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ABDELFATAH: Saudi Arabia is in need of political, economic reform

Opinions Column: Global Perspectives


On Saturday, Nov. 4, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia had several princes and cabinet ministers arrested on corruption charges. The sweeping arrests included 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of other prominent figures. These arrests occurred shortly after several leadership changes in key positions, including the highly respected Saudi Arabian National Guard. Most analysts have identified these actions as a thinly veiled power grab on the part of the Saudi monarchy and the crown prince specifically. While likely inconvenienced, the princes and businessmen are probably not uncomfortable — they are being detained in the capital’s luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Crown Prince Mohammad is the son of King Salman and became the minister of defense shortly after his father ascended to the throne. The 32-year-old then became the crown prince early this summer in a stunning bit of palace intrigue, deposing his older cousin and the former Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, a longtime U.S. ally. His supporters would most likely characterize him as ambitious and bold, his detractors as rash and inexperienced. He has grand plans to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy as part of his Vision 2030 plan and has often been hailed in the West as a reformer. The corruption crackdown comes on the heels of royal decrees that allow women to drive and limit the authority of the country’s religious police. At the same time, he has pursued an aggressive foreign policy and is the author of the war in Yemen and the devastating humanitarian crisis that has emerged as a result. He has been unwilling to allow dissent and has arrested those who spoke out against his reforms in the past, although this is his first high-profile purge of this kind.

Despite the official line that says the arrests were part of an effort to clamp down on corruption in the kingdom, most experts agree that the move was a power play on the part of the young leader. One of those he ousted was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the son of former King Abdullah and the now former head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a position he was removed from by royal decree. His removal allows Crown Prince Mohammad to cement his control over all of the country’s security forces. The arrests and ousters also clear the way for the crown prince to implement his social and economic reforms with minimal opposition. Those who remain and would have opposed him will now surely think twice before doing so.

Crown Prince Mohammad is consolidating his power in a manner highly unusual for the Saudi royal family. Previous monarchs have attempted to form a consensus among the princes rather than to oust them. But with his ambitious plans for vast reform, it is unlikely that he would have found this method easy or even desirable. Having to form a consensus among the vast royal family created a large and unwieldy bureaucracy — part of the reason the kingdom has been stagnating. But this power grab also has potential negative consequences for the crown prince’s initiatives. Cracking down on any criticism will likely serve as an impediment to his goals of modernizing the kingdom and being seen as a reformer. Additionally, jailing and repressing his political opponents is unlikely to attract the foreign investment he is looking for.

President Donald J. Trump quickly expressed his support for the arrests tweeting that he has "great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.” The Trump administration has been very supportive of Saudi Arabia since the president’s visit in May. Despite objection from his diplomatic and military advisors, the president has also supported the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. The administration’s hope is that they will be able to secure more arms deals and that when Saudi Aramco, or the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, goes public in the near future they will list it on the New York Stock Exchange.

Saudi Arabia is in desperate need of political and economic reform. It is also in need of a real and concentrated effort to tackle corruption. But the crown prince’s willingness to enact this reform by sidelining or even jailing those who disagree with him under the guise of an effort against corruption sets a dangerous precedent for politics in the kingdom and may end up undermining the same efforts he seeks to further.

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column, "Global Perspectives" runs on alternate Thursdays.

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