The Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, the de facto royal hotel, was evacuated on Saturday, stirring rumors that it would be used to house detained royals. The airport for private planes was closed, arousing speculation that the crown prince was seeking to block rich businessmen from fleeing before more arrests.
That right there – from the New York Times – in many ways encapsulates the farcical nature of what’s going on in Saudi Arabia, where Mohammed bin Salman is essentially moving to consolidate all power in himself.
Only in Saudi Arabia would dozens of people who were just arrested be housed at the Ritz fucking Carlton. “Surrender you rascal! We’re throwing your ass in the Ritz Carlton.”
As this unfolded on Saturday evening, the news flow approximated a deluge and although there were some dots that could be connected immediately (e.g. it’s a purge, so MbS must be consolidating power), the moves raise all kinds of other questions, ranging from those that can be answered definitively to those that outsiders will never know the answers to with any degree of certainty.
Here’s who was arrested:
- Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holding
- Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, head of National Guard
- Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former governor of Riyadh province
- Khalid Al Tuwayjiri, former chief of royal court
- Adel Fakeih, minister of economy and planning
- Ibrahim Al Assaf, former finance minister
- Abdulla Al Sultan, commander of Saudi navy
- Bakr bin Laden, chairman of Saudi Binladin Group
- Alwaleed Al Ibrahim, owner of MBC
- Khalid al Mulheim, former director general at Saudi Arabian Airlines
- Mohammed Al Tobaishi, former head of protocol at royal court
- Amr Al-Dabbagh, former head of Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority
- Saud Al Daweish, former CEO of Saudi Telecom
- Saleh Kamel, businessman
- Prince Turki bin Nasser, former head of presidency of meteorology and environment
- Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud, former deputy defense minister
- Mohammed Al Amoudi, businessman
Obviously, the bin Talal detention is the headline grabber, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The most important thing about this is the extent to which it represents an effort to consolidate power in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This of course comes just a little over four months after bin Salman replaced his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef as heir to the throne. 31 out of 34 members of the Allegiance Council supported that decision.
They put on a fun show for Saudi television which aired footage of bin Salman kissing Nayef’s hand, but here’s what we said about that at the time:
…it’s pretty clear whose hand (and ass) everyone is going to be kissing in Riyadh going forward.
Yeah. So given that, it wasn’t hard to predict what was coming when the following decree was handed down on Saturday (via Al Arabiya):
In a statement carried by the official Saudi news agency, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud decreed the following:
First: To form a supreme committee chaired by the Crown Prince.
Secondly, the investigation, issuance of arrest warrants, travel ban, disclosure and freezing of accounts and portfolios, tracking of funds, assets and preventing their remittance or transfer by persons and entities, whatever they might be.
There’s a “thirdly” and a “fourthly” and so on, but you get the idea: “weak-souled” bastards need to be brought to justice and the King knows just who to call on when it comes to doling out that justice: bin Salman.
“The breadth and scale of the arrests appears to be unprecedented in modern Saudi history,” Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University said.
The move against Prince Miteb bin Abdullah is particularly notable. The son of the late King Abdullah, his ouster means the Shammar branch of the family will no longer hold any top positions. The National Guard – which he ran until yesterday – was given its own ministry four years ago and if you read a little bit about the history there, you can kind of start to get an idea of why bin Salman might have wanted to control it too. Here’s Reuters:
For decades [it existed] as a sort of parallel army, serving as a bulwark against any possible military coup and providing the country’s powerful tribes with their main link to the government.
Its origins can be traced back to the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who led white-clad “Ikhwan” tribal warriors in conquering much of the Arabian peninsula in the first three decades of the 20th century.
After Ibn Saud’s death, Saudi authorities transformed the Office of the Jihad and Mujahideen, which managed the Ikhwan and other tribal forces, into the National Guard.
It remains administratively distinct from the other two pillars of the Saudi security architecture, the ministries of interior and defense.
Essentially, bin Salman now controls the kingdom’s entire security apparatus and not only that, it kind of seems like Prince Miteb (who was once thought to be a contender for the throne) might have been one of the only people still in a position to challenge MbS. And indeed, there’s been no shortage of speculation since the June shakeup that Prince Miteb’s day was coming.
So there’s that.
