Over the weekend, the Saudi Arabian government—on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—arrested a number of members of the royal family as well as other leading business and political figures in the kingdom. Those arrested include not only political rivals but at least one extremely prominent businessman: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who has numerous international connections and investments in companies as varied as Citigroup and Twitter. Corruption was the ostensible reason given for the arrests, but MBS—as he is known—is almost certainly trying to consolidate power during a difficult period of transition for the country.
Saudi Arabia is enmeshed in a brutal regional rivalry with Iran amidst increasing concerns about the future of oil, and a desire for social change among many Saudis. MBS has taken steps to limit the power of religious authorities, and helped overturn the Saudi ban on women drivers, which is now due to end in June. But he has also overseen a brutal and bloody war in Yemen, and brooks little dissent.
To interpret the latest developments, I spoke by phone with David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talked about the ways in which MBS does—and doesn’t—want to change Saudi Arabia, the similarities between MBS and President Trump, and what going after “corruption” is really about.
Isaac Chotiner: Through what prism should we be looking at the latest developments in Saudi Arabia?
David Ottaway: Well, it looks like [MBS] is consolidating his power and making sure that there will be no obstacles to him becoming king when his father either dies or abdicates. His father is King Salman, and he’s 81 years old and not in very good health. So I see it as, first, a consolidation of power, but also a trend towards a new style of governance in Saudi Arabia where power is going to be concentrated in one person, whereas previously power was shared among a number of senior princes.
Is there an ideological angle to that new style?
I don’t think so. I don’t see any ideology, nor do I think that this is basically an effort to combat corruption inside the Saudi government. It’s been done under the name of this new anti-corruption committee or counsel, but I don’t think that’s what they’re getting at here.
The word you keep hearing about MBS is “modernizer.” If that’s not ideological, is there anything substantive behind it?
He is trying to modernize, but that’s not why he’s arresting all these people. He is trying to modernize. He is trying to answer some of the demands of both women and young people, young Saudis. Their demands are for jobs, and in the case of women for more autonomy—they are going to be allowed to drive in June—but he is also opening up areas of the economy for women. So yeah, he is trying to modernize, and if you consider getting off total dependence on oil as modernizing, then you could say he’s also trying to modernize the economy. But I don’t think the people he arrested were opposed to modernization.
It’s a little reminiscent of China, which has gone through its own anti-corruption drive led by its not-so-new leader anymore. But because the system itself is so corrupt, everyone including the Chinese leader’s family is involved in corruption, and so it’s not a matter of who’s actually corrupt. It’s a matter of what their standing is. You saw the same with Russia.
Yeah, you have crony capitalism in Saudi Arabia. Particularly foreign investors always have to align themselves with some notable prince or somebody who’s a big Saudi businessman. So this is the system. This has been the system for decades. There’s always been a very close link between senior members, or even junior members of the royal Saudi family, and business people. It’s endemic to the system. I think we have to wait and see whether any one individual is actually put on trial for corruption, but I would be surprised.
So then what’ll happen to these people if they aren’t put on trial?
Well, I hear they’re going to be put in the Ritz–Carlton hotel, which is not a bad prison to be in. Maybe he’s going to release them after X amount of time, or try and prosecute a couple of them, but he’s locked up some pretty big people and senior members of the royal family, including Talal, who’s not only the richest Saudi with nearly $19 billion in assets but I believe he’s one of the richest persons in the world, so he’s not a small fry.
What regional role is MBS trying to play? It seems to be an aggressive one, especially regarding Iran.
He has taken this attitude of, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”
That always works out well. We recently saw the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, resign while in Saudi Arabia.
MBS is taking a very hard line. He’s a hawk, and [Saudi Arabia’s] main battle is with Iran and its proxies and allies in the Middle East. Their attitude towards Saad Hariri has been somewhat ambivalent. I don’t know if they put pressure on him. It was alleged that there was a plot to assassinate him, or he feared there was, which there might’ve been because they assassinated his father. It’s also true that Saad has not proven a very strong leader, and the Saudis could’ve come to the conclusion that he was not going to stand up sufficiently to Hezbollah, and withdrew their support from him.
There’s been some suggestion, including in David Ignatius’ column, that the prince huddled with Jared Kushner, and got some sort of OK from the Trump administration before making these arrests. I don’t know how much you buy that, but how important do you think it is for the Saudis to get the American OK for taking action like this?
Well, I think the one bit of evidence that would, to me, support that thesis is the fact that Trump took time out on his trip to Asia to call the king and congratulate him on modernization, or the drive for modernization. He didn’t say anything about the arrests, but for Trump to go out of his way while he has North Korea on his mind, to call the king to congratulate him on his progress in modernizing the kingdom, strikes me as really unusual and would suggest or give credence to the thesis that Jared was in Saudi Arabia, at least partly, to support MBS for what they were about to do. He may have been there for other reasons. He’s supposed to be trying to find a solution to the Palestinian problem and the Saudis are important in that issue.
What would be the American thinking there? Why from a strategic American perspective is this consolidation of power a good thing?
It’s not American thinking. It’s Trump thinking.
That’s what I meant. American regime thinking.
Trump likes people like him. There are some similarities between MBS and Trump. They’re both impulsive, they’re both military hawks, and they both want to wield power in very forceful ways.
If you’re an American, not in the Trump regime but an American who would like to see Saudi Arabia treat its people better and have a less toxic role in the region and, indeed, the world, what do you think your take would be on the latest developments and the last several months?
Well, the Saudis need to end their addiction and dependence on oil, and I would say [MBS has made] the most serious attempt to try to do that, announcing the program to get off oil and to switch the motor of the economy from the state to the private sector. These are things that needed to happen. So the vision is laudable; whether he’s going to be able to execute it or not is another thing. Then, on the social side of Saudi Arabian politics, MBS has really taken on the religious, very conservative, ultra conservative, religious establishment that really has been doing everything it can to block change, particularly for women, and he’s taken them on.
It’s an important thing that had to happen because as long as women were not able to drive— and it was the last country in the world where women couldn’t drive—[that] just gave Saudi Arabia a terrible image. So these are all things that they’ve been trying to do for a couple of decades and now they’re doing it. But when you come to the politics and how he’s dealing with his own family, the House of Saud, I think he’s really going out of his way to create a lot of enemies and a lot of discontent.
And no signs of drawing back on Saudi foreign policy, either.
No, he’s extremely anti-Iran, and has his eyes fixed on trying to stand up to Iran, so that’s not going to change. I think what’s changing is how the House of Saud does its own business. They’ve never had power so concentrated in one person, one prince before. We don’t know what the reaction is going to be short-term, mid-term, whether they’re going to adjust to it or start really opposing him. We don’t know what we’re in for in terms of what’s going to happen next, but this is a major shift in the way the country is governed.