Night of Long Knives: Saudi Arabian redux

Over the past two weeks, the Saudi Arabian “Anti-Corruption Committee” has arrested over 500 House of Saud royal family members and government officials in an attempt to crack down on corruption in the oil rich nation. The chairman of the committee is the recently appointed Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who is the son of the current King of Saudi Arabia.

The true extent, and motive, of these ongoing events is not yet known. So far, the Saudi Government is estimating that it can reclaim upwards of $800 billion in assets from the arrested royal family members and officials through charges of money laundering and corruption. At first, it appears as if the motive behind the arrests may simply be the confiscation of wealth in an attempt to shore up the nation’s coffers sustained low oil prices that have hurt the oil dependent country.

However, with an aging King Salman at 81, concerns about MbS’s inevitable ascension to the throne has grown. The anti-corruption arrests have been called a pre-emptive countercoup orchestrated by MbS to remove any possible legitimacy challenges he could face in the event of the sudden death of his father, the king.

By targeting the more prominent members of the Royal Family all at once, MbS gave the accused little time to either move personal wealth into hidden funds or leave the country all together. Additionally, the arrests have been met with complete support from President Trump and his administration. President Trump tweeted that he supported the arrests and would welcome a Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Armaco) initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange last week. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lauded the arrests as “well-intended,” according to Bloomberg.

Another event in Saudi Arabia last week that makes observers wonder how far MbS will go to ensure his ascent to the throne was a helicopter crash that resulted in the death of a Royal Family member and several of his minsters. Also, an attempt to arrest a separate House of Saud member reportedly ended in a gun fight that left the Royal dead, along with several of his guards.

MbS also began to lead Saudi Arabia towards western ideals. Over the past summer and early fall, the abilities of the religious police in Saudi Arabia were severely cut back, which led many to believe that MbS might actually enact reform. As the current Crown Prince, MbS is the second most powerful person in Saudi Arabia, behind his father. MbS’s nomination represented a historic break from tradition. Previously, the eldest family member behind the king, such as a brother or cousin, held the position of Crown Prince. MbS is currently 32 years old, and offers the nation a real prospect of modernization and possibly increased liberty.

MbS is not leaving much up to chance. The anti-corruption arrests have been labeled by many as the “Saudi Purge.” Due to the nature of the country, information concerning most of the arrests are limited. Currently, over 1,200 bank accounts across the globe have been frozen and it is likely that much of the wealth will be confiscated. Saudi Arabia, among other oil exporting nations, started to feel the impact of sustained low oil prices. Saudi Arabia issued its first ever sovereign bonds last year to the tune of nearly $17.5 billion spread over three different issues of five, 10 and 30 year notes in an attempt to make up for lost oil revenue.

Adding to Saudi finance woes is their campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthi rebels oppose the authoritarian, so the Saudi backed regime that is currently in power. Saudi Arabia has spent vast amounts of resources in an attempt to suppress the rebels and support their chosen regime. Saudi Arabia’s current ideological and geopolitical rival is Iran, whose backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen turned the conflict into a proxy war between the two Is- lamic nations. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni majority country who believes in monarchial rule, while Iran is Shia majority and believes in a group of clerics ruling their nation. In Syria, the Iranian backed Hezbollah group (seen as either a terrorist or political organization, depending on who you ask) fought alongside the Syrian regime forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad against ISIS and other rebel groups in the country. As that conflict is currently closing, a new front in the Iranian-Saudi proxy war is opening in Lebanon.

With news of the inter-familial arrests came word of the Saudi-backed Prime Minster of Lebanon Saad Hariri’s resignation. This move, which some have assumed was related to the arrests and likely influenced by MbS, among other elements within the Saudi government, was a direct result of Hezbollah’s increased militancy within Lebanon. The group backed by Iran is a part of the coalition government after long years of civil war in Lebanon.

As tensions rise in the Middle East, an interesting alignment of nation-states has begun to take shape. Saudi Arabia and Israel seem poised to take on an Iranian led alliance that would include what remains of the Syrian government and Hezbollah, being fought primarily in Lebanon and possibly Iraq. On the Gulf Coast, Qatar has been increasingly alienated by the Saudis for their accused role in terrorism funding. It is not clear what role this Sunni state will take, although it should be noted that it shares a northern border and common enemy with Iran. Only time will tell how the current middle-eastern powder keg will shake out.

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