The arrests of several prominent members of Saudi's business community confirms Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, in which we highlight how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will prioritize anti-corruption policies while guiding Saudi Arabia through sweeping economic changes. Bin Salman will continue to focus his attention on shoring up his position as the next in line for royal succession while also expanding the country's influence in the region.
In a surprise purge of Saudi Arabia's business sector, a newly formed anti-corruption committee ordered the arrests of several prominent members of the royal family, Cabinet ministers and businessmen. On Nov. 4, a royal decree placed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the head of the new anti-corruption committee. Later that evening, the committee wasted no time in rounding up its first detainees. The arrests and the creation of the anti-corruption body appear to be an effort by bin Salman to further solidify his position at the helm of a new Saudi Arabia, in which consensus-based decision-making is no longer the norm, unless it's written according to his rules.
There are several possible reasons for such a sudden and far-reaching overhaul of the Saudi economic order. One is that bin Salman is making good on his promise for a broad crackdown on corrupt business networks and a fresh start as the country goes through its economic transformation under the auspices of the Vision 2030 reform plan. Bin Salman's desire to tighten his grip over Saudi Arabia's many political, economic and security institutions is another likely motivation. In his rise to power, bin Salman has established a pattern of clamping down on dissent, recently arresting several prominent clerics, activists and scholars. Bin Salman enjoys popular support for his new anti-corruption efforts, for now. But the possibility of blowback among Saudi elites is high as the crown prince attempts to redraw the lines of patronage and change the image of the Saudi elite's lavish lifestyles.
One remarkable aspect of these rapid changes in Saudi Arabia is the speed with which the Salman family line is asserting its dominance within royal family circles, while also attempting to re-establish Saudi leadership in the region. On the same day as the arrests, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's resigned from his position in a speech in Riyadh, signaling a new era of the Saudi-Iran rivalry in Lebanon. Later that day, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile launched from Yemen toward Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport. Houthi rebels later claimed the attempted missile strike. It prompted a sharp reaction from Saudi authorities, who blamed Iran for escalating the situation in Yemen with a "blatant act of military aggression." By Nov. 5, the Saudi-led coalition had shut Yemen's land borders, ports and airports in an effort to interdict any potential Iranian shipments of materiel. By challenging Iran in Yemen and Lebanon in a fresh way, while also reworking the domestic economic power circles in the country, Saudi Arabia's crown prince is ushering a new era of political uncertainty both domestically and regionally.