Saudi royal family members arrested for protesting end of entitlements

Changing times. A man shops for mangoes at a fruit market in the Saudi city of Taif. (AFP)

2018/01/14 Issue: 139 Page: 5

London- Eleven Saudi princes were arrested after protesting a royal decree terminating government payment of their utility bills, the king­dom’s attorney general said.

The princes, gathering at the Qasr al-Hokm Palace in Riyadh, demand­ed the decree be reversed.

“Despite being informed that their demands are not lawful, the 11 princes refused to leave the area, disrupting public peace and order,” said a statement by the public pros­ecutor.

The kingdom recently raised fuel prices and introduced a 5% value added tax (VAT) as part of its Vision 2030 economic reform programme. While many Saudis voiced displeas­ure over the price hikes, the princes’ protest marked the first act of civil disobedience.

Saudi state-regulated media car­ried news of the arrests but did not give the names of those involved. International media outlets, how­ever, reported that sons of Prince Sultan bin Mohammed al-Kabeer, founder and chairman of Almarai Company, the region’s biggest dairy company, were among those ar­rested.

Besides calling for the govern­ment to reinstate benefits, the princes demanded compensation for the 2016 execution of a cousin, Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer, who pleaded guilty to murder in 2012.

The fallout from the arrests did not end there, however. Days lat­er, Prince Abdullah bin Saud bin Mohammed was dismissed as head of the Saudi Maritime Sports Fed­eration after a 6-minute audio clip of him criticising the arrests was posted online. In the recording, Prince Abdullah was heard saying the princes were arrested on “false” and “illogical” accusations.

With oil prices declining and its youth population growing, Saudi Arabia is in the process of imple­menting Vision 2030, which aims to wean the kingdom’s economy off its oil dependency while creating jobs, stimulating the private sector and modernising the country.

To push that agenda forward, Saudi Arabia has sought to deal with lingering issues of corruption. Last November, more than 200 promi­nent Saudi figures, including mem­bers of the royal family, current and former ministers and wealthy busi­nessmen were detained in an anti-corruption campaign.

While those arrested in Novem­ber were held at the glitzy Ritz-Carl­ton Hotel, the 11 princes involved in the palace protest were sent to the maximum-security al-Ha’ir Prison south of Riyadh.

Less than a week after introducing its VAT, Saudi King Salman bin Ab­dulaziz Al Saud ordered allowances to “soften the effect of economic re­forms on Saudi households.”

The king ordered bonuses for civil and military employees and issued directives ensuring the state would bear VAT-related costs for Saudis who benefit from private health ser­vices and private education.

The king ordered the Saudi cen­tral bank to ensure that banks do not change cost-of-living allowanc­es and bonuses ordered in the de­cree and not deduct from the allow­ances and bonuses for repayment of personal loans and other financial obligations.

This is not the first time the king­dom has had to impose austerity measures. In September 2016, state benefits were cut but were restored seven months later.

Many Saudis lauded the recent royal decrees but some questioned their long-term effect. Economic matters remain unchanged for ex­patriates, which some say could re­sult in a mass exodus at a time when the kingdom is trying to open more to both tourism and investment.

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