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Feature Article

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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Past Feature Articles
A Year As Crown Prince: Forward Progress Or Sideways Shift?

The Disappearance Of Muhammad bin Salman: Rumor Mill Or Going Rogue?

The crown prince has apparently vanished from public view, stirring speculation that he was injured, or even killed in events three weeks ago that some described at the time as an attempted coup. Given the provenance of reports raising concern over his absence, how much credence should the rumors be given?

A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?

Historically, the royal family of Saudi Arabia has struggled with the tension between the urge by successful rulers to solidify their power and the necessity of providing for the inclusion of less prominent princes in order to maintain domestic stability. At critical inflection points the family will either rally around a disruptive leader who challenges the status quo or find itself dissolving into disunity.

Royal Family Consensus: Shattering A Myth?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman wraps up his U.S. visit, few would question his apparent status as de facto ruler of the Kingdom, and whatever questions remain about the upcoming succession center on the role family consensus will play. In fact, the more recent history of the Al Saud turns out to have been an anomaly, and the rapid elevation of the crown prince suggests that the traditional mechanisms of royal governance may have been more myth than reality.

The Crown Prince, Change And Failure: Grooming For Power?

In the midst of excited chatter over the latest news on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, it has nearly been forgotten that King Salman is still in charge. The king, despite exaggerated reports of his declining health, continues to groom his favorite son for office, allowing him wide latitude for action while still holding back from a complete abdication.