In a day and age when the world’s news is at our fingertips and headlines constitute the extent of a story for those too busy to do any real digging, it’s easy to form wrong impressions. To those not of an age or intellectual literacy level to understand the dynamics that rule the Saudi kingdom, recent developments may escape them. Mohammed bin Salman, the newly minted Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has been linked with terms like ‘power consolidation’, ‘purge’, and ‘mass arrests’, all of which give the impression of a young tyrant when considered without the necessary context. While the situation remains opaque, the situation is far from simple.
Herein lies the danger of the headline-story.
The fact is, Saudi Arabia has long been a nation that has pledged allegiance to America, yet defied everything that America prides itself upon. Equality of the sexes, the total disavowing of terrorism, and freedom from religious extremism are three of the Western values which Saudi Arabia’s leadership has actively suppressed for decades.
The man that has received the most attention in the wake of the widespread arrests, aside from the Crown Prince himself, is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was, by far, the wealthiest and most well-known of those rounded up. Alwaleed is somewhat representative of this Saudi old guard which profited immensely from the nation’s precious natural resource while doing little to ensure that its citizenry moved forward socially. Alwaleed, who has accused Forbes in the past of underestimating his net worth by $9.6 billion (he says 30, they say 20) made much of his fortune investing in the West’s titans of free enterprise while doing little to nothing to move his own nation forward socially.
He attended college in California and has donated significant amounts of money to some of the most polarizing American foundations including the Clinton Foundation and the Council on American-Islamic relations (CAIR). These connections mean that despite not playing much of a role in Westernizing his nation, Alwaleed very much has ties to the West, and certain factions in the Western world would stand to see him maintain and even heighten his power.
But beyond his Western investments, appearances on CNBC, his penchant for the limelight, or him immense personal wealth (the source of which isn’t completely clear), it’s Alwaleed bin Talal’s ties to his own father that may be most interesting. Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz, also known as the Red Prince, was put into exile for playing a central role in the Free Princes movement, a decision which many believe removed any chance of he or his offspring becoming king.
But when the current king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, made the unilateral decision to completely change the line of succession, tapping his 31-year-old son instead of Mohammed bin Nayaf, who is in his 70s and the cousin of both the elder Talal and the current king, Talal bin Abdul-Aziz voiced his criticism. The politics of the Saudi palace have always been opaque, and the Western perspective of who are the ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ within the royal family has been difficult to decipher.
That said, it seems clear that the new, 31-year-old Crown Prince is one of the good guys, as his Vision 2030 plan lays out a series of real reforms that aim to make Saudi Arabia into a more Westernized, civil nation that will distance many of its laws and practices from Islamic law. These reforms are reflective of the nation’s heavily youthful population, who see the Crown Prince as a leader who will free them from the rigid practices that have long ruled the nation. This means overthrowing the Wahhabi form of Islam which often breeds radicalism and is the interpretation that the kingdom has officially used to interpret the laws of the land from the Quran.
Naturally, the old guard is not happy about such a radical shift from their restrictive customs. To them, women without a hijab (not that it has happened yet) or driving a car is blasphemy. It was almost certain that there would be significant pushback against the new Crown Prince. Whether or not the Crown Prince had evidence of any plots against him remains unclear, but the massive arrests against some of the most powerful and wealthy in the Saudi kingdom was seen by some as a justifiable preemptive act.
Now, it appears that 62-year-old Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the most well-known and wealthy of those arrested – and, I reiterate, a donor to many a politically divisive American entity – has turned down an offer of $6 billion in exchange for his freedom. He reportedly will fight the corruption and bribery charges in court, and has been moved to the Saudi kingdom’s highest security prison in the meantime. Some see the arrests as little more than a scheme to extort the wealthiest of the Saudi royals into the hands of the Crown Prince, and the suggestion that $6 billion would buy freedom would seemingly support this notion.
As has seemingly always been the case, it’s unclear who to root for. The Crown Prince appears genuinely interesting in making Saudi Arabia a freer, more Western nation, but the means by which many in the older Royal generation have been arrested or have died under suspicious circumstances don’t seem to support the idea that the young Crown Prince is above reproach. Whether the arrested parties are truly as corrupt as their detention would suggest is impossible to tell, but if the Crown Prince is truly interested in Western-style reforms, he’ll afford them due process, not mere exchanges of cash for freedom.