The Saudi Royal Purge—with Trump’s Consent
With the tacit support of President Trump, King Salman of
Saudi Arabia and his powerful son launched an unprecedented purge of
their own family over the weekend. The major targets were royal brethren
who controlled money, the media, or the military. Among the dozens
arrested were eleven senior princes, several current or former
ministers, the owners of three major television stations, the head of
the most important military branch, and one of the wealthiest men in the
world, who has been a major shareholder in Citibank, Twentieth Century
Fox, Apple, Twitter, and Lyft.
“It’s the equivalent of waking up to find Warren Buffett and the heads
of ABC, CBS and NBC have been arrested,” a former U.S. official told me.
“It has all the appearances of a coup d’état. Saudi Arabia is rapidly
becoming another country. The kingdom has never been this unstable.”
The purge sent shockwaves of fear through the kingdom—one of the world’s
two largest producers and exporters of oil—as well as the Middle East,
global financial markets, and the international community. The arrests
continued on Monday, with no indication when the crackdown might end.
Both critics and supporters believe that the purge’s
mastermind is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has had a meteoric
rise since he was appointed by his father to be defense minister, at the
age of twenty-nine, in 2015. He has vowed to modernize the
ultra-conservative tribal society. But, to do it, he has grabbed all the
major economic, political, security, and royal court portfolios. In
June, he was instrumental in ousting the former Crown Prince—Prince
Nayef, a senior royal and the closest U.S. ally inside the monarchy—to
become next in line to the throne. (Nayef is still under house arrest,
according to Human Rights Watch.) In September, Crown Prince Mohammed
orchestrated the arrest of well-known intellectuals and clerics.
On Saturday, King Salman created a new Anti-Corruption Commission and
put M.B.S.—as his third son is commonly known, by his initials—in
charge. The arrests, in a late-night blitz, soon followed.
“It’s an interesting form of dictatorship that is being created in Saudi
Arabia,” Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi columnist and former editor
and adviser to Saudi diplomats who is now in exile, told me. “M.B.S. is now
becoming the supreme leader.” The only other country where that title is
used is Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival.
The arrests are an attempt to consolidate the Crown Prince’s
powers, possibly in the run-up to a move by the aged and ailing king to
step aside, experts say. The father-and-son duo have already created a
whole new royal family that bypassed hundreds (at least) of other
princes. “The ruling House of Saud and the entire world now knows that
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is ready to resort to any means to
consolidate his bid to take over upon the death or abdication of his
eighty-one-year-old father, King Salman,” David Ottaway, a fellow at the
Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, said in a statement e-mailed to
me. “Nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of Saudi
Arabia, giving the sense the kingdom is entering into unchartered waters
with unknown consequences.”
The Crown Prince is also empowered to seize assets and issue travel
The Times reported that
all members of the sprawling Saudi royal family were also barred from
leaving the country. Ibn Saud, the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia,
had more than forty sons and even more daughters. Their progeny are
now estimated to
be anywhere from six thousand to fifteen thousand,
with Forbes suggesting, in 2010, that the number could be twice that
After Ibn Saud’s death, in 1953, the first generation of sons passed the
kingship down the line—with the consent of the other brothers. They
ruled by consensus. This is no longer the case: a young prince from
among the grandsons has now pushed all others aside.
“What is striking is how this has been a methodical process. He’s taken
steps, little by little, to ensure potential dissent is silenced or put
aside or cast away,” Robert Malley, the vice-president for policy at the
International Crisis Group and a former National
Security Council staffer in the Obama Administration, told me. “No one has been able to stop him.
He’s bested his opponents.”
The Trump Administration supports the sweeping changes that
have redefined the kingdom—and the royal family—over the past two years.
En route to Asia, just hours before the purge on Saturday, the President
spoke with the king from Air Force One to praise him and the Crown
Prince for making statements on “the need to build a moderate, peaceful,
and tolerant region,” which is “essential to ensuring a hopeful future
for the Saudi people, to curtailing terrorist funding, and to defeating
radical ideology—once and for all—so the world can be safe from its
evil,” the White House reported in an unusually detailed statement.
Trump also said that he is personally trying to convince the
kingdom to list the first offering of shares in Aramco—one of the
world’s most important oil companies—on the New York Stock Exchange or
Nasdaq. “It will be perhaps the biggest going-public ever,” Trump told
the reporters flying with him. “Right now, they’re not looking at it,
because of litigation, risk and other risk, which is very sad.”
Trump did not mention the risk involved in listing the
shares in the U.S. but they include the prospect that any Saudi assets
in the United States could be seized as a result of the Justice
Against Sponsors of Terrorism
passed by Congress, in 2016. It allowed the families of 9/11 victims to
pursue a civil suit against Saudi Arabia—in a lower Manhattan court—for
alleged involvement in the plot. If there is a verdict against the
kingdom, the law would also allow a judge to freeze the kingdom’s assets
in the United States to pay for any penalties that the court awards.
“That means Saudi Arabia would be extremely vulnerable for listings on
the New York Stock Exchange,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., Pentagon,
and National Security Council staffer, told me. “And they know that.”
Ironically, Trump supported the JASTA bill—and condemned President Obama
for vetoing it. “Obama’s veto of the Justice against Sponsors of
Terrorism Act is shameful and will go down as one of the low points of
his Presidency,” Trump said, during the campaign.
Congress overturned Obama’s
veto—the only time Congress ever overrode him, and in his final months
in office. Trump, now, is critical of the bill.
As part of its lobbying efforts against the bill, Saudi
Arabia spent more
than a quarter of a million dollars at Trump’s new hotel in
Washington—for lodging, catering and parking—the Wall
Street Journal reported in
June. The lobbying included bringing in military veterans to speak on
the Hill against the JASTA legislation.
