By Ali Shihabi
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman arrives to meet Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in Downing Street in London. By SIMON DAWSON / REUTERS. @Adobe Stock Images.

This past weekend, Saudi Arabia detained numerous members of the royal family, as well as current and former ministers and prominent businessmen, on charges of corruption. Many argued that the detentions constitute a thinly veiled attempt by the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to consolidate political power. However, this narrative misses the mark; the “purge” is not about removing political rivals who threatened MBS’s position as heir apparent but rather about sending a message to political and economic elites that their entitlement to extreme wealth and privilege, and their impunity, is coming to an end.

In insular nondemocratic systems, trumped-up corruption charges are often used as a pretext to eliminate political opponents. In this context, the sweeping nature of the arrests, the high profiles of the detainees (e.g., celebrity investor Prince Waleed bin Talal), and the general opaqueness of Saudi politics fueled speculation that this past weekend’s events constituted exactly that.

However, a careful examination of the list of detainees belies this assertion. With the exception of Minister of the National Guard Prince Mutaib bin Abdallah, the detainee list is made up entirely of individuals who had no capacity to challenge the succession. Indeed, many of those arrested, such as Prince Waleed, had gone out of their way to publicly express their support for the Crown Prince and curry favor with the new leadership.

As for Prince Mutaib, despite leading the national guard, he posed no political threat to the Crown Prince. Saudi watchers have consistently misread a royal family member’s command of key military apparatuses, specifically, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the national guard, as something that gives that family member independent control over his respective organization. This is a flawed interpretation. These ministries have always behaved as part of the extended government bureaucracy that looks to the King, rather than to the individual minister, as the ultimate source of authority. This is why no elements in the Ministry of Interior or in the national guard resisted or reacted to the removal of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) or Prince Mutaib. For these two men, their individual authority over the entities they were responsible for ended with the loss of their command. Whatever authority they enjoyed had been delegated to them by the king, and once this was withdrawn, that authority ended.

In actuality, Saudi Arabia completed its political transition last June when King Salman replaced MBN with MBS as heir to the throne. The transition (mislabeled a coup by some) saw the elder MBN being relieved of all government responsibilities, swearing an oath of allegiance to his younger cousin, and exiting politics. MBN’s removal was swiftly followed by the appointment of a new generation of young princes and technocrats to key ministerial posts and governorates.

This step inevitably created winners and losers within the royal family. Given the relatively young age of the new Crown Prince, the action naturally alienated many of MBS’s older cousins, and even some uncles, who suddenly found themselves politically marginalized as a result of their younger relative’s rapid rise to power. But alienation does not mean that these princes possess the power to threaten the throne or to determine the succession. This has been particularly true since the passing of the founding generation of princes who originally united the country with the founder, King Abdul Aziz. Just as MBN and Prince Mutaib derived their stature and influence solely by virtue of the delegated authority granted to them by the ruling monarch, other members of the royal family do too. No royal maintains an independent constituency among the population at large. And, unlike politicians in, say, modern Lebanon, or the dukes of medieval Europe, individual Saudi royals lack any direct constituencies among the people that they can galvanize against the monarchy by, for example, ordering them to take to the streets, let alone have the capacity to mobilize sections of the military on their own behalf. This is why it is wrong to interpret last weekend’s arrests as an action that materially increases the political risk to the monarchy.

Bearing this in mind, King Salman and MBS have chosen to go the populist route by appealing to the Saudi public, and specifically to the youth, rather than seeking to placate the many “losers” in this succession by lavishing them with money (a tactic widely used in the past that was highly unpopular with the Saudi public and that has become increasingly unaffordable). Now there will be no paying-off of discontented princes in exchange for their loyalty and acquiescence.

