In this report, Lewis Tallon examines the last week’s multiple developments in Saudi Arabian political, military and diplomatic affairs. With a major roundup of key political and economic players under the auspices of an anti-corruption drive taking place, and a simultaneous missile attack on Riyadh airport, this marks one of the more active weeks in the Kingdom.


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Recent days have seen a number of significant movements within Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman having rounded up dozens of key players in the Kingdom in what is reported to be an anti-corruption drive. Concurrently, during the late hours of Saturday night, a ballistic missile fired by Houthi-rebel forces in Yemen appears to have struck in close proximity to King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.

The Missile Attack on Riyadh

On the evening of November 4th, anti-missile systems deployed around the Saudi Arabian capital city of Riyadh are reported to have intercepted a number of ballistic missiles fired from northern Yemen. One round out of a salvo estimated to contain four missiles appears to have struck northeast of King Khalid International Airport, with initial reports suggesting that damage may have been inflicted to one of the passenger terminals, although this appears to have been incorrect given continuing flight activity from the airport. The remaining three missiles appear to have been intercepted by U.S.-supplied Patriot air-defence batteries. The Houthi insurgency was quick to claim responsibility, with sympathetic media outlets in Yemen suggesting that the missile was a Scud-B copy from the Burqan (meaning “Volcano”) 2-H series.

The Houthis are believed to have generated their long-range missile capabilities from a mixture of inherited Yemeni military systems and Iranian-supervised home-built units. Around 60 legacy ballistic missiles inherited from the Yemeni military were likely available to Houthi forces at the start of the conflict, with the bulk having been neutralised. At this stage, it is believed that most of the legacy systems captured or carried by defectors from the Yemeni military have been destroyed by a relentless Saudi-coalition air-attack campaign. In particular, the Houthi movement’s bulky Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) units have long remained difficult to conceal, and are thought to have been mostly been picked off over time by Saudi strikes. As such, it is likely that the majority of ongoing launches into Saudi Arabia are domestically-produced units, although some legacy systems may have survived, hidden in Northern Yemen’s dramatically mountainous landscape.

The Burqan series missiles are relatively crude by modern standards, although they remain dangerous nonetheless; able to deliver a 600kg payload to an estimated range of 1,400km, with Houthi media sources claiming an extended range of 2,000km. Their use is seen as a direct response to the ongoing Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen, generating controversy and concern across the Arabian Peninsula and significantly undermining the credibility of the Saudi-coalition’s regular proclamations of success in the campaign. The Houthis claim that justification for the targeting of Saudi cities is fair retaliation for the aerial bombing campaign against Yemeni targets, for which Saudi Arabia has drawn international criticism. This far in the conflict, the Patriot batteries deployed by the Kingdom have scored a high knockdown rate against incoming missiles targeting major urban areas, but operations to destroy the home-built replacement TEL systems hidden within Yemen have been less successful. The cheaply-produced Yemeni weapons also economically outmatch the expensive Saudi defensive operations, although given the vast budget of the Kingdom’s military, this is unlikely to place significant strain on Riyadh in the short to medium term.

Improvements in the Houthi’s missile capabilities are rumoured to have been supported in part by Iranian and potentially even North Korean expertise, with the Houthis indending to bring all of Saudi Arabia and coalition allies such as the UAE into range. The Burqan 2 series, having apparently improved in both range and accuracy over the Burqan 1, first saw service in July 2017 against the Saudi coastal city of Yanbu, while Saturday night’s attack marks its second appearance, indicating limited stocks of the weapon. Despite limited long-range missile stocks, a number of surface-to-air weapons from the SA2 “Guideline” series are believed to have been converted by Houthi forces into short-range surface-to-surface missiles with 250km tactical range. In addition to these, Iranian-supplied Zelzal and Qahar series weapons have also surfaced in the Yemen theatre, indicating an unabating missile threat to both Saudi-coalition forces in Yemen and the Kingdom’s population centres.

