Ignatius: Saudi political explosions risk collateral damage
WASHINGTON – Nearly two weeks after the double political explosion that rocked Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be doing damage control in ways that may help stabilize Saudi Arabia and the region.
The first bombshell was the Nov. 4 arrest on corruption charges of 201 prominent Saudis, including princes and government ministers. Now MBS, as the 32-year-old crown prince is known, is beginning a resolution process that may settle many of these cases out of court.
A senior Saudi official told me Thursday that the kingdom's anti-corruption commission would follow the standard "plea-bargain process" that is "usually conducted by the public prosecutor prior to transferring a case to the relevant court." The commission's overall aim, he said, was to "send a strong message" that corruption won't be allowed, "irrespective of rank or status."
The crackdown may have consolidated support for MBS among younger Saudis who resent older, wealthy princes and palace insiders. But his power play risked a backlash within the royal family because it violated the kingdom's traditional consensual politics. Resolution of corruption cases out of court may dampen such high-level dissension.
The second Nov. 4 explosion was Saad Hariri's announcement from Riyadh that he was quitting as Lebanon's prime minister. Hariri's resignation, which Lebanese sources told me came under pressure from MBS, risked causing instability in Lebanon that would have enhanced Hezbollah's power there, the opposite of what the Saudis wanted. On Thursday, the Saudis agreed to allow Hariri to travel to France; Lebanese sources said he will then return to Lebanon.
The Hariri episode appears to have convinced Washington and Riyadh that their interests are better served by stability in Lebanon than instability, even though that approach requires some cooperation with Hezbollah, the dominant political faction. A Saudi official told me that the kingdom plans to work with the U.S. to support Lebanese institutions, such as the army, that can gradually reduce the power of Hezbollah and its patron, Iran. MBS seems to have recognized that combating Hezbollah is a long game, not a short one.
Hariri's resignation and seeming house arrest made him a hero in Lebanon and a symbol of the country's yearning for sovereignty. This may give him some new leverage when he returns to Beirut. Lebanese sources told me Thursday that Hariri's supporters may urge Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Yemen as a gesture of solidarity. Hariri will also campaign anew for international support for Lebanon's economy and military.
MBS' sweeping arrests sent shock waves through the kingdom and the region, and surprised even some Saudis who are close to the crown prince. But the warning signals were there: King Salman said back on March 10, 2015, in his first major speech after taking the throne, that he had "directed the government to review its processes to help eradicate corruption," according to a Reuters report at the time.
MBS had a reputation as a freewheeling businessman himself before joining the royal court. But he underlined the anti-corruption theme in a May 2017 interview with Al Arabiya television: "If fighting corruption is not on the top of the agenda, it means the [king's] fight is not succeeding. ... I reiterate that anyone who is involved in corruption will not be spared."
As examples of the corrupt deals that led to the Nov. 4 arrests, a senior Saudi official cited a land purchase in Jeddah where the government paid roughly double the market price, to provide a big kickback to a prominent official. Another instance was the purchase by the Ministry of Education of vastly overpriced airline tickets for the hundreds of thousands of Saudis studying abroad, with payoffs for officials.
Corruption has been so endemic in Saudi Arabia that many observers assumed it was part of how the House of Saud governed. After first visiting the kingdom in 1981, I wrote a series of articles for The Wall Street Journal about how payoffs were undermining the defense and oil sectors. In subsequent decades, the shakedowns became less visible, but corruption continued.
MBS' purge looked to many outsiders like a high-risk political move. But a senior prince cautioned me the country isn't as fragile as it may look. One of MBS' key backers put it this way: "Corruption can't keep the country stable. Having a corruption-free country will keep us stable."
That's a worthy ambition, but as MBS detonates his bombs, he must avoid blowing himself up.