Uncertainty in Saudi Arabia as Dozens of Princes are Arrested

Just a few days back we were impressed by the steps taken by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He played a major role in allowing women to drive and in allowing women to attend sports events from next year. He, then, announced the construction of a hi-tech city ‘NEOM’, which was a move to generate additional income for Saudi Arabia and wean the economy away from its dependency on oil.

Key observations

  1. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cracks down on corruption
  2. Dozens of Prince, former ministers, business executives and government officials arrested
  3. A move widely looked as consolidation of power
  4. Uncertainty has increased
  5. We withdraw our previous recommendation of buying the ETF KSA

We expect crude oil prices to rally in 2018, which should benefit the oil-rich Kingdom in the short-term. As both the short-term and the long-term picture started to improve, we expected Saudi Arabia to make a quick recovery. In order to benefit from this, we had recommended a long position in KSA iShares MSCI Saudi Arabia Capped ETF, which has a significant exposure to Saudi Arabia. However, the events of the last few days have forced us to reassess our call.

The Rise of the Crown Prince

Prince Salman, also known as MBS was an obscure figure just a few years back. However, since his father King Salman ascended the throne, he has quickly risen in stature. In June of this year, the King named Salman as the crown prince and removed the then existing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of all his duties by a royal decree.

This move cleared the way for MBS to ascend the throne if the octogenarian King Salman abdicated his throne. With power in his hands, it was expected that the new Crown Prince will implement his Vision 2030 plan with ease. However, last week, MBS made an aggressive move to consolidate his power further.

On Saturday, the King formed a new anti-corruption committee with the Crown Prince as its head. Within hours of its formation, the committee arrested 11 princes, 4 former ministers and hundreds of high ranking officials on allegations of corruption. They are being housed at Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, which has been closed for outside public.

The Saudi Council of Ministers said that the arrests were ““based on specific evidence of criminality and acts that were intended criminal transgressions and resulted in unlawful gain.”

However, experts believe that with this move, the Crown Prince wants to purge all rivals and fire a warning shot at any other possible dissidents.

Will this move ensure that Saudi Arabia stays corruption free?

Unlikely. In Saudi Arabia, the royal clan is more or less above the law. The sources of their income are never revealed and for years they have enjoyed government patronage in various businesses.

Even the current purge is unlikely to reach the royal family members who are loyal to MBS.

In fact, in 2016, MBS had purchased a 440-foot yacht priced more than $500 million. Neither has he disclosed the source of his funds nor will be asked about it.

The recent anti-corruption drive will only shift the power from his rivals to the members who are close to the Crown Prince.

Young Saudi population in support of the anti-corruption drive

The Saudi millennials are likely to support the arrests. They have long despised the unwritten immunity extended to the royal family.  The current move offers a confidence that no one is above the law and it will benefit the nation in the long-term.

Absence of opposition is not a positive development

The Crown Prince has stated that he will steer the nation towards a moderate version of Islam, unlike his predecessors who have followed the hardline. With most of his rivals arrested, decision making can become faster and will help MBS to push aggressive reforms.

However, the involvement of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the aggressive confrontation with Iran, and the boycott of Qatar have all been inappropriate decisions taken by MBS. With no opposition in future, he may make a blunder that can be detrimental to the nation and also to the region.

Investors are Likely to Be Wary

Vision 2030 can be successful only with the support of the private sector. With some of the top businessmen like billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, chairman of investment firm Kingdom Holding; Amr al-Dabbagh, chairman of builder Red Sea International; and Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar, founder of Al Tayyar Travel arrested, their businesses are likely to be affected.

Additionally, the foreign investors are unlikely to be interested in projects until this whole drama comes to an end. This can delay many existing projects.

The royal unity will be tested

For the past many decades, power has been divided among the various branches of the Saudi royal family. This has kept them together.

However, the recent purge is unlikely to go down well with the royal clan. Though voices may be silenced now out of fear, it is likely to rear its head sometime in the future. A bloody coup or power struggle can’t be ruled out.

We don’t want to invest in uncertainty

Considering the uncertainty, we would like to withdraw our recommendation to invest in the future growth of Saudi Arabia. The risks far outweigh the potential benefits. We shall keep a close eye on the developments and reassess our call if things change for the better. For now, please don’t invest in the ETF KSA.

Will the Princes park their wealth in cryptocurrencies

Thousands of bank accounts have been frozen in this anti-corruption drive. Saudi Arabia’s attorney-general Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb has said that the current exercise is only Phase one. So, we may expect more such drives in the future, especially if MBS faces any opposition to his decisions.

The combined wealth of the persons who have been arrested totals more than $33 billion. The remaining members of the royal family and wealthy businessmen are likely to remain on the edge. Considering the situation, it is reasonable to expect at least some money to find its way into cryptocurrencies.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

Author:
Rakesh Upadhyay is a Technical Analyst and Portfolio Consultant for The Summit Group. He has more than a decade of experience as a private trader. His philosophy is to use technical analysis for momentum trading and fundamental analysis for long-term positions. Rakesh likes to keep himself fit by lifting weights and considers himself to be a spiritual person.