Saudi: Anti-corruption or royal conflict? Reform is the only answer

APD News | 作者: Li Zixin | 时间: 2017-12-20 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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The domestic political issue of Saudi Arabia has recently occupied the major pages of news media around the world. Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud announced on Nov. 4 the establishment of a supreme anti-corruption committee chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He also arrested a dozen princes and nearly 40 incumbent and former ministers, not letting off those in real power.

Is this anti-corruption or a royal fight? Conservation or revolution? All kinds of speculations have been aroused. Rather than conjecturing the secret talks in the royal family, we can get some insights into the country’s future from the perspective of its history.


Why are there so many princes in Saudi Arabia?

In the early 20th century, Ibn Saud, as a descendant from a distinguished family on the Arabian Peninsula, expanded a small tribe kingdom through decades of war and established the current kingdom of Saudi Arabia with his own efforts and support from Western powers. As acquisition of territories in the early years was not an easy job, political marriage, an ideal option compared to wars, usually served as the solution to border security. To forge alliances with big families and tribes on the peninsula, Ibn Saud built an enormous “harem” which produced over 50 princes among more than 100 children. As time went by, the number of princes and their descendants exceeds 5000 up to now.

In spite of a great number of descents, the country has witnessed stable transitions for more than half a century with the special inheritance system of “younger brothers succeeding elder brothers.” However, the incumbent king is one of Ibn Saud’s youngest sons and Mugrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the crown prince installed when the king took office, is his youngest brother. Succession between generations has become an inevitable realistic question.

King Salman’s quick response to the problem was beyond imagination. In less than half a year, the king ousted his younger brother Mugrin and his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, then crowned his son Mohammed bin Salman. The swift appointment would naturally cause disturbance in the house. Thus, “appropriate personnel adjustment” to stabilize the new crown prince’s position became a logical speculation, which made the rumor of royal conflicts popular. However, the current political turmoil is much more than that. Reform has become the main measure for Mohammed bin Salman to establish authority and prestige.


Reform? Dynamic under pressure

It is self-evident that reform is difficult for such a conservative kingdom.

In the early 1990s, emerging capitalists and high-tech population rose to be social upstarts who contested with traditional tribal nobility and conservative religious figures for the dominant power of national development. The outbreak of the Gulf War and Kuwait’s encounter caused fear of imminent threat to Saudi Arabia. Both domestic and foreign situations required revolution of the antiquated ruling system. In 1992, the House of Saud published “three major bills” and started political reform, through which the royal family solidified its political foundation so that its power was stabilized and even reinforced.

The 911 attack in the early 21st century forced Saudi Arabia to step up reform. Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative especially challenged the Saudi ideology. In 2003, King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue was founded as an important bridge between the government and the people. On the one hand, the government hoped to listen to its people and give responses and changes. On the other hand, the center allowed the House to grasp the interpretation of social development and coordinate people’s mind so as to bring up top-down progressive reform. The Arab Spring in 2011 put mounting pressure for urgent reform on the House of Saud. Though the country staggered through the crisis with abundant petro-dollars, it was imperative that Saudi Arabia start a more liberal reign. The determination and boldness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the very leader of the revolution, have gradually been seen after a series of vigorous and resolute policies though he was a political freshman.


Saudi Arabia’s future under Mohammed bin Salman’s administration is expected

Saudi Vision 2030 led by Mohammed bin Salman aims at economic transition from independence on energy trade. In addition to bold economic reforms, his liberal attitude in terms of religions and culture is also much expected.

The crown prince has publicly claimed that the country was “abnormal” in the past 30 years and that he would lead Saudi Arabia back to “Moderate Islam.” Cultural and religious reforms have laid stable social foundation for economic development. Under the influence of the arrests of princes and dignitaries, the Saudi stock fluctuated after opening on Nov. 5 but closed high, which reflected investors’ confidence in Saudi leadership’s anti-corruption which, they believe, will be beneficial to the reform plan in the long run.

Looking back on the ongoing “political storm” in Saudi Arabia, it is not important whether it is anti-corruption or a royal fight. Reform may be the only answer.




Li Zixin is an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.




Source: Asia Pacific Daily, November 8, 2017.