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Challenging the Saudi Crown Prince: Alwaleed bin Talal toughs it out

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Incarcerated for almost two months in a gilded cage in Riyadh’s luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel, Saudi billionaire businessman Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal appears to be putting up a fight that could challenge Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assertion that his two month-old purge of scores of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen constitutes a campaign against corruption.

Many of those detained in Prince Mohammed’s purge, dubbed by critics as a power and asset grab dressed up as an anti-corruption effort, have bought their release by agreeing to surrender significant assets. The government has said it hopes to recover up to $100 billion in allegedly illegitimately acquired funds and assets.

Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a favoured son of the late King Abdullah who was deposed as commander of the National Guard in a bid to neutralize the Saudi crown prince’s most potent rival, secured his release by agreeing to pay $1 billion and signing a document in which he confessed to charges of corruption.

In what appears to be the largest settlement demand, Prince Al-Waleed has, according to The Wall Street Journal, resisted pressure by the government to hand over $6 billion.

Instead, the prince has reportedly offered the government a significant stake in his Riyadh-listed Kingdom Holding that has invested in blue chips such as Citibank, Twitter, Four Seasons hotels, and Disney, and operates a media and entertainment empire. Kingdom Holding has lost 14 percent of its $8.7 billion market value since Prince Al-Waleed’s detention. The prince has also insisted that he retain a leadership position in his conglomerate.

With a fortune estimated by Forbes at $16.8 billion, Prince Al-Waleed reportedly believes that the cash settlement demanded by the government would put his empire at peril and amount to an admission of guilt.

That may indeed be the purpose of the exercise. A social reformer, who already years ago implemented within his own company changes of women’s status announced in recent months by Prince Mohammed, is Saudi Arabia’s most prominent entrepreneur who is continuously welcomed around the world by heads of state and government and business moguls.

The son of Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a liberal nicknamed the Red Prince, who in the 1960s and again in the first decade of the 21st century publicly criticized his family’s rule, Prince Al-Waleed is believed to have no political ambitions.

In resisting Prince Mohammed’s demands, Prince Al-Waleed is challenging an opaque and seemingly arbitrary process in which despite assertions by the government that it has conducted extensive investigations and collected substantial evidence of corruption, bribery, money laundering and extortion, there has been little, if any, discernible due process and no proof publicly presented.

Quoting sources close to Prince Al-Waleed, The Wall Street Journal reported that the businessman was demanding a proper investigation and was willing to fight it out in court. “He wants a proper investigation. It is expected that al-Waleed will give MBS a hard time,” the Journal quoted a person close to Prince Al-Waleed as saying. The person was referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

A court battle would put the government’s assertions of due process to the test and would also shine a spotlight on the integrity of Saudi Arabia’s judicial system. The risk involved in a legal battle is that the charges levelled against Prince Al-Waleed and others were common practice in a kingdom in which there were no well-defined rules governing relationships between members of the ruling family and the government as well as ties between princes and princesses who wielded influence and businessmen.

There is little doubt that Prince Mohammed’s purge is popular among significant segments of the population, half of which is classified as low- or middle-income families, that has long resented the elite’s seemingly unbridled perks.

Prince Mohammed has so far been shielded against questions of the source of his own wealth and that of his tack of the ruling family. Several immediate relatives of Prince Mohammed were last year identified in the Panama Papers leaked from the files of a law firm in the Central American nation that handled offshore business and transactions by the world’s mega-rich.

Media reports have since suggested that the prince had spent in recent years $1.25 billion on a $500 million yacht, a $300 million mansion in France, and a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting. Prince Mohammed has denied buying the art work that was acquired by a close associate of his allegedly on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.

Shining the spotlight on the anti-corruption campaign in a legal battle with Prince Al-Waleed would come at a time that the government is unilaterally rewriting the kingdom’s social contract that involved a cradle-to-grave-welfare state in exchange for surrender of political rights and acceptance of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative and Bedouin moral codes.

The government this week paid $533 million into a newly established social welfare fund to help families offset the cost of the imminent introduction of a five-percent value-added tax on goods including food, and services, as well as subsidy cuts that would substantially raise the price of electricity and gasoline. The government was forced earlier this year to reverse a freeze on public sector wage increases and perks and slowdown its austerity program because of anger and frustration expressed on social media.

Labor and Social Development Minister Ali al-Ghafees told the state-run Saudi Press Agency that approximately three million families or 10.6 million beneficiaries had already been paid the maximum relief of 938 Saudi riyals ($250) out of the newly created fund.

The government, moreover, this month announced a $19bn stimulus package that includes subsidised loans for house buyers and developers, fee waivers for small businesses and financial support for distressed companies. It also presented its new budget involving record spending in which funding of defense outstrips that of education in a country with a 12.7 percent unemployment rate. A Bank of America Merrill Lynch report predicted last year that youth unemployment could jump from 33.5 to 42 percent by 2030.

Prince Mohammed is banking on continued public support for his economic and social reforms, and on the fact that once the dust has settled foreign investors will forget whatever misgivings they may have had about the lack of due process and absence of rule law in the anti-corruption crackdown. Foreign diplomats in the kingdom noted that the businesses of those detained or penalized continued to operate and that no foreign interests were caught up in the purge.

However, to maintain his popularity, Prince Mohammed will have to manage expectations, deliver jobs, continue to massage the pain of austerity and the introduction of a new social contract, and ensure that the public continues to perceive his purge as an anti-corruption campaign in which the high and mighty are no longer above the law.

A legal battle with Prince Al-Waleed that publicly puts to the test the government’s assertions could upset the apple cart. That may be the leverage Prince Al-Waleed hopes will work in his favour as he negotiates his settlement from the confines of the Ritz Carlton.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Institute of Security Studies

Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.

So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.

What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.

The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.

If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.

Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.

With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.

Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.

In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.

Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.

The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.

Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.

Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.

Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.

The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”

Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”

Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.

Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.

Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.

The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.

As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.

What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.

All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.

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As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait

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IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.

For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.

Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.

Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’

Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.

But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’. 

These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.

But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’

What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.

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Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.

Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.

Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.

The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.

Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.

The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.

In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.

With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.

By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.

China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.

Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.

To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.

Author’s note: first published in Firstpost

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