(UPDATES) What is Going on in the Land of Ten Thousand Princes?
Another intriguing aspect of a weekend already full of intrigue in Riyadh was the sudden resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri after he landed in Riyadh on what was supposed to be a routine visit. The Saudis say there was a plot to assassinate him.
Hariri blamed Hezbollah and its patron, Iran for his resignation.
There was immediate speculation that his resignation came under duress and that he was being held captive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Lebanese government is demanding that Hariri be returned to Lebanon.
The Los Angeles Times cites several theories “as to the real reason why Hariri quit.” Among them:
“…Saudi Arabia forced [Hariri]to do it as part of its escalating regional battle with Iran…The Saudi government had considered Hariri an ally — he has Saudi and Lebanese citizenship — and was upset that he had been working with Hezbollah in a unity government.
…Hariri was swept up in the anti-corruption dragnet himself. The campaign has targeted some of Saudi Arabia’s top companies, including the now-defunct construction giant Saudi Oger, which was owned by Hariri’s family…One of its biggest clients was the Saudi government, which stopped paying its bills, forcing the company to shut down earlier this year…Because [Hariri] is no longer prime minister, Hariri lost his immunity and can more easily be prosecuted under Saudi law.”
Today, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon and on the Iran-backed group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forcing him to resign.
And so, the plot, the tensions and the dangers to the region rise.
There is mounting evidence that the Trump administration’s finger prints are all over the ongoing purge of princes and other officials in the Kingdom and on the increasing belligerence against Yemen and Iran by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
Jared Kushner has made several trips to the Kingdom since his father-in-law’s inauguration. His most recent one just a few days before the so-called “coup,” during which Kushner again met with MbS, with whom he is said to have established a close personal relationship.
Trump has been supportive of MbS’ power play, tweeting that he had “great confidence” in the recent crackdown, adding that some of the arrested royals had been “milking their country for years.”
It is also rumored that MbS may have recently visited Tel Aviv and that he “has authorized ever closer relations with the Israelis, who view the Iranian threat exactly as he does.”
While the Trump administration – and others – have praised MbS’ recent actions, others believe MbS is moving too fast and too aggressively and are a little more circumspect – and nervous.
Foreign Policy asks:
“Given Kushner’s role, did Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signal his plans when Kushner last met with him — and did Kushner then inform his father-in-law? And if so, how far will Washington, or more precisely, the White House, go to back up the Saudis if their confrontation with Iran gets hot? Or will Israel serve as Trump’s proxy? With this president, this crown prince, and the current prime minister of Israel, anything is possible.”
Bloomberg cites former senior CIA analyst, Bruce Riedel:
“For some Saudi watchers, the purges and the escalating rhetoric are a recipe for disaster…Riedel in a recent column warns that the crown prince is taking a dangerous tack. ‘Arresting and perhaps even killing political opponents is not likely to encourage investors…Fanning sectarian violence is bound to fuel turbulence.’”
Finally, referring to Qatar – another country being ostracized by Saudi Arabia — NPR quotes Marcelle Wahba, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and now head of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington:
“Any person looking at this should have some concerns that [Mohammad bin Salman] may be biting off too much…These are very dramatic changes, and to take them all at once, I’m sure he’s created a lot of people who are not happy with this. Whether he will succeed or fail in the long term is still a question mark.”
Only the very best will do for members of the Saudi royal family whose net worth has been estimated at well over $1.4 trillion, making them one of the richest families in the world – if not the richest.
Thus, it should not be surprising that the 11 Saudi princes arrested over the weekend (along with three dozen other senior officials and influential businessmen) on orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) are being held at a maximum luxury “prison” in Riyadh, the Ritz-Carlton.
One of the princes arrested is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud, who with a net worth of around $20 billion, is one of the richest and most famous Saudis worldwide. His investments include or have included Apple, Twitter, Citigroup, Lyft as well as luxury resorts and hotels around the world. It is not known if the Ritz-Carlton is among the latter.
Coincidentally – or perhaps not – Prince Alwaleed has been critical of president Trump, at one time telling him in a twitter message:
“You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.
Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win.”
Also “coincidentally,” Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, made an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia only days before the “coup,” and is said to have “conferred at length with the crown prince.”
It is not at all coincidental that MbS has been “emboldened” by Trump’s and his inner circle’s support, “who see him as a kindred disrupter of the status quo — at once a wealthy tycoon and a populist insurgent.”
Finally, it might not be a coincidence that, on Sunday — the same day the long knives came out in Riyadh — a helicopter crash near the border with Yemen killed another Saudi prince.The Saudi media is dismissing rumors that another prince was “shot dead while resisting corruption arrest.”
