Is there an internal showdown in Saudi Arabia?

While recent news from Saudi Arabia shows a change of mindset spread over time in the region, what happened this weekend revealed a completely different aspect of the issue. Mohammed bin Salman, who gained the status of first crown prince despite familial oppositions, quickly implemented his decisions relying on his father’s orders. With a new order issued on Saturday, he was made the head of the corruption commission which was granted with almost unprecedented powers in Saudi Arabia. The commission was given the authority of not only investigating, but also of trial and execution. The commission was made up of various members who could exercise these authorities, and was given the authority to investigate, arrest, to impose an international travel ban and to confiscate and freeze accounts.

Within a few hours, the commission initiated activities that could be considered as a government coup. Many dynasties / princes, former ministers and businessmen were detained, while four ministers and senior officials, including Economy Minister Adel Faqih, were discharged. However, reports show that this will not be enough. For the time being, it seems that this concerns two files related to the 2009 flood disaster in Jeddah and the 2012 MERS virus which caused deaths in Saudi Arabia, and that will include new files in the future. In other words, before the commission was established, preparations and decisions were made in this direction and developments took place completely under the palace’s control. However, it is significant that the two files are related to the old period.

The country's economy is experiencing great crises, most of which are attributed to the new administration. Despite great economic concessions to the U.S. during the last Gulf crisis, desired results could not be obtained. And despite the economy being dependent on oil, Mohammed bin Salman pledged for controlled production of oil, again as a result of international pressure. Most importantly, economic problems are mainly attributed to the Yemen war. In the first place, old accounts were opened to turn attention to an alternative direction.

Is the Salman family emerging?

This situation, which can be seen in many countries that are not sensitive enough regarding transparency, is of particular importance when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Because this is the first time a radical attempt to this extent has been made in the history of Saudi Arabia. In the past, some ministers and senior officials, who were not family members, were accused and dismissed to weather the issue. But this time, the fact that accusations and arrests are extended to family members gives special importance to the issue. This time, it seems that there is domestic reckoning besides satisfying the social reaction caused by corruption allegations. Let us take a closer look at the issue.

During the reign of King Abdullah, the administration was generally in the hands of those who were clustered around him when he was crown prince. That was understandable. In the same period, however, more different power groups emerged in the country than ever before. Almost all these power groups made their plans through the second-generation rulers who were the sons of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. Because there were a great number of brothers in crown prince line.

However, with the consecutive changes that King Selman made and that can be described as a coup in family, King Salman made his son Mohammed the first crown prince. This development was the first coup in the Saudi dynasty. In the near future, the country will be ruled by Mohammed bin Salman in the third generation. The old power groups, which could not survive this shock, faced a new possibility. This possibility is that from now on, the kingdom might be eliminated from other members of the royal family and ruled by the Salman family instead of the Saud family.

The Saud family consists of fathers, uncles, grandchildren and many emirs who are raised outside the palace through political marriages. The system controls them through higher salaries and wider economic privileges. Trade and economy, with the exception of oil, are at their helm. They control the agencies of international companies and major brands and government purchases. Their interests or demands are regarded as state interests, and are immediately implemented.

Since the 2000s, attempts to improve the private sector, apart from the sectors controlled by emirs, brought them face to face with a new entrepreneur class. This new class did not have the power to compete with them, but they were partly under state auspices. These institutions that acted as the representatives of the emirs’ foreign connections and suppliers for the public institutions, who were close to the public, became unable to get what they were entitled to especially after the Yemen War. Many came to the brink of bankruptcy and some went bankrupt. Unemployment figures rose despite changes in the work regime and restriction in the number of foreign workers. Nevertheless, the players of the old order, who are being accused today, have stayed on their feet thanks to their privileges.

In fact, the new commission established under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman is a commission to follow in-dynasty reckonings. This is an opportunity to protect himself and his father from possible coups against them, and to restore the prestige that has been lost in the Yemen war since 2015. Most of the discharged or arrested emirs, former ministers and businessmen are figures whose names were spoken behind the scenes. For now, it is clear that the Saudi public will give credence to this attempt, but the main issue is whether this process can be sustained or not.

Aside from the need for this change, the question of how and to what extent commercial commitments made to the U.S. last May satisfied other international companies, which were the former partners of those dismissed, will determine the future of this reckoning.

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