The purge orchestrated by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman — which targeted 11 princes, 38 businessmen, and current and former ministers — is quite unique in the history of the country.
The list of the arrestees, as part of this vast anti-corruption drive carried out by the Saudi authorities, includes: famous billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns major stakes in Twitter and Euro Disney, as well as the George V hotel in Paris; the chairman of the big Saudi Binladin construction group, Bakr bin Laden; two sons of the late King Abdullah, who died in 2015 — Miteb bin Abdullah, who is the powerful head of the National Guard, and Turki bin Abdullah, the former governor of Riyadh; businessman Saleh Kamel; as well as Environment and Economy ministers Turki bin Nasser and Adel Fakeih, respectively.
These arrests were warranted by an anti-corruption commission, created by King Salman and led by his son, Mohammed bin Salman, and which launched a probe into old cases such as floods that devastated the city of Jeddah (west) in 2009.
The anti-corruption sweep, which comes in the aftermath of a major economic forum in Riyadh, during which Mohammed bin Salman attempted to attract foreign investors by advocating for the return to "moderate Islam" and announcing large-scale projects, was described by Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan as heralding “a new era and policy of transparency," adding that these actions "will enhance the investment environment."
These arrests are only part of a big picture, pertaining mainly to the vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who since coming to power has expanded women’s rights by allowing them to drive, enter stadiums, and attend concerts. He is the man credited with formulating “Vision 2030,” an ambitious plan to overhaul the Saudi oil-based economy. His vision of tourism development around the Red Sea and the creation of a smart city was only unimaginable a year ago.
He is fully aware that his will for openness and modernity will draw fierce opposition by hardliners, including from within the ruling family and clerics, as his move upends the ruling al-Saud family’s long-standing alliance with the kingdom’s Wahhabi clergy.
In one of his statements, made during the unveiling of the NEOM project and not highlighted enough, the prince said that “we want to lead a normal life, those who will oppose it, will be destroyed now and immediately." That amounted to a true declaration of war against conservatives.
The support shown by the Saudi youth for the latest measures shows that it aspires to a real change on the social, economic, and even political fronts. Young Saudis want more freedom, openness, transparency, fewer constraints in the name of religion, and less corruption.
If U.S. media has adopted a wait-and-see approach, it is not because it would be against these ongoing events. It knows that "the Saudi night of long knives" had the backing of the Trump administration. His son-in-law Jared Kushner made several trips to Riyadh before the arrests, and the White House publicly expressed support for the Saudi prince's actions through the president's famous morning tweets.
Reactions are mitigated by local and regional implications. Inside the kingdom, possible tensions with the conservative base could weaken the country while it leads a war in Yemen, a place that puts Riyadh in direct confrontation with Iran.
At the regional level, the stakes are even higher. While Saudi Arabia remains a powerhouse among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the conflict with Qatar has weakened this regional grouping on a geostrategic basis. The fight against terrorism can only be full-fledged if it includes the complete overhaul of the religious field in these countries. And this is where the MBS projects, as they are often referred to in the U.S., take on a particular importance.
The openness he proposes will not take place without a re-examination of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia. As noted above, the Saudi state was founded on the precepts of Wahhabism. The new strong man will indeed encounter difficulties and pockets of resistance from the academic and religious Establishment.
But if he succeeds, the shock wave will affect other countries. The UAE is already going through the process of openness. For others, the change will be deeper and geared toward some sort of cultural revolution. Qatar must drop the double language and clearly commit to the path of modernity.
Things can go in the right direction and put this region on an accelerated path toward social modernity. But the likelihood of an exacerbation of tensions, already high, is very real, hence the lukewarm response.
There is one country that can play an important role in this evolution: Morocco. Recently, King Mohammed VI has visited the UAE, a country he considers home. The King of Morocco took part in the opening ceremony of the “Louvre Abu Dhabi” where he offered artworks dating back to the 19th century. After that he will head to Qatar.
Rabat has excellent relations with all GCC countries, and very close ties with Riyadh.
Morocco is a model of tolerance and openness in the Muslim world. It can help ease current tensions and accompany future developments.
Yet, it remains to be seen how what is happening in Saudi Arabia can impact the entire Arab-Muslim world in favor of peace and the appeasement of tensions in the world.
Ahmed Charai, a Moroccan publisher, is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for the National Interest in Washington.
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