Saudi royal family members arrested for protesting end of entitlements
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.