A Middle East expert at the University of Kansas believes there is still much to learn about the latest crackdown on corruption in Saudi Arabia.
“Over the weekend, a large number, several dozen senior businesspersons and Royal Family members were arrested and charged with corruption,” said Raj Bhala, the Brennesein Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas Law School, and a Senior Advisor at Dentons. “Their finances and their business transactions have violated one or the other laws, from tax evasion to money laundering to disclosure. Exactly what the charges are and exactly what laws the charges are being brought under, exactly who is caught up in it, is not entirely clear.”
There are some big names in Saudi, and by extension, international business that are a part of this probe.
“The figures arrested are some of the most prominent, household names in Saudi Arabia,” said Bhala. “Some of them, indeed are global names, like Prince Talal Alwaleed, who is a major shareholder in many companies including Citicorp that Americans would well know. There’s also, perhaps, a bit of a loose analogy to what has happened in China under Xi Jinping over the last few years, an anti-corruption drive that has caught upwards of a million Chinese Communist Party officials.”
A complicating factor in this domestic situation is the decision by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to engage the Kingdom in regional conflicts.
“There is now emerging, a regional, proxy, cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” said Bhala. “We have to take notice of that. It has been going on in Yemen and in Syria and in Iraq. This weekend, it expanded to Lebanon, when the Prime Minister of Lebanon resigned, allegedly under pressure from Saudi Arabia. The level of intensity of that proxy war between the Sunni Kingdom and Shiite Iran, because the Sunni-Shia dispute lies at the heart of this, has been rising.”
Two alleged incidents of Iranian made missiles being shot in Saudi Arabia have made the news, with the most recent one over the weekend aimed at Riyadh’s international airport.
“It’s like targeting one of our airports,” Bhala said. “It can be an act of war. That’s exactly how the Saudis have explained it to Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary. Then we had the change of government, if you will, in Lebanon, perhaps under Saudi pressure, because the Saudis were saying that it seemed that Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, is emerging as too powerful and then we have also the continuing conflict in Syria, where, in effect, the Iranian-backed groups seem to be winning, because Assad is still in power and they backed President Assad.”
The Saudis hands are not clean in this endeavor, however.
“The Saudis, this weekend, have blockaded all land, air and sea ports in Yemen,” said Bhala. “A blockade can be considered an act of war, we remember back to the Cuban Missile Crisis and we were careful not to call it a blockade of Cuba. We called it a quarantine.”
Al Jazeera reports that Yemen imports up to 90 percent of its daily humanitarian needs.
“We all have to worry about that for a number of reasons,” said Bhala. “First, let’s just take straight economics. I think, roughly about 10 percent of our oil still does come still from Saudi Arabia. Even notwithstanding American fuel needs, our allies, Japan, India, Korea, etc. all need a stable source of oil supply for the foreseeable future. Secondly, our allies within the Gulf, Israel, for example, is not better off by a destabilized Lebanon. It does not need a proxy war going on, an intense one between Saudi Arabia and Iran, on its northern border in Lebanon.”
In addition, reforms being attempted like women driving, cinemas opening and other signs of becoming more modern and less repressive may be held back if conflict heats up and resources must be diverted to defense of national interests. Whether or not the Crown Prince can deal with his enemies both foreign and domestic, could prove to be the central narrative in Middle Eastern politics for the foreseeable future.