Why Saudi arrests may bode well for Pakistan

Amid anti-corruption sweep, the crown prince is redefining relationship with clerical power

Why Saudi arrests may bode well for Pakistan
Saudi Arabia is unraveling differently than expected. Instead of a repeat Arab Spring type upheaval, internal sources of power have decided to alter the national course of life. Following the tried and tested method of bringing about change from within, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has played a high hand fraught with multiple risks. In a wide sweep he has not only removed but detained many of his family members and high-level personages on charges of corruption.

On Saturday, the kingdom announced the arrest of 11 princes and 38 high-ranking personnel. The shock and awe list is headed by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, 62, a leading global entrepreneur and the public face of Saudi business. Till now the royal family had discreetly allowed family members like Prince Al-Waleed to periodically air dissenting views as it enabled the release of pent-up feelings. But his arrest indicates that any criticism will henceforth be official domain and MBS will also play the role of His Majesty’s loyal opposition.

In a ruling structure where distinction between state and private finance is blurred, this is the first instance when such a ‘well-honed’ practice in the kingdom has been categorised as corruption. In an executive monarchy, extensive risk-taking is the only way to consolidate power, but pegging it to financial malfeasance takes it a step further in a place where an anachronistic ruling pattern is deeply immersed in money. It also goes against the secrecy traditionally surrounding motives of royal purges.
MBS has already tightened control of authorities dealing with official charities, which augurs well for Pakistan as it is primarily aimed at cutting financial assistance provided to the religious fringe equipping proxy forces to challenge the writ of states

Hidden in the purported drive against corruption is an ongoing power tussle evident from the arrest of two sons of late King Abdullah, particularly Prince Miteb, 65, who jockeyed for the position of crown prince but was brushed aside by the galloping Sudairis. Miteb inherited from his father the command of the National Guard, a 250,000-personnel well trained cohort composed of members from the Bedouin tribes from Nejd who were loyal to the House of Saud. This particularly included the Shamri tribes who owed their allegiance to the late King Abdullah. The force is independent of the Ministry of Defence and is managed by its own ministry of National Guard. It also is distinct from the regular Saudi army that is considered suspect, owing to its non-Nejdi character as it predominantly comprises Hejazi and Yemeni content.

The outer edge of the desperate grab for power was indicated by a tug of war between members of the entitled oligarchy. Al Walid al-Ibrahim, brother-in-law of the late King Fahd, and founder of satellite group Middle East Broadcasting Corporation was sent behind bars. A peculiar arrest is of Bakr bin Laden, 69, the brother of Osama bin Laden, head of the Saudi Binladin Group based in Jeddah, a major power broker in the kingdom’s financial capital. The arrest of 69-year-old Prince Turki bin Nasser points to a cleansing of a mess of corruption as he was linked with the British Aerospace payoffs scandal.

MBS plans to carry out ambitious economic and social changes that will take a decade to materialize. He has already allowed women to drive and mix with men in sports stadiums, measures welcomed by the rather poorly educated youth of the kingdom, who form roughly half the country’s population of 33 million. Many Saudis applauded the wave of arrests. He is keen to transform Saudi Arabia for a life after oil and has put out a $2 trillion float of ARAMCO which could potentially raise $100 billion.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal

Most importantly, he is challenging the ideology of the Wahhabi clerics. He emphasises a more modern Saudi Arabia: “We are returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe.” As a clear assertion of monarchical ascendancy over the religious establishment, in April 2016, MBS stripped the religious police of their right to arrest individuals. From this angle, the arrest of 76-year-old billionaire Saleh Kamal, celebrated as the father of contemporary Islamic finance, is important as he was widely rumoured to be providing finance to extremists. He faced a lengthy legal wrangle over providing financial succour to the 9/11 terrorists.

MBS has already tightened control of authorities dealing with official charities, which augurs well for Pakistan as it is primarily aimed at cutting financial assistance provided to the religious fringe equipping proxy forces to challenge the writ of states. It appears that a new generation Saudi rulers have become acutely aware of the long-term disadvantages to exporting their brand of Islam and are attempting to curb the practice. MBS’s policy of extricating the ruling process from the manipulation of religious forces replicates Pakistan’s. By doling out money to religious elements, Saudi Arabia wanted a recipient country to become its mirror image as a state run by a political system in alliance with religious elements. A new generation of Saudi rulers represented by MBS is waking up to the futility of adhering to this self-defeating practice and is gradually abandoning it. This development will surely lessen the influence on Pakistan’s large madrassa network in the socio-political field and may negatively affect religio-political parties such as the JUI-F that wield considerable clout in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

