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Mohammed bin Salman
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Owen

Saudi crown prince cements his power

Kersten Knipp | Tom Allinson
September 3, 2020

Mohammed bin Salman's latest arrests continue his drive against allegedly corrupt members of the elite, even as his own assets are shrouded in secrecy. But the campaign also serves to shore up his position.


This week Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the kingdom's strongman known as MbS — once again dismissed two members of the royal house on corruption charges.

The first was Lieutenant General Fahad bin Turki bin Abdulaziz, commander of the Saudi military coalition forces fighting in Yemen and also a prince. The second was his son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd bin Turki, deputy governor of the al-Jouf region in the kingdom's northwest.

MbS handed instructions for the dismissals to the Saudi anti-corruption authority Nazaha. The body was charged with investigating "suspicious financial dealings monitored at the Ministry of Defense," the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported Tuesday.

Rampant corruption

MbS had already launched a massive anti-corruption campaign shortly after his 2017 appointment as Crown Prince — and de facto ruler — and with good reason — corruption was rampant.

Read more: Can Saudi Arabia afford human rights abuses?

Royals had borrowed from Saudi banks without repaying, and princes acting as advisers to investors traded on inside information about land re-zoning, among other schemes, according to a recent biography of bin Salman by New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard.

In November 2017 MbS arrested around 350 members of the former power elite in a spectacular large-scale operation, imprisoning them in Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel.

The prince's policy boosted his country's standing. By 2019 Saudi Arabia moved up six places on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, to number 51 out of 180 countries, putting it on a par with Italy, Rwanda and Malaysia.

An opaque fortune

But the campaign was also inconsistent. The selection process for those arrested was at times arbitrary and MbS himself wanted to invest in some of the companies of those detained, Hubbard reported.

When many of the businessmen, royals and others were released from the Ritz-Carlton, they were forced to sign over some of their assets, giving the operation what critics called the feel of a shakedown.

Critics abroad had also previously argued there had been little transparency regarding the crown prince's own finances. Where did he get the money for his $500 million (€422 million) yacht, $300 million Château Louis XIV near Paris, or a $450 million painting by Leonardo da Vinci he is thought to have bought?

The Chateau Louis XIV
MbS owns the the Chateau Louis XIV. Some question how he can afford luxuries like this oneImage: picture-alliance/AP Images

Elimination of rivals

In the process of this campaign it also became apparent that MbS would not tolerate any political rivals for fear that competitors might seize on any potential mistake to take power away from him.

Read more: Saudi Arabia bans flogging as punishment

The Ritz-Carlton "blitz" eliminated many of those threats, according to Hubbard. "Gone were the days when the kingdom had relatively independent power centers with lucrative businesses and rich tycoons linked to them," Hubbard wrote. "Now they all answered to MbS, who could marshal their resources as he saw fit in service of his plans." Since then the crown prince has ruled over the Saudi economy largely unchallenged.

As MbS's fight against corruption continues, so too does his fight against potential competitors. In March this year MbS instructed Saudi authorities to arrest almost 300 officials, including several high-ranking princes charged with high treason. Those included Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, the king's younger and beloved brother, and former counterterrorism czar Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Consolidating power

If the crown prince were to succeed his father King Salman in the foreseeable future, he would be the first of the "new generation" at the head of the state. The current king and his former potential successors were all sons of the kingdom's founder Abd al-Aziz ibn al-Saud. MbS would be the first grandchild of al-Saud to take the throne, a highly symbolic as well as political win.

But his accession is not an outright certainty. Since the crown prince has made many enemies in his few years in the position, he must be careful not to make mistakes that could harm his ambitions.

While he consolidates power against his competitors, he is simultaneously able to bolster his image in many parts of Saudi society, who see his action on corruption as more courageous than those of his predecessors.

Young Saudis at a concert in Jeddah
The crown prince has been credited with reforms like allowing people to attend Western music gigsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/K. Alhaj

Reform and repression

Young Saudis continue to place big hope in the 34-year-old heir to the throne's liberalization drive, further shoring up his support in a country where two thirds of the population are under the age of 35.

Read more: Saudi Arabia: Theater performers stabbed onstage

MbS's reforms have at least made it possible for Saudi women to drive cars, disempowered the hated religious police, and catapulted Western pop stars onto Saudi entertainment stages. All this would have been unthinkable in the kingdom until a decade ago.

But the other side of MbS remains: Numerous human rights activists — many of them women —continue to sit in prison and have more recently had contact with the outside world cut off. Rights groups have reported cases of torture. In addition, suspicion over MbS's role in the 2018 murder of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi continues to cloud his rule.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
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