Closing the piece, a direct quote from MbS gets across the sense of urgency he has in tackling so many issues at once: “`I fear that the day I die I am going to die without accomplishing what I have in my mind. Life is too short and a lot of things can happen, and I am really keen to see it with my own eyes — and that is why I am in a hurry.”

It’s important to remember the Friedman report is a piece of commentary and not straight reportage. He’s clear about his surprise and pleasure that a new Arab spring may be unfolding in the most unexpected corner of the Arab world: Saudi Arabia. He lays his cards out clearly: “Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.”

Tellingly, MbS declined to discuss the Hariri affair. On the challenge from Iran, MbS compares the supreme leader to Hitler, a comparison which goes unchallenged.

Still, the Friedman interview is the most direct insight so far to the upheaval in Saudi Arabia with quotes from the man at the center of it. Inevitably, the interview raised questions at the political poles with the Kremlin-run Sputnik News calling Friedman “fawning”.

Earlier reporting

Here’s some of the best reporting we’ve been able to find on the whole affair this week, particularly the crisis over the resignation of Hariri which threatens to tear apart the fragile government of Lebanon which straddles the Shia and Sunni divide in Islam.We’re also seeking the views of diplomats and analysts.

Earlier

  • The Reuters editor for the Middle East Samia Nakhoul leads an “exclusive” on the timeline of Saad Hariri’s apparently forced resignation and its implications for the delicate political climate in Lebanon which risks becoming an actual battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iranian ambitions in the entire region.
  • Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, a think tank, compares the Saudi anti-corruption drive with those in China and Turkey and how they cemented control.
  • In a substantial analysis on Saturday the Financial Times reporter Simeon Kerr asks whether MbS has overplayed a complex hand:  “This maelstrom marks the most dramatic chapter in the rise of Saudi Arabia’s millennial prince whose stated aim is a radical transformation of an oil-dependent kingdom into a more open society and a more competitive economy.” (Story may be behind a paywall).
  • The Economist report is typically analytical and inevitably has informed speculation mixed with actual events on the ground as in this piece from the print edition shows: “NO ONE is quite sure what to call it. The arrest of scores of people in Saudi Arabia on November 4th has been variously dubbed a coup, a counter-coup and a purge.” The Economist reporters are also in no doubt Saudi forced the resignation of Hariri and risks handing Lebanon to Iran in doing so. The Economist editorial is clear on the risks of the crown prince’s actions: “The world should push the crown prince to reform Saudi Arabia, not wreck it” (Some links may be behind a paywall.)

Previously

  • The Saudi Arabian-owned Arab News, heavily influenced by MbS, has been cautious so far and said little on the affair. Its reporting reflected government claims of what the anti-corruption drive was about and quoted a World Bank official as saying combatting corruption was important for growth.
  • The latest Reuters analysis on the Saudi crisis – bylined by a team of veteran Middle Eastern correspondents — says MbS has turned the country and his family upside down. Reuters does not editorialise but this is the reporters’ considered view:  “At stake is political stability in the world’s largest oil producer. The Crown Prince’s ability to rule unchallenged depends on whether the purge is successful. The Crown Prince believes that unless the country changes, the economy will sink into a crisis that could fan unrest. That could threaten the royal family and weaken the country in its regional rivalry with Iran.”
  • Reuters reported earlier this week that Hariri was being prevented from returning to Beirut and had been compelled to resign. Today Reuters reported that Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun had met the Saudi ambassador and told him Hariri must return to Beirut and that the circumstances of his resignation were unacceptable.
  • Whether or not Hariri has freedom of movement is opaque. France 24 in reports based on its own work and apparently Reuters and Associated Press report, said French authorities thought Hariri wasn’t under arrest as such and it noted he had visited the nearby United Arab Emirates – a Saudi ally.
  • Robert Fisk, a veteran and sometimes controversial foreign correspondent for The Independent, based in Beirut, made clear he didn’t believe Hariri – a dual citizen of Lebanon and Saudi Arabia who inherited a construction empire in the Kingdom from his assassinated father -– had freedom of movement.
  • Erica Solomon, the Middle East correspondent of the The Financial Times reported that the brinksmanship of MbS could mean long-simmering tension with Iran actually turned hot and fast. An octopus-like accompanying graphic shows how many fronts MbS and Saudi Arabia are “fighting” on and how that overlaps with Iranian interests. “The moves this week show that…Saudi Arabia’s powerful young crown prince, along with its ally the United Arab Emirates, may be shifting towards a more aggressive approach,” she wrote. [Story may be behind FT.com paywall.]
  • Al Jazeera English, founded by neighboring Qatar, noted the U.S. State Department had declined to comment on Hariri’s status in Riyadh despite his meeting U.S. diplomats. In the same story it noted that the Russian ambassador to Beirut threatened to take the issue of Hariri’s treatment to the United Nations. The Al Jazeera report also tried to parse the ambiguity in the French official comments about how free Hariri is: France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe-1 radio “to our knowledge” Hariri is not being held by Saudi authorities. Hariri is “free in his movements”, he said on Friday, adding “it is up to him to make his choices”.
  • Robin Wright, a veteran reporter on Middle Eastern politics with deep contacts across the region, reported earlier this week in the New Yorker that the Saudi administration was proceeding with the tacit support of Washington, or at least President Donald J. Trump. Separately, Politico reported that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had made an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia just before MbS made this week’s spectacular moves.
  • London-based news magazine Middle East Eye – controlled by a Palestinian businessman with some links to Qatar – reported that some of those detained in Riyadh showed signs of torture. Bloomberg‘s correspondent in Saudi Arabia, Vivian Nereim, reported that she suspected authorities had taken over a second luxury hotel to house those swept up in the supposed anti-corruption sweep, adding to the Ritz Carlton. Earlier in the week she reported that Saudi officials said as much as $100 billion had been misused by those targeted in the sweep.

 

 

 

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