The Trump Administration has heavily courted the House of
Saud; Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. Jared Kushner,
Trump’s son-in-law, made an unannounced
the desert kingdom in late October—his third this year. Officially, the
focus was the Middle East peace process, but he has developed a close
relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince. (Both are in their thirties.)
The royal family’s close ties to the Trump Administration have evidently
made the king and his son feel comfortable about taking tough actions
against their own people.
The sequence of purges reflect the Crown Prince’s vulnerabilities as
well as his growing powers, partly because his dramatic plans to
transform the ultra-conservative kingdom and heighten the Saudi presence
across the region are in trouble. His ambitious game plan for the
kingdom is Vision 2030, which is designed to shed the desert country’s
image as an oil-dependent state. But not everyone in the royal family
stands behind the Crown Prince, who is now only thirty-two years old in
a system famed for its geriatric leaders.
“This is an attempt to force the succession on the royal
family, which has significant doubts about the wisdom of putting the
young general, as he’s known, in charge,” Riedel, the author of
the upcoming book “Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and America since
told me. “And they’re well-founded doubts.”
“The Saudi Vision 2030 is increasingly turning out to be a failure in
economic terms. It has more and more the characteristics of a Ponzi
scheme. This new
in the Gulf of Aqaba that is supposed to attract five hundred billion
dollars of investment and where normal rules of Saudi society aren’t
going to apply—meaning women can do things—will have more robots than
people. This isn’t serious. This is the kind of thing used to divert
people from the real issues,” Riedel said.
The Crown Prince’s regional strategy has also either stalled or
backfired, too. “His signature policy is the Yemen war, which has come
home to haunt Riyadh,” Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution, said.
“Its Qatar blockade is a failure. It wants Qatar to be like Bahrain,
just an appendage. And Qatar hasn’t given in.”
Saudi Arabia also appears to have had a hand in the weekend resignation
of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, as part of a regional power
play. (Hariri made the announcement from Riyadh on a Saudi station.) He
a threat to his
life and meddling in Lebanese politics by Iran and Hezbollah. His
father, who was also a Prime Minister, made a fortune off construction
in Saudi Arabia. He was assassinated in 2005.
“Saudi Arabia summoned him and had him resign,” Malley, of the
International Crisis Group, told me. “It was a Saudi decision about how
to deal with Iran and Hezbollah. It was very transparent. What M.B.S.
has done at home and in the region—and it’s of a single piece—is
intended to clean house, allow himself and the king to be more assertive
actors regionally, and let him be uncontested on the domestic scene.”
The purge of the king’s extended family was justified on grounds of
corruption, which critics challenge. “Corruption has been killing Saudi
Arabia for forty or fifty years,” Khashoggi told me. The new line in the
House of Saud is building the same kind of businesses that it claims are
corrupt when run by others in the royal family. “They’re saying, ‘What
you do is corrupt, but what I do is not corrupt,’ ” he said.
Among those arrested was billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin
Talal, who has rubbed elbows with Michael
Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill Gates in his business ventures.
has owned prime
real estate internationally and chunks of the world’s premier hotels,
including the Savoy in London and the George V in Paris. A major
philanthropist, he gave twenty million dollars to Georgetown University,
in 2005, to fund the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding, which
is named for him. He has pledged
to eventually give most of his wealth to charity.
Prince Alwaleed, notoriously dapper with a high-society profile, did not
have a government position and was not considered political. But he
in the Wall Street Journal, in 2012, “If there is a lesson to be
learned from the Arab Spring, it is that the winds of change that are
now blowing in the Middle East will eventually reach every Arab state.
Now is therefore an opportune time, particularly for the Arab
monarchical regimes, which still enjoy a considerable measure of public
goodwill and legitimacy, to begin adopting measures that will bring
about greater participation of the citizenry in their countries’
He empathized with the young Tunisian fruit vender who set himself on
fire to protest the police whose corruption had robbed him of his income,
thus igniting the Arab Spring. “Tragic as it was, [Mohammad] Bouazizi’s self-immolation epitomized many Arabs’ collective sense of
hopelessness and despair,” he wrote. “Simply put, they could not take it
anymore. Their calls to their leaders were precise and succinct:
‘kifaya’ and ‘irhal,’ meaning, ‘enough’ and ‘leave.’ ”
Prince Alwaleed has clashed with Donald Trump, however. He was among the
investors who bought the Plaza in New York City from the then
real-estate magnate; he also purchased a yacht from the future
President. But Alwaheed was scathing about Trump politically. In
December, 2015, he tweeted,
“[email protected] You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all
America. Withdraw from the U.S. presidential race as you will never
Trump tweeted back, eight hours later, “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal
wants to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it
when I get elected.” The prince had almost twice as many retweets.
(Trump had a huge financial boost from his father, too.)
The most powerful figure to be arrested this past weekend was Miteb bin
Abdullah, the head of the National Guard and a son of the late King
Abdullah, who died in 2015. More than forty years older than the current
Crown Prince, he had once been considered a potential future king. He
led the most powerful military force in the country, whose duties
include protecting the royal family.
“The arrest of Prince Miteb sends a strong signal that a royal
dictatorship by a thirty-two-year-old upstart prince of still unproven
abilities awaits the kingdom, together with enormous tensions and
resentments within the royal family that could well threaten the House
of Saud’s stability for years to come,” Ottaway, of the Wilson Center,
said in an e-mailed statement.
Many experts predict additional arrests are to come. “It’s a reckless
game of thrones,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of Human Rights
Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, told me. “If I were among
the Saudi élite today, I wouldn’t be sitting pretty. Many have long been
aware that they’re a hair away from chaos. These arrests are another