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Mohammed bin Salman aims to win Saudi game of thrones

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Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, took another huge stride towards absolute power this weekend, with a round-up of leading figures in the kingdom’s political and business elite that includes 11 princes and more than three dozen current and former ministers, reported Financial Times (US).

The arrests, announced late Saturday by Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab news channel, came only hours after King Salman set up an anti-corruption commission with wide powers, headed by the 32-year-old crown prince. If this is an Arabian game of thrones, the headstrong young prince, who seeks to embody the pent-up aspirations of a people two-thirds of whom are under 30, has left no one in doubt he means to win.

Among those caught in the crown prince’s net are Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the flamboyant multi-billionaire tycoon, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, minister and former chief of Saudi Arabia’s powerful National Guard. Also reportedly under arrest is Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim, brother-in-law of the late King Fahd and media baron, whose MBC group owns Al Arabiya.

Prince Alwaleed, who owns or has held stakes in Twitter and Apple, Citigroup and News Corp, as well as in hotels and theme parks, satellite TV and newspapers, is a man who can move markets. Nephew to Saudi kings, he has used his global renown as an investor to take occasional but well-aimed potshots at Saudi policy — such as the now abandoned policy of ramping up oil output to preserve market share at a cost of further falls in price.

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Including such a well-known figure in this clampdown will raise questions about the investment climate in Saudi Arabia, as Prince Mohammed pursues his much-trumpeted Vision 2030. This reform programme aims to wean the kingdom off fast-depleting hydrocarbon revenue with income from private investment and the creation of what he hopes will become the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, built around the planned part-privatisation of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. The goals of MbS, as the crown prince is known, include quadrupling non-oil revenue by 2020 from just over $40bn in 2015, before nearly doubling it again by 2030.

Sceptics question if such targets are deliverable, dependent as they are on ending the social contract between the House of Saud and its subjects that trades cradle-to-grave welfare for political quiescence. But there is no doubting the crown prince’s ambition.

Since King Salman in 2015 gave him unprecedented control over economic strategy and oil policy, as well as defence and an increasingly hawkish foreign policy, MbS has been heard to complain about privileged insiders and officials milking the kingdom of billions of dollars through rigged bids and corrupt contracts. “No one who got involved in a corruption case will escape, regardless if he was a minister or a prince,” he said in a TV interview this year.

Yet this weekend’s breathtaking swoop looks profoundly political in its aims. Ever since MbS deposed then crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef — his cousin and veteran interior minister — in a June palace coup, Saudi-watchers judged it was only a matter of time before he went after an equally powerful cousin: Miteb bin Abdullah.

Prince Miteb, 65 and son of the late King Abdullah, was not only seen as a plausible potential rival for the throne. The well-equipped National Guard he (and his father before him) headed is another army MbS had to neutralise after he took control of interior ministry forces this summer. The Guard, built around the kingdom’s intricate tribal networks, is probably the last autonomous power centre standing between the crown prince and the throne. The weekend’s momentous events will inevitably revive the febrile speculation that King Salman, 81, is preparing to abdicate in MbS’s favour. All eyes are still on the throne.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent disavowal of the kingdom’s founding religious ideology had a master’s voice quality to it. His words could have literally come out of the mouth of his Emirati counterpart and mentor, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but with one major difference: the UAE unlike the kingdom has no roots in ultra-conservative Sunni Islam, reported LobeLog (US).

The absence of an overriding puritan religious history has made it easier for Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to campaign against Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and since the popular Arab revolts of 2011 suppress any expression of political Islam.

To that end, Prince Mohammed attempted with little evident success to counter the Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) headed by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s foremost living scholars who is widely viewed as a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the creation of groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

Despite this week’s verbal assault on Wahhabism, Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have cringed when Prince Mohammed bin Zayed scored what likely was his greatest success: the exclusion of Wahhabism, the Saudi strand of ultra-conservatism, developed by Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, an 18th century preacher with whom Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s forefather forged a power-sharing agreement that has constituted the basis of Saudi national ambitions ever since, from a definition of Sunni Islam by prominent Islamic scholars.

The frontal assault on Wahhabism as well as other Saudi-inspired interpretations of Islam, such as Salafism and Deobandism, came in a statement last year by a UAE-funded conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Participants included the imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque in Cairo, Ahmed El- Tayeb; Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam; former Egyptian Grand Mufti and Sufi authority Ali Gomaa, a strident supporter of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi; Al Sisi’s religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari; the mufti of Damascus Abdul Fattah al-Bizm, a close confidante of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and influential Yemeni cleric Habib Ali Jifri, head of the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic Tabah Foundation who has close ties to Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

While the Grozny statement constituted a milestone, it will take more than statements for the Saudi and UAE princes to succeed in their endeavour. Like many of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s announcements, his vow to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam” was long on expressions of intent and short on details that would put flesh on the skeleton.

To be sure, since emerging almost three years ago as Saudi Arabia’s strongman, Prince Mohammed has taken several steps to roll back the influence of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment and relax its strict moral codes. The steps, including reducing the power of the religious police, lifting the ban on women’s driving, and allowing forms of entertainment like music, film and dance that were long banned, seem, however more designed to upgrade rather than abolish autocracy and enable badly needed economic reform and diversification.

Recent arrests of some of Saudi Arabia’s most popular Islamic scholars as well as human rights activists, judges and intellectuals, whose views run the gamut from ultra-conservative to liberal, coupled with Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s campaign suggest that Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s definition of “moderate Islam” is one that is primarily apolitical, quietist and adheres to a religious school of thought that teaches unconditional obedience to the ruler.

Moreover, changing deeply engrained attitudes that have been embedded in the kingdom’s education and social system since it was founded in the first half of the 20th century and shaped pre-state life will take time. While Saudi Arabia has in recent years taken steps to alter its school curriculum and remove bigoted and violent content from textbooks, it still has a long way to go, according to a 2013 study by a US State Department contractor, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.

The study, disclosed by The New York Times, reported among multiple questionable textbook references that seventh graders were being taught that “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” was among the deeds Allah loved the most. Tenth graders learned that Muslims who abandoned Islam should be jailed for three days and, if they did not change their minds, “killed for walking away from their true religion.” Fourth graders read that non-Muslims had been “shown the truth but abandoned it, like the Jews,” or had replaced truth with “ignorance and delusion, like the Christians.”

Some of the books, prepared and distributed by the government, propagated views that were hostile to science, modernity and women’s rights. The books advocated execution for sorcerers and warned against the dangers of networking groups focussed on humanitarian issues like Rotary Club and the Lions Club that allegedly had been created “to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.”

Even if all the questionable references were removed, changing those attitudes could be a generational task. While Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s proposed reforms have largely been welcomed by Saudi youth, who constitute a majority of the kingdom’s population, they are likely to stir mixed responses as a result of deep-seated attitudes that have been cultivated for decades.

An unpublished survey of aspirations of 100 male Saudi 20-year olds indicated the problems Prince Mohammed is likely to encounter beyond opposition from ultra-conservatives to moderating the kingdom’s adopted interpretation of Islam. The men “wanted social change but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters. Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited,” said Abdul Al Lily, a Saudi scholar who conducted the survey and authored a book on rules that govern Saudi culture

Some 50 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and be able to drive fast cars, Al Lily said. He said issues of political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighbouring Yemen did not figure in their answers.

However, Al Lily’s interviewees bolted when confronted with the notion that liberties they wanted would also apply to their womenfolk. “People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Al Lily said.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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