Posturing for Power, Trump-touting Are Just Some of the Theories About Saudi's 'Corruption' Arrests

Published November 5th, 2017 - 12:04 GMT
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia arrested at least 11 of its princes, along with four current ministers and dozens of former ministers. But what is really going on? (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia arrested at least 11 of its princes, along with four current ministers and dozens of former ministers. But what is really going on? (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)
  • 11 Saudi princes were arrested in what was framed as an anti-corruption effort on Saturday
  • It was massively praised on Saudi social media as the "Nov. 4 Revolution"
  • However, many other theories have emerged as to the real reason behind he move
  • The arrests came as a new law defined terror as challenging the king or religion


  • On Saturday, Saudi Arabia arrested at least 11 of its princes, along with four current ministers and dozens of former ministers.

The arrests were ordered by a new anti-corruption committee, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the creation of which had been decreed just hours before by King Salman.

According to Al-Arabiya, “The committee has the right to investigate, arrest, ban from travel, freeze accounts and portfolios, track funds and assets of individuals involved in corruption practices.”

But what is really going on? 

A number of theories have emerged, all united by the assumption that the young crown prince is seeking to consolidate his power base.

Progressive Change, Fighting Corruption?

Among most Saudis, the detentions are being hailed as “the Nov. 4 revolution” and the king praised for “fighting corruption,” according to trending Twitter hashtags.

“A law with no exceptions” was applauded, while admiration was heaped on Mohammed bin Salman.

On social media the general attitude was that Bin Salman and his father were acting in the interests of ordinary Saudis.

“All of the Arab Spring peoples rose up against their governments, only in the Saudi Spring is the government creating a revolution for the people,” gushed @5rbsh3t1, who received 1,300 retweets.


If the arrests were an attempt to reinforce support at home for the the crown prince, they have certainly succeeded.

MSB Power Play

In much of the Western media, however, the arrests were characterized as an apparent power move by Bin Salman.

“The whole system in Saudi Arabia is corrupt, arresting anyone for corruption is meaningless,” suggested Muqtedar Khan in the Huffington Post under the headline "Power Consolidation or Failed Coup in Saudi Arabia?"

While that might be an overstatement it is largely accepted that the lines are blurred between public funds and the Saudi royal family’s fortune, due to the nature of its absolute monarchy.

Rather than a real attempt to target corruption, it has been widely suggested that the detentions were an attempt to clear the way for Bin Salman to succeed his father.

Power has been rapidly concentrated in the 32-year-old’s hands since he was made defense minister at the start of 2015, up to his appointment as crown prince in June.

Shortly before the anti-corruption committee announcement, King Salman removed the minister in charge of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, seemingly to ensure Bin Salman’s full control of the armed forces. Bin Abdullah had previously been considered a throne contender.

In fact, the princes were seized as a new law defined terror, punishable by death, as challenging the king or religion.


It is only weeks since a number of high-profile clerics and other figures were detained in an apparent crackdown on opposition.



Among the princes arrested, the most high-profile was billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal who, while not a dissident, has been an outspoken figure on a number of issues.

For instance, he tweeted his support for women’s driving almost a year before the king announced that licenses would be issued from 2018.

In recent weeks he had been interviewed about Bin Salman’s ambitious economic plans in multiple Western media outlets.

Nonetheless, he had toed the official line, telling CNBC “I am in full support” of Vision 2030 and describing it as a “peaceful revolution.”


Given that the new committee is permitted to seize the assets of those it deems corrupt, there were some implications that there could be a money-grabbing element. Worth 18.7 billion, Prince Alwaleed was named by Forbes as the World’s Richest Arab in 2017.


Touting to the West

On Twitter in the U.S., meanwhile, a different theory began emerging as to what lay behind the sudden arrests.

Bin Talal had previously clashed with Donald Trump on Twitter prior to his election as U.S. president, describing him as “a disgrace to all America.”


Trump has enjoyed good relations with King Salman and his son. Former Trump adviser Steven Bannon even claimed last week that it was the U.S. president’s May visit to Riyadh that had pushed Saudi Arabia and its allies to cut ties with Qatar.


Bin Salman and his father been making apparent efforts to appeal to the West in recent months. Moves like granting women driving licenses and vowing to “eradicate extremism” have served to improve Saudi’s international image.

Some suggested that the supposed anti-corruption move was in fact the result of a low-key Saudi visit last month by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and at least two other senior White House officials.

Others however criticized the “provincial” U.S. press for trying to suggest a link to Trump, claiming events in Saudi were about “internal politics” alone.

Whatever the exact reasons behind the move, it seems clear that it was in some way, or multiple ways, intended to consolidate Mohammed bin Salman’s position.

And there are indications that more arrests could be made. The New York Times reported that a private airport in Riyadh had been closed down, supposedly to prevent businessmen escaping. Guests were also moved out of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, apparently to hold the high-profile detainees.

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