The very public arrest of these high-profile individuals serves an important objective. To begin with, the choice of the particular individuals who were arrested is highly symbolic. The system in the Kingdom over the years has certainly produced many more examples of corruption and ill-gotten wealth than just these specific people. Rather than arrest every offender, the government made a deliberate choice, selecting a number of very high-profile individuals with wide name recognition, most of whom are instantly recognizable to the public and seen as beneficiaries of ill-gotten wealth. By doing this, the government sent the message to all elites that action will be taken and that nobody is immune, encouraging them all to cooperate with the state in returning assets and to face the new reality that the old order has been replaced with a new one and they had better reconcile themselves to it.

In the short term, these detentions will lead, directly and indirectly (i.e., by example of what can happen to those who do not cooperate), to the recovery of substantial ill-gotten assets from many members of the elite, including, in all probability, vast tracts of urban land that were “acquired” by senior royals in decades past. The monopolization of this resource limited the amount of urban land available to the masses, pushing up land and home prices, which contributed to massive land and home shortages. Remedying this situation will reduce the cost of home ownership, thereby alleviating a major source of grievance among middle- and lower-class Saudis.

Although commentators have widely criticized what they see as arbitrary and selective steps taken quickly and without “due process,” they must understand that this spate of arrests is as much a political and symbolic act as it is a legal one. In all likelihood the government made sure prior to taking this step that it had enough hard evidence to stand up in a Saudi court (and even to outside observers if required). Certainly a drip-by-drip process drawn out over months and years would have been much more disruptive.

More importantly, in a country beset by an extremely wide political spectrum ranging from the extreme religious right to the liberal left, achieving consensus on key issues is virtually impossible. Hence, if any reform is to take place within a reasonable time frame, it will have to be autocratically managed. Reforms such as removing the prohibition on women’s driving, combating extremism, and curbing elite entitlements would have been impossible to accomplish through deliberation and consensus. Coercive action and an authoritarian hand, rather than endless debate, discussion, and negotiation with thousands of royals and political, economic, and religious elites, was needed to drive home to these individuals that the monarchy is serious about fundamental reform and that the “old guard” needs to get with the program or face dire consequences.

Previous attempts to negotiate elite entitlements achieved negligible results. To cite just one example, relentless pushback and delay tactics scuttled a recent initiative that would have forced elites to pay full utility costs and newly introduced property taxes on undeveloped land. Arresting high-profile household names, people long considered to be untouchable, was the best way for the King and the Crown Prince to deliver the shock needed to recalibrate the behavior and expectations of the elite class.

What the King and MBS are attempting is not new for developing states pursuing comprehensive socioeconomic transformation. In 2008, the ruler of Dubai responded to Dubai’s financial collapse by mounting a wide-scale purge of senior government officials who had perpetuated the corrupt practices that were rife during the emirate’s rapid development. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 2012 campaign against his fellow “princelings,” descendants of party scions whose station gave them unparalleled economic privilege and virtual control over key sectors of the national economy, also comes to mind.

Both campaigns were initially shocking and considered to be highly controversial among observers who questioned the wisdom and speed of such actions, but they proved to be politically popular because they demonstrated a firm break with a venal past. Powerful elites who for decades had avoided accountability were publicly investigated, detained, prosecuted, and sentenced. Today, both Dubai and China are better off for it.

The detention of the Kingdom’s own princelings, while clearly authoritarian and also populist in nature, is necessary to bring about the type of social and economic transformation the Kingdom needs to restructure the social contract between the throne and the people. Are these actions risky? Absolutely. But when comprehensive reform is required to safeguard the Kingdom’s post-petroleum future, and when the status quo (with, at best, a glacial approach to reform) threatens the country’s present, decisive action is not only preferable to inaction but also actually far less risky.

Paradoxically, the Saudi “purge” may very well secure the future of Saudi elites as a class, and even the future of the very elites who were arrested. In Dubai, the crackdown ended when convicted elites were quietly released after they had returned looted state assets. It is probable that the Kingdom will follow a similar path. For Saudi elites, succumbing to a “revolution” from above that requires them to forfeit some of their extreme wealth and privilege is still preferable to a real populist revolution from below, which would wipe them out completely and destroy the country.