The Power Struggle within Saudi Arabia

"The Crown Prince’s current anti-graft sweep is focused on the food, real estate, and telecommunication sectors. The aim is to hit the primary sectors of economic and media consensus, to rebuild a new network of relations in the Middle East, and respond to the Shi'ite operations even with a military clash." Opinion

A billboard in the streets of Taif, Saudi Arabia, shows King Salman, center, with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the right, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to the left (Photo: AP)

In the current vision of the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi national anti-corruption Commission "Nazaha" has worked very well.

The anti-corruption Nazaha is a complex organization with a large set of international and local rules, always explicitly referring to the UN – and anyway international – best practice.

It will not be so easy to define Mohammed bin Salman's fight against corruption as an "ideological operation" or, even worse, "primitive."

The issue of corruption has been at the core of the Saudi political debate for years.

As early as 2013, the Riyadh Economic Forum had placed the issue of public and private corruption at the center of Saudi government actions, while the Commission was established officially with King Abdullah's Executive Order No. A/65 of March 2011.

A wide mandate having a strong political impact, designed since its inception – even before the current Crown Prince – to be the main tool for the King's control over his vast and chaotic ruling class, regardless of their being blue-blooded or not.

So far, the Saudi Nazaha, similar to many other anti-graft agencies operating throughout the Sunni Arab world, has collected data on over 2,000 sensitive cases and imposed penalties in 94% of initial reports.

Certainly, Prince Muhammad bin Salman is using Nazaha's power to eliminate his political enemies, but this is quite obvious in a struggle for absolute power following Machiavellian (and Quranic) rules whereby the property of subjects, in particular, must be rescued.

"Nevertheless, a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women" (The Prince, Chapter XVII).

The Quran reads as follows: "Devour not your wealth among yourselves vainly, nor present it to the judges that you may devour a part of the wealth of other men sinfully and knowingly" (Al-Baqarah, Surah "The Cow," verse 188).

Muhammad’s doctrine on corruption contains many other Quranic and Sunnah verses, which there is no point in quoting here.

The Islamic legal tradition is very strict. In fact, a hadith of the Prophet simply condemns bribery – both those who grant and those who receive bribes, along with the intermediary – all placed by the Prophet on an equal footing.

The granting of illegal assets to favor and facilitate a subsequent transaction is an offense to divine law, not just to corporate law, in the meaning that we Westerners attribute to the concept of "civil law."

Hence, the doctrinal basis on which the Saudi anti-corruption Commission relies is theologically wide and sufficiently complex.

Nevertheless, with a view to understanding the political logic of the Saudi anti-corruption Commission, we must at first see who (and how) has been hit by the Saudi penalties imposed by the Nazaha in Riyadh, upon Saudi royal orders.

As many as 512 Saudi citizens have been hit – for various reasons – by the anti-corruption sweep of Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Commission. Moreover, 1,286 private and corporate current accounts have been frozen so far.

It should also be noted that many Saudi people targeted by this anti-corruption probe – which is more rational to define as a bloodless coup – are part of the three branches forming the Riyadh Intelligence Services.

Firstly, as is well-known, there is the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), the Mukhabarat al-A'amah, whose old leader Khalid Bin Alì al-Humaidan has been put aside.

The other intelligence services, namely the internal security police and, above all, the Mabahit, responsible for counter-espionage and internal and political security, have also been decapitated by the current graft crackdown of the Heir to the Throne.

In particular, Prince Muhammad bin Salman wants to capitalize on the current honeymoon with Trump Presidency, as well as to avoid the coup that was probably looming large for Salman and his son Mohammed.

He also wants to acquire absolute hegemony over the Sunni world against the Iranian Shi'ite operations which will be tolerated at best in Central Asia, but never in the Persian Gulf.

If the Saudi King had abdicated in favor of his son Mohammed – as he had long been planning to do – he would soon have put aside Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the Interior Minister and direct heir to the Saudi Kingdom in the traditional line of succession. In fact, on June 21, 2017, Bin Nayef was replaced by Muhammad bin Salman.

Let us better analyze, however, the list of the main people accused of corruption.