And then there’s billionaire and social media “darling” Alwaleed bin Talal, who just a week ago was busy telling CNBC about how Bitcoin was the next Enron. You already know Prince Alwaleed, so I’m not going to give you the boilerplate background, but what you should note is his history with Trump which goes well beyond the following tweets:
There’s also this tweet:
The “photoshopped pics” bit there is a reference to the fact that Trump was duped by a fake picture of Megyn Kelly and the Prince. Here’s that fake picture:
And the “bail out” part is a reference to Alwaleed having participated in multiple deals to save Trump when he was in dire straits. Here are a couple of excerpts from a BuzzFeed story that details one of those deals:
Donald Trump has made a habit of criticizing the United States for allowing foreign countries to continue “eating our lunch,” a message he has pushed for nearly 30 years.
In 1991, however, it was Trump’s lunch that was eaten by a foreign competitor, when the real estate mogul, in debt to the tune of $900 million, ceded his 281-foot super-yacht Trump Princess over to creditors.
The yacht was then purchased by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, mogul and member of the Saudi royal family. He also happens to have a stake in another forsaken Trump property: the Plaza hotel in New York.
Just hours after Saturday’s purge, Trump called King Salman ostensibly to talk about arms sales, which is plausible considering the Saudis did shoot down a Houthi ballistic missile yesterday, but even that’s got ties to bin Salman because the Prince is running the war in Yemen (although recently, reports indicate he may be having second thoughts about that).
On Sunday, shares of Kingdom Holding (owned by Prince Alwaleed) plunged, falling nearly 10% at one point, the most since November 2014, to 9.26 riyals, the lowest since 2012:
You’re reminded that this comes just a week after we learned that Jared Kushner – who, like MbS, is a thirty-something who rose from political obscurity to a position of high influence with a sovereign – took an undisclosed trip to Saudi Arabia last month. Here’s Politico from an October 29 piece:
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner returned home Saturday from an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia — his third trip to the country this year.
Kushner left Washington, D.C., via commercial airline on Wednesday for the trip, which was not announced to the public, a White House official told POLITICO. He traveled separately from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who led a delegation to Riyadh last week to focus on combating terrorist financing.
The White House official would not say who Kushner met with in Saudi Arabia. But he has cultivated a relationship with the crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman.
I’m sure there’s no connection there. It’s just a “big league” coincidence.
Speaking of “coincidences”, Donald Trump tweeted this on Saturday morning:
Well, I assume you know who the man pulling the strings behind the Aramco IPO is and in case you don’t recall, remember what we said last month when reports began to suggest that pressure was mounting to alter plans for an international listing:
As FT also notes, “it is unclear if this new proposal is backed by Prince Mohammed and there is no guarantee it will go ahead.” That right there is key. We’ll say it again: the obvious question here is what this means for bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” and for the crown prince’s economic reform platform more generally.
And wouldn’t you know it, the list of people detained on Saturday includes former finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, an Aramco board member.
In the same Saturday call mentioned above, the White House says Trump asked Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to “strongly consider listing Aramco on a stock exchange in the United States.” Again: I’m sure that’s a coincidence.
Broadly speaking, the consolidation of the kingdom’s entire defense apparatus in the hands of MbS raises new questions about an escalation with Iran. There’s no check on the Crown Prince’s power. On the other hand, the more power is consolidated in his hands, the faster reforms will move.
“The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family whose secretive inner workings are equivalent to those of the Kremlin at the time of the Soviet Union,” Reuters quotes James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, as saying today.
“Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war,” Dorsey adds.
Here’s a bit of additional color from Frank Gardner, BBC’s security correspondent:
The events of Saturday night in Saudi Arabia are nothing short of seismic for that country. In a bold, pre-planned move, the 32-year old Crown Prince has removed the final obstacles to his gaining total control over the world’s richest oil producer and home to the holiest shrines in Islam.
Presented to the world as an anti-corruption drive, the arrests of princes, ministers and the billionaire tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal have shocked Saudis unused to sudden change.
The crown prince is largely popular, especially amongst young Saudis, but many older, more conservative citizens think he is moving too far too fast. He has started an unwinnable war in Yemen while still fighting the extremists of so-called Islamic State. He has also backed a damaging boycott of Gulf neighbour Qatar.
But his supporters hail his efforts to modernise Saudi Arabia and, after decades of rule by old men, they welcome a fresh vision from a man who could well be king for the next 50 years.
The bottom line: bow down…