The Saudi authorities claim to have secured $100 billion through settlements with businessmen and royals. The details around the settlements are murky, but could Prince Waleed bin Talal's detention end up proving costly for the Saudis?

It was something to remember – the stuff of legends, what miracles are made of. It started on November 4, 2017 – that fateful Saudi ‘Night of the Long Knives,’ when nearly 200 of its wealthiest – and most powerful – citizens including leading members of the royal family were herded into the gilded cages at the Ritz-Carlton.

Among them was billionaire financier and philanthropist Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, who, importantly, has never been accused of corruption. Unsuspectingly, he was meant to rendezvous with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) – the de-facto ruler of the Kingdom.

What followed was something that has not happened to the Saudi elite before. Claims of kidnapping, torture and extortion made the rounds. Allegations that Blackwater mercenaries – a hugely controversial American paramilitary outfit – were deployed to crack the Saudi elite to part with their alleged ill-gotten gains.

Hard’ and ‘soft’ torture strategies are well-known and carefully designed to break people down and, and it worked – 95 percent of Saudi detainees agreed to colossal financial settlements. Yet, standing apart was Prince Al-Waleed - not known for his grit, who refused to admit wrongdoing. His release culminates in the end of a drama that has gripped Saudi society.

It was rumoured that Prince al Waleed was strung upside down, beaten and spat on –  and, that he had tried to commit suicide

Even worse, especially for a Muslim Arab Bedouin man, a most heinous violation by guards arresting his daughter, Reem Al-Waleed, undoubtedly, to get through to him.

Of course, few will ever know, with certainty, what transpired during his long, sojourn.

Saudi authorities claim that as a result of the settlements reached with the detainees they have netted $100 billion. It remains unclear whether this figure is a true reflection of the Saudi shakedown.  

Now, Prince Al-Waleed is walking free – sort of.  In a Reuters interview in which the frail-looking and stammering, but exultant, Prince Al-Waleed, unconvincingly dismissed assertions of torture.

Having been through his most difficult business deal, his release – on terms that are yet unclear – remains to be seen. This is the way tyrants always create their own internal opposition. In fact, they fear the people they oppress, since intuitively, they are aware, one day, amongst their many victims, there will surely be one to strike-back.

By creating a personality around which group-formation and meaningful resistance may coalesce, MBS undermines his own oppressive apparatus. To explain, Reicher and Haslam, argue in ‘Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny,’ that two social characteristics make tyranny psychologically acceptable: powerlessness and the failure of groups.

By that, they identify with the group-level psychology of tyranny, defined as an ‘unequal social system involving the arbitrary or oppressive use of power by one group or its agents over another.’ 

Yet, in their astute deconstruction of tyranny, they conclude that powerful and effective social groups provide an effective psychological bulwark against tyranny – where there is none, tyranny flourishes.

What this means is that oppression cannot endure without complete acquiescence, which, in the tyrant’s mind requires habitual brutality in the face of any sign of disrespect, even the most insignificant of gestures.

Subsequently, that heavy-handedness leads to escalating levels of oppression, which, correspondingly, enables intensifying levels of resistance. And, the seemingly resistant Prince Al Waleed has shown to have ‘power’ over the tyrant, which is likely to inspire others, thereby facilitating group-formation and agency.

In other words, all it takes is for one person to stand up to MBS – even at risk of their life – to set in motion a wide range of acts of resistance that could upsurge in the coming months. This is what Edmund Burke meant when he poignantly stated ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

Trials might further embarrass the paper-tiger, MBS, who hasn’t managed to convince the world that this anti-corruption purge isn’t just a power and wealth grab. There are no doubt massive issues of corruption in the Kingdom but it’s hard to see how MBS – whose primary goal is to ascend to the throne – can be a neutral arbiter of corruption.

The episode has been damaging, both financially and for Waleed’s reputation, although his businesses have started to bounce back since his release. For MBS, this might further diminish him. It’s hard, though, not to see him as an overall loser. The Saudi war in Yemen is a humanitarian disaster, they lost in Lebanon, failed in Libya, are useless in Syria and the gamble on Qatar backfired.

Moreover, he was unable to convince Jordan, Oman or Kuwait to follow the Saudi lead. The US may come to see  MBS, at best, is an unreliable partner.

For now, he seems to be hanging on – as long as his father is still alive. But, his judgement has been terrible and no amount of coercion, even, the now-rescinded resignation of Saad Hariri, coercion of Mahmoud Abbas, restricting the movements of Yemeni President Abdrrabbuh Mansur Hadi or temporarily-arresting Jordanian billionaire Sabih Al-Masri, will revive his authority.

MBS should have strategised differently – but again, he acts first, and thinks later– constantly backtracking. This has occurred so often that his nickname – MBS – is taking on a new meaning: My Bad, Sorry. 

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