As already noted, there is Muhammad al-Walid bin Talal, together with the President of the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MEBC), namely Walid Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, who had avoided selling his broadcasters to the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman. Al-Ibrahim was also President of the United Press International (UPI) until the annus mirabilis of the old Saudi power, namely 2000 – the year of Bin Laden’s ambiguity. We will revert to this issue at a later stage. He also founded Al Arabiya, as an alternative to the Qatari Al-Jazeera, still in the hands of the "Muslim Brotherhood."

It is worth noting that currently all coups start for and end in the media ownership or control.

Another official arrested on November 4 is Mutaib bin Abdullah, former Minister of the Saudi National Guard. Bin Abdullah graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a lieutenant in 1974 and was former representative of the Ford Motors Co. He was at the helm of the Saudi military organizations.

The list of arrested people also includes Turki bin Abdullah al-Saud, former Governor of Riyadh until 2015, who is charged with corruption in the Riyadh Metro project still to be completed, for having taken advantage of his role and influence to award contracts to his own companies. He is the seventh son of King Abdullah and graduated in "strategic studies" at the University of Leeds, Great Britain. He was also a manager of the King Abdulaziz Foundation, as well as promoter and organizer of various transactions with British and US companies.

Another Prince arrested in the "corruption crackdown" is Turki bin Nasser al-Saud, a prince of the Royal Family and Head of the Saudi National Meteorology and Environment Service. This agency also deals with environmental protection and pollution control. This is an important sign: Nasser al-Saud probably covered up the environmentally damaging affairs of some Saudi companies, but this is certainly not the reason why Nasser al Saud was arrested. Rumors are rife about his business in the Lebanon, where he received funds from a local politician, Mohammed Safadi – and he is also reported of having been under scrutiny by the UK Serious Fraud Office as early as 2005.

Old stories about the Saudi Royal Family coming out again when it is more convenient for the new Crown Prince.

Former Deputy Defense Minister Fahd bin Abdullah Saud was also arrested. He studied at the Naval Staff and Command College and was former Commander of the Saudi Navy. He has always played a leading role in the balance of power within the Kingdom and the al-Saud Family, by deciding and managing many military and civilian careers.

King Fahd’s son, namely Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, was also arrested on November 4. He is supposed to have been killed during the arrest, but the government denies the police shot him. He lived mainly in Switzerland and traveled to Saudi Arabia only for official meetings. Removed from his assignments as early as 2011, he was mainly a businessman, serving as the long arm of the Saudi Oger, a real estate company. Said company was initially owned by Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese leader assassinated in 2005, and went bankrupt in July 2017. Oger Communications, however, keeps on supplying Internet, fixed and mobile telephone services in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Lebanon, Jordan and South Africa. Al Fahd has a "confidential" portfolio of at least one billion dollars in the United States – as recently ascertained by the New York Supreme Court – and other real estate properties in Minneapolis, which have recently gone bankrupt. He is (was) de facto owner of the already mentioned MEBC.

As already reported in other articles, the non-noble people arrested include Khaled Al Tuwajiri, Head of the Saudi Royal Court with King Abdullah. In 2012, he had harshly criticized the "Westernization" process underway in Saudi Arabia. He was removed from his post at the Court, on which he had very strong influence, through the old King Abdullah and his son Miteb, the Minister of the National Guard.

Another detainee is Adel Fakeih, former mayor of Jeddah, and later Labor Minister, Health Minister and, since April 2015, Minister for Economy and Planning. Besides his public service (although the watershed between these two worlds is somehow blurred in the Saudi Kingdom), he worked for the Al Marai Group, operating in the food, building and finance sectors, as well as President of the Aljazira Bank. Later he also worked for the Saudi Glass Company and as a top manager of the Savola Group, a food company selling sugar, cooking oil, dairy, and catering products in Africa, Saudi Arabia, the whole Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Incidentally, we will shortly witness large economic and political movements in Turkey, just as a result of the Saudi "bloodless coup."

Fakeih was also in charge of the global and Middle East markets for the Saudi British Bank. Said banking network is supposed to have organized the coup against Salman and his son under the banner of "return to traditions" and, possibly, by raising the old issue of social justice.

The "purged" people – almost as in an old Soviet palace coup – include Amr al-Dabbagh, President and founder of the Al Dabbagh Group, who graduated in management in California and is very active in the non-profit sector. The Al Dabbagh Group controls 57 companies in the food, oil, automotive, real estate and packaging sectors.

