What is Going on in the Land of Ten Thousand Princes?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon  meets with Mohammed bin Salman, then Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of Saudi Arab
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Mohammed bin Salman, then Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia, June 2016.

Only the very best will do for members of the Saudi royal family whose net worth has been estimated at well over $1.4 trillion, making them one of the richest families in the world – if not the richest.

Thus, it should not be surprising that the 11 Saudi princes arrested over the weekend (along with three dozen other senior officials and influential businessmen) on orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) are being held at a maximum luxury “prison” in Riyadh, the Ritz-Carlton.

One of the princes arrested is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud, who with a net worth of around $20 billion, is one of the richest and most famous Saudis worldwide. His investments include or have included Apple, Twitter, Citigroup, Lyft as well as luxury resorts and hotels around the world. It is not known if the Ritz-Carlton is among the latter.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not – Prince Alwaleed has been critical of president Trump, at one time telling him in a twitter message:

“You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America. Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win.”

Also “coincidentally,” Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, made an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia only days before the “coup,” and is said to have “conferred at length with the crown prince.

It is not at all coincidental that MbS has been “emboldened” by Trump’s and his inner circle’s support, “who see him as a kindred disrupter of the status quo — at once a wealthy tycoon and a populist insurgent.

Finally, it might not be a coincidence that, on Sunday — the same day the long knives came out in Riyadh — a helicopter crash near the border with Yemen killed another Saudi prince.The Saudi media is dismissing rumors that another prince was “shot dead while resisting corruption arrest.”

In case the reader is concerned about the high number of princely detentions and mishaps, not to worry. There are plenty more princes.

While living and working in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, I remember browsing through one of the early Jeddah phonebooks and ending up in the “P” section. Why, I don’t remember. (I could not have been looking for a place to buy a good port in this “dry country.”)

Once at the “P” section, to my surprise, I found myself turning over page after page, after page, of “Prince such and such” entries – there must have been hundreds of them.

In fact, there are approximately 15,000 princes and princesses in the Kingdom, according to some estimates.

Saying that princes in Saudi Arabia are “a dime a dozen” is a poor cliché. It is probably more realistic to point out – considering the aforementioned ostentatious wealth of the royal family — that they are “a billion dollars a dozen.”

This abundance of princes (and princesses) can be partly attributed to the line of descent of the House of Saud, to the practice of polygamy (King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, is said to have had 17 “known” wives) and to the fact that Abdul Aziz had roughly 100 children, 45 of them sons. Three of his 45 sons – Kings Saud, Faisal and Khalid — had a total of 115 children between them.

The profusion of wealth among the princes and princesses is of course derived from the reserves of petroleum discovered during the reign of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud more than 75 years ago, from the fortunes of petrodollars generated by its exploration and sales which have permitted “billions of dollars in annual allowances, public-sector sinecures and perks” to be generously bestowed upon the royals by the House of Saud.

The stipends, allowances, “goodies” and other privileges the royal clan receives are tightly guarded secrets. However, according to an U.S. Embassy official in Riyadh, already in 1995:

“The stipends…ranged from up to $270,000 a month for a son of the founding king to $8,000 a month for his great-great-grandchildren…Bonuses of $1 million to $3 million were given to some royals as wedding gifts for palace construction…allowances, which included payments to other prominent families around the kingdom, accounted for roughly $2 billion of the government’s total $40 billion budget, or 5 percent of all public spending.”

While lower oil prices may have cut into the “pocket money” doled out to the royals, it appears that the lavish lifestyle its members have grown accustomed to, continues.

Which brings us back to the headstrong, 32-year old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, while vacationing in the south of France a couple of years ago, saw a toy he just could not resist.

“Prince bin Salman spotted a 440-foot yacht floating off the coast. He dispatched an aide to buy the ship…The deal was done within hours, at a price of approximately 500 million euros (roughly $550 million today).”

Today, this same prince “is positioning himself as an enforcer against corruption, bringing to heel some of the most ostentatiously wealthy members of the royal family,” according to the Times.

Indeed, MbS has proposed ambitious social and economic changes, including: the creation of a new and powerful “anticorruption committee;” allowing women to drive; a plan to sell shares of the kingdom’s key asset — the oil giant Saudi Aramco — in an IPO and placing limits on the power and ideology of the Wahabi clerics.

The Saudi capital newspaper Al Riyadh “celebrated” the actions by MbS as a key step toward economic and social modernization:

“It’s all about the principles of serious work, justice and equality for all citizens. There should no longer be any differences between members of the royal family and other citizens…There will be no room for corruption and nepotism…By taking that step, the prince showed that no one is above the law.”

Deutsche Welle and others, however, have mixed feelings about bin Salman’s “meteoric rise” and grab for power.

In a column for Al Monitor, U.S. security expert Bruce Riedel writes, “The crown prince is now in charge of an anti-corruption task force that looks more like a means to punish his opponents than anything else.”

In “What the Hell Just happened in Saudi Arabia?”, Politico suggests, “a more immediate outcome may be that Mohammed bin Salman uses his consolidated authority to escalate further the war in Yemen and—in his response to a missile launched by Houthi rebels that was intercepted over Riyadh—move dangerously close to outright military confrontation with Iran.”

Even more immediate may be the fate of the dozens of princes and prominent government, business and political figures, described as “traitors” by the Saudi media, who are presently enjoying the frills of the Ritz-Carlton and of other luxury hotels in Riyadh.

Saudi “justice” has been known to be swift and severe.

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