In the wake of a disastrous year, Saudi Arabia has embarked on yet another set of “reforms” that essentially amount to a reshuffling of cabinet ministers and (further) solidifying Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s grip on power.
The most notable change is the removal of the country’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who has been replaced by former finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf. Al-Jubeir has been demoted to the position of minister of state for foreign affairs.
There’s no point in expecting any big changes, because, as the Associated Press reports, the reshuffle, ordered by Saudi’s King Salman, includes changes in the country’s two supreme councils. However, both councils are “headed by the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose powers, including roles as deputy prime minister and defence minister, were untouched in the overhaul.”
This past year has seen the crown prince, who is known as MBS, go from being courted in the United States by the White House, titans of industry, and the media as the progressive young leader of his country to a tyrant who ordered the murder of one of his critics, on foreign land.
Dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, and for months, Saudi Arabia has lied about how he was killed, blaming Khashoggi’s death on everything from an accidental choking to a team of “rogue” killers — a theory put forward and supported by President Donald Trump.
It was the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder that prompted these overhauls, intended as a signal that Saudi Arabia is part of the international community and not an outlier. Trump has been a vocal and steady supporter of MBS and the cash he spends in the United States, be it on weapons or on real estate. Khashoggi’s killing did nothing to shake that support. U.S. lawmakers, however, have voted in favor of resolutions aiming to change the nature of that relationship.
One resolution aimed to end U.S. support for Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen (where Saudi Arabia has been siding with the government against Houthi rebels), while another found MBS responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
The crown prince’s denials simply didn’t make sense — not to U.S. lawmakers, and not to the CIA, which wrote a report finding that MBS must have been the one to order Khashoggi’s killing. (Trump dismissed that report).
The Saudi reforms aim to mend some of the damage done to the country’s reputation, but looking back at the previous year’s attempt at reforms, it would be hasty to anticipate anything other than more crackdowns and more consolidation of power for MBS.
In late 2017, MBS undertook what was officially called an “anti-corruption purge,” which essentially involved rounding up, detaining and torturing a number of the kingdom’s wealthiest (including members of the royal family), shaking them down for billions in cash.
He did this as he held the Lebanese prime minister, who has Saudi citizenship, essentially hostage. As Saad al-Hariri issued a resignation from his premiership (that he later withdrew) on Saudi Arabian TV, many of the country’s wealthiest were being rounded up.
MBS was accused of executing a “power grab” with the purge, a charge he called “ludicrous,” even as assets were accepted in exchange for freedom for some of the over 300 people detained at the Ritz Carlton hotel for weeks.
It’s unclear what legal procedures were used in the purge, and if it has resulted in less corruption the Gulf Arab Kingdom.
The other key area of reform touted by MBS was giving Saudi women the right to drive. Although they still live under guardianship laws that see virtually ever aspect of their lives controlled by men, women, after fighting for years, were given the right to drive in June.
But not before several activists, including ones that carried that campaign, were arrested.
Not only have many of those activists remain jailed, but troubling reports surfaced in November detailing how Saudi Arabia has been torturing activists, including women, subjecting them to beatings and electric shocks.