Turmoil in Saudi Arabia
Some of the most powerful figures in Saudi Arabia have been arrested in a new anti-corruption crackdown, while tensions between the gulf kingdom and Iran are being felt across the region.
Presented by Gideon Rachman and produced by David Blood
Hello, and welcome to this edition of World Weekly from The Financial Times. I'm Gideon Rachman. Today we're looking at turmoil in Saudi Arabia, and in the wider neighbourhood.
Some of the most powerful people in the Gulf kingdom are now under arrest. And meanwhile, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are rippling right across the Middle East. Joining me on the line is our Gulf Affairs Correspondent Simeon Kerr, and in Beirut, our correspondent there, Erika Solomon.
Simon, first tell me about these arrests. What's going on? Why have they done it?
Well it has got everyone scratching their heads. It's been-- it is clearly one of the deepest, most unprecedented corruption crackdowns we've seen in the Gulf, and certainly in Saudi Arabia. And the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he's ticking off a few boxes here. He has spent the last few years consolidating his power, to a point where he really is his father's hand.
He does-- he rules all aspects of the kingdom at the moment. And he's trying to reformulate the way that business is done in Saudi Arabia in his own image. So going after corruption is going to be is very, very popular amongst the youth and amongst the middle classes in the kingdom, who have for many decades have seen elites and princes feathering their own nests.
As the crown prince introduces economic reforms, he's trying to show everyone that they're all in the same boat to a certain extent. But I mean, that's the sort of political angle. At the same time, there has been a lot of criticism or quiet criticism within the family of what he's doing.
And this is a way of sending a message within the family that no dissent will be brooked, and that they need to get on board with what he's doing. And so the dozens, maybe hundreds of people detained is certainly sending that message loud and clear. And everyone is noticing.
Is there a political risk attached there? Because it seems to me he's taking on some of the richest, most powerful people in Saudi Arabia, caught up in the sweep. Prince Alwaleed is probably the most well-known Saudi businessman, a billionaire, and prominent members of the royal family. It's quite a high-stakes thing to do, isn't it?
Absolutely. I mean, there is some political risk here. I think it probably illustrates the extent to which he feels that he's got a handle on the kingdom, that he can do it at this moment. I mean, at the same time as he launched the crackdown, he removed the son of the former King, Mitib, from the National Guard, which is a very powerful sort of elite paramilitary security force in the kingdom that has, for decades, been loyal to King Abdullah and that branch of the family.
So it's a risk. But people say he will have been working on trying to sustain their loyalty. And there are others in the family, too, who would be upset.
But I think he regards himself-- his main asset is the youth. He's a millennial. And he's below the median age in Saudi Arabia-- sorry, above the median age in Saudi Arabia. The youth are generally with him. And he will try to portray himself as the champion of these new generations coming through, and hoping that they will bolster what he wants to do.
And just essentially what does he want to do? We talk about Mohammed bin Salman as this great reformer. The elements are to, as I understand it, partly to make Saudi Arabia less in the grip of the extreme form of Wahhabi Islam, but also to open up the economy. Is that basically it?
Yes. I mean, I think he's recognised that he needs to diversify the economy away from oil, because the oil is not going to last forever. And to do that, a highly complicated, cultural change is needed. So this crackdown is this kind of cultural revolution around trying to re-figure out the way things are done.
It's not going to be patronage by the princes. It's not to be princes giving business to their own companies. It's not all going to be about government spending, which has always been the way in the past that the oil revenues crept in through the economy via the-- and then the private sector depends on that.
So he's trying to revolutionise the way that business is done in the kingdom. Now, that means that the normal Saudis are going to have less of a generous welfare state. And in order to get them on board, he's not offering democracy, but he's offering sort of more social freedoms, just things like entertainment, malls.
Women are going to be able to drive in June. They're going to probably open cinemas at some stage. And this kind of opening up the tight social strictures is where he hopes and probably will manage to buy him some time. As life gets more difficult, given the lack of acclimate largess that Saudis are going to have over the next decade or so.
And of course, Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the region, one of the most powerful. And the ripples of what's happening in Saudi Arabia are affecting the whole Middle East now. And Erika, of course, where you are sitting, Lebanon has been particularly affected by Saudi policy decisions, it seems, with the Prime Minister stepping down. Can you explain what's happening there?
Yeah. I think really in a way, Lebanon has been hostage to this whole sort of unravelling that's going on in the region, as Saudi looks to escalate against Iran. The Prime Minister, if you think about it, he resigned, but here in Lebanon, most people don't really feel that he resigned. They feel that he was forced to during a visit Saudi Arabia, which is where he resigned from, and where people still can't really get in touch with him.
