The purge in Saudi Arabia which began earlier this month has seen the arrests of scores of influential people and billionaires, among them 11 princes of the ruling al-Saud family and four of the nation’s ministers.
Ever since it started, the purge has baffled observers in the Middle East.
Some media reports initially suggested the purge was a pre-emptive strike on opponents of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old son of King Salman. The king is reportedly preparing to step down because of his ailing health.
The crown prince has made few friends among the Saudi elites since his ascension to power, and some in the media suggested the crackdown on these elites was simply a move to consolidate power.
Bin Salman’s reform policies were initially mentioned as another possible reason for the purge, but by now it has become clear that the motive was most likely financial in nature.
Reuters reported Wednesday that the bank accounts of 1,200 wealthy individuals and companies had been frozen, and the number keeps growing.
“Huge amounts of money may be at stake,” according to Reuters. “Corruption has over the years siphoned off $800 billion from Saudi state revenues, an official at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry has estimated; bankers believe much of it is held abroad, in countries including Switzerland and Britain.”
The financially motivated purge “aimed to confiscate cash and other assets worth as much as $800 billion in its broadening crackdown on alleged corruption among the kingdom’s elite,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
This huge amount of money is nearly two times more than the total sum of the national foreign currency reserves of Saudi Arabia. At their peak in 2014, these reserves valued $730 billion. Now, they have been reduced to $486.7 billion, according to data which were released in August.
Thus, the crackdown on Saudi elites and members of the royal family was meant to replenish the state coffers, according to WSJ.
Bin Salman and other Saudi officials have said that the frozen assets accumulated via corruption will be confiscated and regarded as state property.
The investigation against widespread corruption among the Saudi elites and princes of the royal family began three years ago and the current purge will continue, as the Saudi government made very clear.
The Saudi attorney general said the arrests were only the first phase of a continuing crackdown on corruption in the kingdom.
It therefore came as no surprise that as a next step, the Saudi authorities banned hundreds of people from leaving the country.
Those who are not yet detained and arrested are now exploring possibilities to move assets out of Saudi Arabia.
As of Wednesday, the sell-off of assets in the nation has cost the markets in the Gulf region $17.6 billion worth of stocks, setting off fears the purge might trigger the economic crisis it aimed to prevent.
As a result, Majid al-Qasabi, Saudi Arabia’s minister of commerce, reassured the country’s private sector, claiming the purge wouldn’t interfere with regular business transactions.
The Central Bank of Saudi Arabia also tried to reassure the private sector and investors, emphasizing that only private accounts had been frozen, not corporate accounts.
“It is business as usual for both banks and corporates,” the bank said in a statement.
The Saudi government also warned those who were trying to move assets to other countries that it would act to freeze them and return them to Saudi Arabia.
President Donald Trump was one of the few world leaders who showed his support for the crackdown on corruption by the Saudi government.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump tweeted, before explaining why he supported the purge.
….Some of those they are harshly treating have been “milking” their country for years!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2017
“Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years! Trump wrote on his Twitter account, indicating he was more knowledgeable about the situation than some media outlets who were still speculating on the reasoning behind the crackdown.
“The harsh treatment,” though, reportedly involved an assassination.
After the Saudi government reported a helicopter accident involving Prince Mansour bin Muqrin and seven others, the Israeli paper Yediot Acharonot reported that bin Muqrin, a former crown prince, had been assassinated.
His helicopter was reportedly shot down by a Saudi warplane near the border with Yemen because bin Muqrin opposed the appointment of bin Salman as crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
The Israeli paper said the former crown prince had sent a letter to 1,000 members of the royal family urging them not to support the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as the heir to King Salman’s throne.
What happened in Saudi Arabia over the past few months is nothing short of a coup from above. The new crown prince has effectively ended the decade-long status quo in the country by initiating several revolutionary moves that protect the right of women to drive cars and take on institutions that preach radical Islam.
Mohammed bin Salman also took control of the Saudi security forces and the national army and curbed the power of the morality police which safeguarded the adherence to Sharia law .
The crown prince was also responsible for two major foreign affairs initiatives: the blockade of Qatar (which was playing a double game with Iran and SA) and the formation of a coalition to confront the Iranian-backed Ansar Allah militia in Yemen.
The new strongman in Saudi Arabia is now reportedly working with Israel and the U.S. to confront Iran over its aggressive imperialistic policies in the Middle East. Last week, he accused Iran of declaring war on Saudi Arabia after the Ansar Allah (Houthi) militia lobbed a ballistic missile at the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The Trump administration is apparently counting on Saudi Arabia’s ability to mobilize the Sunni Arabs against Iran and to bankroll the covert war against the Islamic Republic.
Mohammed bin Salman might have initiated a process that will backfire, though.
Saudi Arabia is a “pampered and brittle society,” analyst Adam Garfinkle wrote in The American Interest.
It is possible that the nation could revolt against the new strongman, and after his latest bold moves, his enemies will surely try to get remove him from power.