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Feature Article
2018-07-24

Royal Crackdowns and Vanished Princes: Shakeup Or Shakedown?

As dozens of prominent individuals remain in Saudi government custody, the arrest of activists continues. Nothing is known of the true aims of the purge's beneficiary, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, though competing explanations are equally convincing.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

According to reports, many of those detained in a November 2017 "anti-corruption" sweep which rounded up royal family members, ministers, and top businessmen are still being held without charge, having had limited contact with family members and lawyers. At the time, hundreds were detained, including several prominent princes, and there were rumors that some, at least, had been subjected to torture and beatings. Allegations against those arrested included money laundering, bribery, and extorting officials, or, in official language, "exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to illicitly accrue money". However, the deputy attorney general noted also that some of the detainees were facing charges that went beyond mere corruption - such as threats to national security and a broadly-defined "terrorism".

In the end, most were eventually released, though only after being forced to cough up large sums by way of 'settlements' (more than 2,000 bank accounts were apparently frozen, and around $100 bn was recovered in the form of real estate, commercial property, securities, cash and other assets). Those who reached a concord seem to have been publicly showcased as in some sense 'rehabilitated' - pledging fealty to the leadership, appearing amicably alongside senior princes at important events, and in at least one case taking up official, advisory positions themselves. This continues a tradition of co-opting dissent within the Kingdom's elite; rather than crushing rivals and internal foes, the Al Saud has often preferred to bring challenges to authority into the fold, most famously with the co-optation of the Saud al-Kabir branch of the family, which was reconciled to the founder Ibn Saud's pre-eminence through marriage to a favorite sister. Acting more pre-emptively, the royals have throughout their recent history given potential rivals leadership roles, such as provincial governorships (the al-Sudayri branch being a case in point), though as the family consolidated their hold on power this became less necessary.

Nonetheless, whilst many of those released from confinement were subjected to travel bans and a few have even had to wear ankle monitors, there remain at least 56 still in custody, as a result of both the original purge and an ongoing campaign. Two of the most high-profile royals who have not been seen are Abd al-Aziz bin Fahd, son of the late king Fahd and one-time advisor to another king, and Turki bin Abdallah, who served as governor of Riyadh. Interestingly, Turki's brother Mit'ab, former head of the National Guard, was earlier released after having been subjected to a coordinated social media campaign accusing him of corruption and self-enrichment. Mit'ab shortly thereafter appeared alongside the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) and appears to have had his reputation largely restored, although he has otherwise vanished from public view. Abd al-Aziz was at the time of the crackdown said by activists to have been killed in a gunfight while resisting arrest, but he now seems to be confined to his palace.

The purported reason for the November purge was a crackdown on corruption, and in a country traditionally rife with it (especially among its elite) this was no hard sell. MbS told a US newspaper that the purge was like a chemotherapy of the "cancer of corruption", and with Saudi trying desperately to attract foreign investment, seemed a way to make the Kingdom more amenable to outside business. Unfortunately, the lack of transparency is as off-putting as the (at least known, and even accepted) potential for corruption. Confusion and uncertainty are proving as great a hurdle to investors as the openly acknowledged opacity in business dealings, and things are not going according to plan. Foreign investment is down, and the success of the 'anti-corruption' drive in attracting outside money is in serious question.

Related articles: A Royal Purge: Public Relations or Private Scores?
The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?
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Page 2: a reign of confusion?
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