The crown prince with General Raheel Sharif and Jared Kushner

MBS’s three-hour detour to Pakistan on August 28, 2016 while on his way to the G-20 summit in Hangzhou was unexpected, and true to his mercurial temperament he arrived late in Islamabad, letting the top brass cool its heels, particularly some who had to quietly perspire in their ceremonials. Apart from conveying his displeasure at Pakistan’s non-participation in his Yemen military action, he also sought assurances on the provision of a nuclear umbrella in case of conflict with Iran. MBS also wanted Pakistan’s full involvement in the 40-member Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) which he had announced in December 2015. It was during this visit that the idea of giving command of the IMA to former COAS Gen (retired) Raheel Sharif was mooted and later implemented in January 2017.

MBS’s choice to engage with and visit GHQ, out of the 40 members of IMA, was in itself a significant development, underlining the fact that Pakistan has a long history of providing military support to Saudi Arabia. MBS understood that Pakistan has a lot to offer in defence manpower and equipment. Monarchies do not mind hiring non-nationals to manage their security concerns; therefore plenty of Pakistan army personnel are employed there on security duty. Pakistanis have an additional advantage as their armed presence on Saudi soil is not as unpopular as that of American or NATO forces. Most Saudi operations against terrorist hideouts were intelligence-based, reflecting the Pakistani fight against terror that MBS has singularly praised. The Pakistani contingent of IMA contains many expert intelligence hands. A solid advantage with trusting Pakistanis is that its personnel have proven their tough neutrality as is borne out by their large deployment in the UN Peacekeeping Force.

MBS has evinced interest in participating in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as he considers such participation not only materially beneficial but also important to secure the Kingdom’s strategic maritime interests. Saudis are leaning on Pakistan to streamline their relations with China. The Saudis are widely known to be buying agricultural land in Pakistan to farm edible commodities. Saudi participation may bring in much-needed financial assistance in building small dams.
MBS has evinced interest in participating in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as he considers such participation not only materially beneficial but also important to secure the Kingdom's strategic maritime interests

The advent of MBS, known for his indigenous upbringing and aversion for Western orientation, proves beneficial to Pakistan as chances of quiet defence cooperation have increased. MBS’s growing hold on power will also secure the interest of the large Pakistani workforce there as MBS will be conscious of strong defence support provided by Pakistan. With impending armed conflict lurking around, the best go-betweens are uniformed personnel and the Pakistani army chief’s shuttle between Riyadh and Tehran confirms that he is a potent emissary trusted by both countries. To facilitate communications, Pakistan has sent a former naval officer, Vice-Admiral Khan Hasham bin Saddique, as its ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi arms purchases are usually multi-billion missile system deals but they pertain to high-tech weapons with a select few trained for them. The gap between their cursory training and effective usage is filled by the Pakistan Army that specializes in excellent high-tech expertise in missile technology as its air defence system is very reliable. Military equipment is not only limited to high-tech gadgets but also requires armoured vehicles, artillery, small-range weapons and plenty of ammunition. The Pakistan Army has created a niche in producing mid-range military hardware that is ideal for Saudi Arabia.

In the labyrinthine world of monarchies, optics play a keen role. During the recent visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia, General Raheel Sharif emerged as prominent by his proximity to the royal family, particularly MBS, at whose table he was seated along with Jared Kushner, the influential son-in-law of Donald Trump. It is generally understood that troops guarding the royal family, particularly the King, MBS and their entourages, are taken from sources other than the regular army and National Guard. It would not be conjecture to infer that MBS has not laid out contingency plans in the wake of dislodging Prince Miteb from the entrenched command of the National Guard. MBS knew it was a difficult operation and could only succeed with the help of highly professional armed personnel.

It is not novel that MBS is trying to reform the kingdom in the massive shadow of his father. In the past, the kingdom was ruled by strongmen on behalf of the king, such as Feisal, during King Saud’s profligate reign and Abdullah during King Fahd’s debilitating illness—but they were senior-most princes, widely accepted as superior authorities. This time, however, the perception is that a relatively junior prince is managing affairs on the behest of his ill father and is arrogating power that was usually exercised consensually within a large cabal of the ruling family. The task, therefore, is tough but the die has been cast.

At the time of assigning second-in-line position to MBS, King Salman was asked why was he giving it to his second son. He responded that out of his sons, he was sure that MBS has the courage to pull the trigger!

Ali Siddiqi is a former bureaucrat and runs an academic training outfit in Karachi.

He can be reached at tviuk@hotmail.com