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Arrests in Saudi Arabia: Causes and Implications By Jon B. Alterman

Q1: What caused the sudden arrest of dozens of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful individuals?

A1: These individuals were swept up by an anticorruption commission that King Salman had created merely hours before the arrests. Reports claim that the arrested include some of the most important economic actors in Saudi Arabia. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world’s most prominent Saudi investor, has gotten a great deal of attention, but the sweep included other billionaires, senior royals from other branches of the family, and technocrats who began guiding Saudi Arabia’s economic reform program under King Abdullah. These include Adel Fakieh, who served as minister of labor before becoming minister of economy and planning, and Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was minister of finance. While businesspeople in Saudi Arabia complain about the problems of corruption, and some of it involves granting special favors to the royal family, the pattern of these arrests suggest that they were intended to consolidate power and loyalty behind Crown Prince Mohammed and his ambitious plans to move the kingdom forward economically and socially. The arrests of two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, Prince Miteb and Prince Turki, suggest a strategic political calculus. Miteb commanded the National Guard, which was an armed force separate from the army to protect the royal family and could have blocked some of Mohammed’s moves against the family; Turki was governor of Riyadh, which gave him a political role building support among royals, a job King Salman himself used to great effect for decades.

Q2: What effect will this have on economic reform?

A2: The immediate effect is to spook investors, who will wonder about the fate of their current partners and wonder if their future partners will soon be rounded up. It will also silence critics and skeptics of the Vision 2030 plan. Fears over the scope of arrests are likely to pass with time as the contours of this action play out. Less scrutiny of the 2030 plan could either build consensus behind the plan or lead to the adoption of policies that have not been fully vetted because people are afraid to voice criticism. If a system emerges that heightens rule of law and allows for successful economic investments without requiring royal partners, that could boost the Saudi economy, but it would have to be part of a general rise in transparency and efficiency in the Saudi investment environment. The government’s bet is that this will end up as a net positive. At the very least, though, it will blunt the momentum established by October’s high-profile investor conference.

Q3: Is the crown prince likely to be successful, and if so, why? 

A3: There is a 75 percent chance that this will consolidate power behind the crown prince. After all, when he moved against his cousin, the previous crown prince, he won a pledge of allegiance relatively quietly and smoothly. Crown Prince Mohammed has substantial public support, and many Saudis feel that change is necessary and that he is the leading change agent.

We should expect to see a broadly popular effort to root out corruption and confiscate wealth. Much as President Xi Jinping has done in China, the effort can build legitimacy and undermine opponents. Fines and confiscated wealth could also be steered toward state projects.

Politically, however, the crown prince’s changes will undermine many of the established power centers in the kingdom, and many billionaires inside and outside of the family will find their business models shredded. They will look for ways to protect themselves, and some may not choose to curry favor.

Simultaneous to these moves, the crown prince is taking on the religious establishment and social conservatives. It is not unthinkable that a coalition against him will consolidate, but the window of opportunity to blunt the crown prince is closing. If this settles in his favor, there is not likely to be another chance.

Q4: What does this tell us about Crown Prince Mohammed?

A4: Crown Prince Mohammed has been bold and ambitious, and this is another bold and ambitious step. He has not always seen around corners, however—critics say he has left himself little room for compromise to end conflicts with Yemen and Qatar that show no sign of resolving. He is certainly not risk averse nor consensus driven, and that represents a stark departure from the way Saudi Arabia has been ruled for 80 years.

Q5: How long will this go on?

A5: It will take some weeks for things to settle and for Saudis to map their strategy in the new environment. I would expect further actions in the next week or so, and if there is to be a backlash, there should be signs in the coming weeks.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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