At this stage it appears that the Houthis’ seek to bring an end to the conflict via domestic and coalition pressure on Riyadh through mounting attacks deep within the Kingdom. Notably, Houthis forces have reiterated their desire to strike all coalition partners, including Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Given that their most capable missiles can now strike Riyadh, less populated parts of the UAE are credibly in range, and increasing capabilities could place population centres in range in the near term. Despite this, limited stocks mean that attacks will likely remain sporadic, while Coalition air-and-missile defence systems continue to develop.

The Anti-Corruption Round-up

On November 4th, Saudi Arabian media reported that dozens of key players, including members of the extensive 10,000-strong House of Saud, had been arrested as part of a mass anti-corruption drive being spearheaded by the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

So far, the following key figures appear to be among those detained:

  • Prince Mitaab Bin Abdullah (Minister of the National Guard)
  • Adel bin Mohammed Faqih (former Labor Minster and current Economy and Planning Minister)
  • Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal (owner of The Kingdom Holding group)
  • Prince Turki Bin Abdullah (Former Governor of Riyadh)
  • Prince Turki Bin Nasser
  • Waleed Ibrahim (Owner of MBC Media)
  • Khaled Al Tuwaijri (Former President of the Royal Court)
  • Omer Dabbagh (Former president of the General Investment Authority)
  • Saleh Kamel (Saudi Billionaire worth an estimated $2.2B US)
  • Saud Al Tobaishi (Head of Royal Ceremonies and Protocols)
  • Ibrahim Al Assaf (Former Finance minister and current State Minister)
  • Bakr Bin Laden (Owner of Bin Laden Group)
  • Saud Al Dawish (former CEO of Saudi Telecoms)
  • Khaled Al Mulhem (former Director General of Saudi Arabian Airlines)

Of this list, the most significant names appear to be those of Prince Mitaab Bin Abdullah, who was both the minister overseeing the Saudi Arabian National Guard and onetime  contender for the throne, and Adel Faqih, the Minister of the Economy who had been central to the Crown Prince’s ambitious “Vision 2030” reform plan.

While outwardly these arrests have been reported as corruption-linked, which is not at all unbelievable given the endemic nature of graft in the Kingdom’s “Wasta”-based culture of nepotism, it is also likely that an element of internal power-politics has factored. At 32, the young Crown Prince has been a controversial figure within the typically elderly upper echelons of the House of Saud. His internationally-lauded reformist and modernist agenda has drawn criticism from both political and religious conservatives in a nation that lags behind much of the modern world in multiple aspects, including women’s rights, economic policies and international diplomacy. As such, it is likely that among those arrested are key figures opposed to Bin Salman’s rapid ascension, with corruption charges being a useful political tool in a society deeply intertwined with graft culture.

Such a move would not be the first for Bin Salman, with rumours that his own uncle and main rival for the throne Mohammed bin Nayef was placed under house arrest earlier this year. Nayef took the role of Deputy Crown Prince in January 2015, before being dismissed from the role in a surprise move in June of this year to be replaced by King Salman’s favoured son, bin Salman. The most surprising factor of his dismissal and probable arrest is the fact that Nayef, for 16 years, commanded the Kingdom’s domestic intelligence capabilities and was known as a shrewd political player. Having been outmaneuvered by his nephew in such a high-profile case demonstrates bin Salman’s own level of political prowess.

Despite the high probability of a political element to this crackdown, genuine graft is also likely under threat. Bin Salman is keenly aware of the damage caused to the Royal Family’s reputation by years of lavish living while much of the population remains impoverished. Genuine incidents of corruption are reportedly due to be investigated, including the impact of graft on the government’s response to the 2009 floods that devastated parts of Jeddah, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus outbreak.

In all, November has commenced with two major events within the Kingdom, and further change is likely to follow. The war in Yemen drags on with little tangible progress on either side, while conversely dramatic change appears to be underway in Riyadh. The new trajectory of the Kingdom, both internally and regarding it’s Yemen campaign will almost certainly remain unclear for the foreseeable future, and as such a close eye on Saudi affairs is encouraged in the coming months.


Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on travel security risks and geopolitical threat intelligence for the British travel security firm HowSafeIsMyTrip.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps/Gunnery Sgt. Rome M. Lazarus

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