In all likelihood, Mohammad bin Salman wants to hit the old Saudi "global enterprises" in order to avoid an overlapping of financial and political power, with a highly enterprise-oriented elite.

Another detainee is Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al Assaf, former Saudi Finance Minister and State Minister of the Saudi Kingdom. He was arrested on charges of purchasing land around the Great Mosque of Mecca, in view of its planned expansion, by taking advantage of his public role and influence. Former Saudi Arabia’s representative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and later vice-Governor of the Saudi Monetary Authority, Al Assaf is still member of the Board of Directors of Saudi ARAMCO – the "crown jewel" of the future privatization advocated by Prince Muhammad Bin Salman – and, before his arrest, President of the Saudi Development Fund. He had attended the recent G20 Summit in Hamburg, but it did not bring him luck.

Authorities also arrested Khalid Abdullah al-Mohem, who had studied electrical engineering in the United States and was later appointed General Manager of Saudia, the commercial airline of the Kingdom. Manager of the well-known Saudi British Bank and the above-mentioned Almarai, a large food and dairy company, he held countless assignments in the food, catering, telecommunications, and cement sectors, as well in the HBSC, the Saudi Investment Bank, and in the airlines of the Kingdom.

The list of people arrested also include Saleh Abdullah Kamel, founder of the Dallah al Baraka Group, a multinational company dealing with healthcare (private hospitals), financial investment, real estate, banks, transport, and logistics. President of the General Council of Islamic Banks and Financial Institutions, he also led the Arab Thought Foundation and the Saudi Chambers of Commerce.

Another too powerful tycoon to be tolerated by the new Heir to the Throne. The Crown Prince no longer wants the Islamism naïvely defined as "radical," but rather the pursuit of Saudi national interest.

Muhammad bin Salman's "bloodless coup" has put an end to the geopolitical link between Saudi interest and global jihad. From now on, the "holy war" will be regional or waged wherever the Saudi interest is focused, at least as to the share of jihad funded by Saudi Arabia.

Another well-known personality arrested is Bakr bin Laden, the true "King of Jeddah" – as people call him – and also the half-brother of the much more notorious Osama bin Laden.

It should be made very clear that this is not an "anti-terrorism" operation.

Bakr bin Laden currently works in Qatar for his family-run company operating in the traditional real estate sector, but he is still one of the primary economic links between the United States and the Saudi world.

The detainees also include Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed al-Sultan, the founder of the already mentioned Almarai and Admiral of the Saudi Royal Navy.

A country and the education and training of its ruling class, in particular, may also be controlled through the distribution of food and its organization.

Mohammad al-Tobaishi, former Head of Protocol at the Royal Court of Riyadh, was also arrested. He was an old partner of "Valia Investments" based in Boston and Dubai, a merchant bank dealing with venture capital in Tunis, California's West Coast, Rabat and Casablanca – in short, a Saudi dominance network between the Middle East and the United States.

The United States should probably better analyze what this "bloodless coup" means for its new equilibria in the Middle East.

The former CEO of the "Saudi Telecom Company," namely Saoud Al Dawish, was arrested as well. He had already been convicted of bribery in 2012. This is another sign that the Crown Prince is catching in his net  both the economic leaders who are most interesting for him in the telecom, banking, real estate and retail sectors, and the old corrupt bribers already well-known to the Royal House and the Saudi people, with whom Muhammad bin Salman wants to recreate a charismatic bond.

It is certainly an advertising operation, albeit well studied, regardless of the real faults of the arrested people.

Last but not least, we must also mention Nasser Al Tayar, President and CEO of the Al Tayar tourist Group.

With a view to targeting the relations between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world, the management of tourist companies must also be undermined.

Furthermore, until his arrest on November 4 last, Tayar was also President of the Arab Publisher House, "Medina Press," but the Al Tayar Group also operates in the real estate, hoteling, aviation, and food sectors.

Crown Prince’s current anti-graft sweep is focused on the food, real estate, and telecommunication sectors. The aim is to hit and decapitate the primary sectors of economic and media consensus, to rebuild a new network of relations in the Middle East, and respond to the Shi'ite operations even with a military clash.

The primary goal of the West – firstly the United States and secondly the now irrelevant Europe – will be to avoid the clash, as well as mediate, defuse and use it for its own purposes.

I am not optimistic that it will pursue said goal.

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