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What Changes In Saudi Arabia's Political Power Mean For U.S.-Saudi Relations


The heir to Saudi Arabia's throne made a dramatic move this weekend. He arrested 11 princes as well as some top government officials and some very wealthy businessmen. What does this tell us about the young prince and his intentions for his country? We're going to ask Gregory Gause. He's an expert on the Gulf region, and he's a professor at Texas A&M University. Welcome to the program once again.

GREGORY GAUSE: My pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: First, how surprising to you were these arrests when you learned of them?

GAUSE: Well it was very surprising to me that he targeted so many people in the business community. He needs the business investment both locally and internationally to achieve his goals in the Vision 2030 plan to change the Saudi economy from an oil-based economy to a more productive economy. It was very surprising that he targeted so many people in the private sector.

SIEGEL: Now, this is a story about the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arresting, among others, several princes - so a brief primer here on princes in Saudi Arabia. What does it mean to be a prince in Saudi Arabia? Roughly how many princes are there?

GAUSE: Well, there's thousands and thousands of princes, and they're of different degrees. But the core princes that one has to be concerned with are the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of the founding king, Abdulaziz, who founded the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia back at the beginning of the 20th century.

SIEGEL: It's a ruling class effectively of the country.

GAUSE: Yes. It's more than a ruling family. It's a ruling clan.

SIEGEL: The Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman did this supposedly as part of an anti-corruption initiative. First of all, does that check out with you, and what do these people whom he's had arrested have in common?

GAUSE: They don't have much in common because they stretch across members of the ruling family, technocrats who have worked in the government or are still working in the government, many on economic issues, and then leading figures within the private sector in Saudi Arabia. The corruption angle - it could just be a cover.

But this really is a redefinition if the crown prince carries it through. It's a redefinition of what corruption means in Saudi Arabia because the kind of cozy relationship between business and government has basically driven the Saudi economy. It's been the dominant theme of the Saudi economy. And if he really wants to end that, he is redefining what corruption means.

SIEGEL: I think the best known of all the people who have been arrested, certainly the best known in this country, would be Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal - very big time investor. Why? Do we know why he's been arrested? And how important is he in Saudi Arabia?

GAUSE: I don't think he's that important politically. I think Alwaleed is more important as a private sector investor, as one of the drivers of the Saudi economy and as one of the biggest investors. It's actually ironic that the Ritz-Carlton hotel where he's now being detained according to reports is actually in a building that's owned by him. And so I think that the fact that he was arrested is just part of this targeting of some of the major figures in the Saudi private sector.

SIEGEL: In terms of the stability of Saudi Arabia, one could look at the events of the weekend and say, well, we can see the crown prince taking control of the country more and more and depriving others of access to the levers of power or the state's finances. Or you can say this is the sign of something that's destabilizing. It's so surprising. What's your reaction in those terms?

GAUSE: I never thought that there was a threat to the stability of the regime. I thought Mohammad bin Salman was very firmly in the driver's seat in terms of policy. I did not see a movement within the family to try to challenge him. There were grumblings among his cousins - there's no question about that - as he centralized power and cut them out. I think that the most interesting part of this is the focus on these major figures in the private sector. What does their arrest portend for a plan to try to give the private sector a bigger role in the economy? That to me is the huge question mark that rests over the events of the last few days.

SIEGEL: And what do these events mean for the United States or for U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia?

GAUSE: Clearly President Trump has been very supportive of Mohammad bin Salman, and he was extremely supportive of this move. The president also made a very interesting tweet right before all of this broke about asking the Saudis to consider listing the privatization of part of the Saudi national oil company, Aramco, on the New York Stock Exchange, which - the timing of that was very interesting. But I think that highlights the tension here.

If you're going to list your national oil company - part of it - on the New York Stock Exchange, there are going to have to be rules and regulations about how your economy works. And you're not going to be able to run an economy where the government can, without seeming to have a legal justification or file legal charges, detain major investors and freeze their accounts.

SIEGEL: Professor Gregory Gause, head of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, thanks for talking with us.

GAUSE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.