There's an ongoing debate right now in Lebanon as to whether their former Prime Minister is even free, if he's under the custody of Saudi authorities. So that's kind of a remarkable thing, if you stop to think about that for a second. You are shocked by the resignation, a surprise resignation of your country's leader, and then maybe he's being held by force by another country.
Nobody knows, and that's the problem. So there's a lot of uncertainty here. But broadly speaking, that's almost become like a side issue to a much greater threat, which is how seriously Saudi Arabia is going to start pushing against Iran diplomatically, politically, and economically.
Beirut, of course, or Lebanon, I should say, is home to the regional force Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, and is seen as one of the main sort of proxies that Iran has. So it's really important, in some ways, for them to be reined in if you want to try and hit back at Iran, which is why now Lebanon went from being kind of ignored over the past few years of chaos in the Middle East, between what's going on with ISIS, what's going on with the Syrian Civil War, to now feeling like they're about to become the centre of a lot of fixation now.
So if the cause of Saudi anger at Lebanon is Hezbollah, how easy, or otherwise, would it be for them to take on Hezbollah, Baku, which are also, of course, traditionally enemies of Israel?
Well, not easy. For one thing, Saudi Arabia has basically, since 2011, been much less hands on in Lebanon than it used to be. As I mentioned, there's been a lot of other conflicts in the region that have sort of taken priority away from Lebanon, which was often kind of seen as the place where the proxy wars of the region played out.
And so in that period, Hezbollah has sort of slowly but surely gained more and more power and influence in the country, not just through its militant wing but through its political wing. They have members in parliament. They have ministers. And so this is now a much more difficult issue. They're very much enmeshed in the country's military and political scene.
And is it correct to see them essentially as a proxy for Iran?
Yes and no. They are definitely-- Iran surely sees them as a major element of their policy in the region. And so far, there doesn't seem to be much daylight between the two of them, in terms of what they see as regional objectives.
But more and more, when you speak to Hezbollah people, you hear them sort of saying, no, we're not just their tool. We have our own views. And interestingly, Hezbollah itself is really becoming kind of its own brand.
So whereas before the conflict in Syria, and that started in 2011, Hezbollah very much seemed like a Lebanese movement, now it seems to be kind of everywhere. They're believed to have done training for Shia militias in Iraq. There's a lot of suspicion that they've played some kind of a role in Yemen, potentially doing training or maybe giving weapons to the Houthi militants in Yemen.
So they've suddenly kind of become their own regional force as well. But so far, I don't see any kind of rivalry, or tension, or even really any kind of gap in terms of the objectives of Iran or Hezbollah in the region.
And Syria and Yemen-- we have mention of Yemen there. And that, of course, is, if anything, even more likely to lead to a direct clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with tensions again rising this week.
Yes, indeed. The flashpoint this week was Saturday, when Yemenis fired a ballistic missile, which was intercepted near Riyadh airport. You know, that 1,000 kilometres. And that really sort of sharpened minds in Riyadh about the threat that they were facing after they were in their third year of their intervention in Yemen, trying to restore the government that was ousted by Houthi rebels, who are said to be allied to Iran. And this escalation that they saw of ballistic missiles raining down in their capital has set a lot of this in train.
I mean, they presented evidence to the Americans and their allies about claiming that these are Iranian missiles. They're claiming that Hezbollah and the Iranians have been involved with training, or maybe even operating them. And they're classifying this is an act of war.
Now, in the last few days, the rhetoric was ramping up so rapidly amidst all this crackdown-- another front that everyone got very nervous about-- the prospect for either these proxy wars in Yemen getting worse or even tipping over into direct conflict between the two. Now it seems that the Saudis are certainly going through the UN now. They're going through their allies. The prospect of direct confrontation, which was getting some people worried, seems less likely.
But certainly, the conflict or the way that the Saudis want to stop the Iranian interference around the region and via Hezbollah means that they are going to be doubling down in these proxy conflicts, which means for places like Yemen, which has been devastated in the last few years, one can only assume that there could be an increase. We've already seen more airstrikes. And there's a potential for the stalemated ground war to pick up again. So that seems to be the likely outcome from the Yemeni side of things
OK. Well, we'll have to leave it there for now. But thank you very much indeed, to Simeon Kerr in the Gulf and to Erika Solomon in Lebanon. That's it for this week. Until next week, goodbye.