The New York Times reports that “as many as 500 people have been detained on allegations of corruption as part of the crackdown”
In case the reader is concerned about the high number of princely detentions and mishaps, not to worry. There are plenty more princes.
While living and working in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, I remember browsing through one of the early Jeddah phonebooks and ending up in the “P” section. Why, I don’t remember. (I could not have been looking for a place to buy a good port in this “dry country” — nor for Coca Cola, Alka-Seltzer, Ford cars or any of the dozens of other products and services banned in the Kingdom because of real or perceived ties to Israel at the time, even the children’s movieSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)
Once at the “P” section, to my surprise, I found myself turning over page after page, after page, of “Prince such and such” entries – there must have been hundreds of them.
In fact, there are approximately 15,000 princes and princesses in the Kingdom, according to some estimates.
Saying that princes in Saudi Arabia are “a dime a dozen” is a poor cliché. It is probably more realistic to point out – considering the aforementioned ostentatious wealth of the royal family — that they are “a billion dollars a dozen.”
This abundance of princes (and princesses) can be partly attributed to the line of descent of the House of Saud, to the practice of polygamy (King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, is said to have had 17 “known” wives) and to the fact that Abdul Aziz had roughly 100 children, 45 of them sons. Three of his 45 sons – Kings Saud, Faisal and Khalid — had a total of 115 children between them.
The profusion of wealth among the princes and princesses is of course derived from the reserves of petroleum discovered during the reign of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud more than 75 years ago, from the fortunes of petrodollars generated by its exploration and sales which have permitted “billions of dollars in annual allowances, public-sector sinecures and perks” to be generously bestowed upon the royals by the House of Saud.
The stipends, allowances, “goodies” and other privileges the royal clan receives are tightly guarded secrets. However, according to an U.S. Embassy official in Riyadh, already in 1995:
“The stipends…ranged from up to $270,000 a month for a son of the founding king to $8,000 a month for his great-great-grandchildren…Bonuses of $1 million to $3 million were given to some royals as wedding gifts for palace construction…allowances, which included payments to other prominent families around the kingdom, accounted for roughly $2 billion of the government’s total $40 billion budget, or 5 percent of all public spending.”
While lower oil prices may have cut into the “pocket money” doled out to the royals, it appears that the lavish lifestyle its members have grown accustomed to, continues.
Which brings us back to the headstrong, 32-year old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, while vacationing in the south of France a couple of years ago, saw a toy he just could not resist.
“Prince bin Salman spotted a 440-foot yacht floating off the coast. He dispatched an aide to buy the ship…The deal was done within hours, at a price of approximately 500 million euros (roughly $550 million today).”
Today, this same prince “is positioning himself as an enforcer against corruption, bringing to heel some of the most ostentatiously wealthy members of the royal family,” according to the Times.
Indeed, MbS has proposed ambitious social and economic changes, including: the creation of a new and powerful “anticorruption committee;” allowing women to drive; a plan to sell shares of the kingdom’s key asset — the oil giant Saudi Aramco — in an IPO and placing limits on the power and ideology of the Wahabi clerics.
The Saudi capital newspaper Al Riyadh “celebrated” the actions by MbS as a key step toward economic and social modernization:
“It’s all about the principles of serious work, justice and equality for all citizens. There should no longer be any differences between members of the royal family and other citizens…There will be no room for corruption and nepotism…By taking that step, the prince showed that no one is above the law.”
Deutsche Welle and others, however, have mixed feelings about bin Salman’s “meteoric rise” and grab for power.
In a column for Al Monitor, U.S. security expert Bruce Riedel writes, “The crown prince is now in charge of an anti-corruption task force that looks more like a means to punish his opponents than anything else.”
The New York Times Editorial Board cautions, “Cooler heads, whether in Washington or Riyadh, should counsel Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman not to add a war with Iran to his to-do list.”
In “What the Hell Just happened in Saudi Arabia?”, Politico suggests, “a more immediate outcome may be that Mohammed bin Salman uses his consolidated authority to escalate further the war in Yemen and—in his response to a missile launched by Houthi rebels that was intercepted over Riyadh—move dangerously close to outright military confrontation with Iran.”
Even more immediate may be the fate of the dozens of princes and prominent government, business and political figures, described as “traitors” by the Saudi media, who are presently enjoying the frills of the Ritz-Carlton and of other luxury hotels in Riyadh.
Saudi “justice” has been known to be swift and severe.
Lead photo: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, then Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia, in June 2016. Credit: United Nations
Cross-posted from the Huffington Post
ADDED: Excellent video here