They do things differently in Saudi Arabia – very differently.
Earlier this month eleven princes were arrested for staging a sit-in at the Qasr-al-Hokm palace in Rydah. They were demanding compensation for, according to their statement, “a death sentence that was issued against one of their cousins”. The cousin, another prince, was convicted of murder and executed in 2016.
While this might sound like a very significant rebellion by members of their Royal Family, it could be fairly compared in the British context of a sit-in at Terling Place, the home of the Baron Rayleigh by folks like Lord Frederick Windsor, 42nd in line to the throne, Nicholas Michael de Roumanie Medforth Mills, 95th in line to the throne and who would be Prince of Romania if Romania had a monarchy and the Duchess of York, the ex-wife of Prince Andrew.
At last estimate, there were more than 15,000 members of the Saudi Royal Family and the reason for this is polygamy. Every man is allowed up to four wives. While the family dates back to 1744, the current kingdom was established in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz who had dozens of wives – the moment he divorced one he married another – and at least one hundred children, including about forty-five sons. Currently, the family has an estimated worth in excess of $1.5 trillion dollars.
The eleven errant princes were thrown into what for them would be a filthy hellhole of a prison. Others know it as the Ritz-Carlton, a super five-star plus hotel that boasts accommodation and facilities including opulent suites, lavish reception areas and superb dining rooms and bars. Huge chandeliers, gold-plated bathroom fixtures, antique furniture and pure silk-lined walls are just a few of the extra thoughtful touches.
This latest group have joined about fifty Saudi royals, sacked Cabinet Ministers, business tycoons and other dignitaries arrested last 3-4 November. A typical detained royal is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal who is worth an estimated $10 billion.
The Ritz-Carlton’s paying guests were abruptly thrown out of the hotel late at night and ordered to leave their rooms and even their dinners when buses arrived with those arrested. The hotel’s website makes no mention of its new use although changed circumstances are reflected in the discreet notice, “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the hotel’s internet and telephone lines are currently disconnected until further notice.”
All of this – depending on who you believe – is either a determined campaign to root out endemic corruption or a bid by the new Crown Prince to remove any real or potential rivals.
The new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the son of King Salman bin Abdul and only 32. His father became king in 2015 and is already 81 and is obviously grooming the Crown Prince to be his successor. The country is a dictatorship and the King is also Prime Minister.
Unlike his elder and better educated half-brothers, the Crown Prince has never held any prominent public position, has never served in the military or studied outside of the country. Now, apart from being the obvious designated heir to the throne, he is Minister of Defence, Director of all economic planning and oil policy, chairman of an anti-corruption commission empowered to arrest people and seize their assets without court proceedings and in charge of all security forces including the National Guard. It is a huge workload but one he obviously relishes.
Six days after the mass arrests last year the Attorney-General announced that 208 people had “so far” been called in for questioning and seven had been released.
The statement continued, “The potential scale of corrupt practices which have been uncovered is very large. Based on our investigations over the past three years, we estimate that at least $US100 billion has been misused through systemic corruption and embezzlement over several decades. The evidence for this wrongdoing is very strong, and confirms the original suspicions which led to Saudi Arabian authorities to begin the investigation into these suspects in the first place.”
And the detained suspects have had their bank accounts frozen after widespread reports of prominent men moving their money out of the country.
The continuing slump in oil prices has seen the country’s foreign currency reserves decline from $US737 billion in August, 2014 to$US475 billion late last year. The continuing war against rebels in Yemen is also proving costly as well as inconclusive. There have been wide budget deficits recently and they have forced the country to borrow in international markets.
Just what lies ahead for Saudi Arabia is unclear but what is already obvious is that the practices of old are no longer tolerated. However what is certain is that the old feudal system will continue, albeit with new players
While the government has not said what will now happen to the detained suspects, there are reports that authorities are negotiating with them how much of their wealth they will turn over to buy freedom.
Talk about a real “sheik-down”.