Saudi Arabia: Welcome to the Purge

The £1,000 pounds-a-night Ritz-Carlton Riyadh has transformed into a luxury prison for those convicted of embezzlement as a part of Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) anti-corruption campaign. The Prince, who is next in line to the Saudi throne, has issued the state-wide purge in hopes of eradicating Saudi society of corruption. Over 200 people have been called in for questioning, and many of them are part of the Saudi elite. Though MbS continuously states that the purge is part of his progressive Saudi plan, many analysts believe that the purge was a desperate attempt at consolidating his power. The anti-corruption purge represents the MbS’s attempt to establish himself as a progressive leader while simultaneously consolidating his power in the Saudi empire.

Image courtesy of, 2017. Some rights reserved.

On 4 November, 2017, MbS rounded up and detained cabinet ministers, family members, and Saudi Arabia’s most prominent businessmen as part of his anti-corruption purge. The anti-corruption committee’s goal was to seize up to £607 billion in assets from those arrested in the case. According to the investigation, those involved have stolen £76 billion through embezzlement and corruption over the past decade, which vastly hurt the Saudi economy. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud commented on the purge by calling those convicted “weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interests, in order to illicitly accrue money,” and has praised his son for fighting corruption. Though MbS initiated the purge to fight corruption and to demonstrate to the international community the progressive change in Saudi society, economic interests also contribute to the timing of the purge. The purge was an attempt to replenish Saudi’s foreign currency reserves, which currently consist of £370 billion. The reserves are held by the central government and are used to make international payments and protect itself from exchange rate risks. With the continuous proxy war against Iran and the crash of oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is in desperate need of increasing the government’s money. The Saudi purge acts as a means in which MbS can actively change the status quo in Saudi Arabia by fighting corruption while boosting the Saudi’s foreign reserves.

The purge primarily consisted of the Saudi elite, which includes members of the royal family, business tycoons, and state officials. The goal was to target the country’s wealthiest in order to accumulate the most money and take down institutional-level corruption. Though over 200 people have been arrested, the two most publicized arrests were MbS’s cousins –Alwaleed bin Tala and Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah. Bin Tala was one of Saudi’s biggest tech investors who possessed good relations with the West. He constantly advocated for women’s rights, especially in increasing their presence in the work force. His investments included big name tech firms, such as Apple, and he holds a networth of £13 billion according to Forbes. Bin Tala’s progressive views and vast wealth intimidated MbS, who desires to be known internationally as the progressive Prince and viewed bin Tala’s popularity as a threat against his own. Similarly, Mutaib bin Abdullah, who heads the national guard, was also arrested. Bin Abdullah was a potential rival for the Saudi crown and openly opposed MbS becoming king. By warranting arrests against his cousins, MbS has successfully consolidated his power in the Saudi kingdom.

Though many have applauded MbS for taking the initiative to fight corruption, including the World Bank, the purge has its share of consequences. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stock market has taken a heavy hit in the wake of the purge. Within 72 hours after the purge, the GCC lost £5 billion in stocks. The stocks have reached the lowest they have been since 2016. Despite the tremendous loss, the Saudi Central Bank claims that business will carry on as usual, even though many leaders of Saudi’s biggest companies are imprisoned and their stocks continue to fall. MbS believed that without the corruption purge, the economy would sink into an economic crisis that would spark unrest. However, the country’s economy continues to fall due to the MbS’s purge, which calls into question whether the purge truly helped the economy or pushed foreign investors away. The purge had good intentions to eradicate corruption in Saudi elite society, but has vastly hurt the economy in return.

The desire to change Saudi Arabia has prompted MbS to take down corruption in order to paint Saudi Arabia as a more progressive state. MbS hopes in the long-run the purge will encourage Saudi society to be less invested in oil and instead favor privatizing state-owned assets and developing new technology. In his view, purging the corrupt elite will create a new basis in the economy that doesn’t thrive off taking bribes or embezzlements. By eliminating princes and Saudi’s elites, MbS has successfully consolidated his power while gaining international support thanks to his anti-corruption stance. The Saudi corruption purge highlights the state’s new era under MbS by showing how the crowned Prince desires to turn Saudi into a more reputable and progressive state.

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