The writers of the television drama series "Game of Thrones" would be hard pressed to pack into one episode what happened in Saudi Arabia Saturday, which saw breathtaking arrests of scores of princes and ministers once considered untouchable.
The kingdom-wide swoop has left international investors shocked and analysts scrambling. It drove up the price of oil to its highest close in two years.
Included in the unprecedented roundup ordered by King Salman and overseen by his son, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, was one of the world’s richest men, Prince Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire businessman who co-owns the Four Seasons hotel chain and is a major investor in Rupert Murdoch’s worldwide media empire.
Others among the 50 who have been detained and corralled in opulent hotels across the Saudi capital include Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, the owner of the largest satellite television network in the Middle East, MBC, and Bakr bin Laden, brother of Osama bin Laden and chairman of the Gulf kingdom’s biggest construction company.
And along with them prominent military figures, including Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Muhammad, a former defense minister, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the minister of the elite 100,000-strong National Guard and son of the late King Abdullah, whose death two years ago led to Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as Crown Prince by his ailing father, the kingdom’s 81-year-old current monarch.
The round-up, which saw palaces surrounded in the dead of night and the grounding of private jets at Jeddah’s airport to prevent those targeted from fleeing, is being described as an anti-corruption drive by Saudi officials. The detainees' assets have been frozen.
But the scale of what is being dubbed by analysts "a purge", further consolidates the power of the 32-year-old Crown Prince and future king. He will chair a commission to monitor and investigate corruption, which King Salman’s communique described as the “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest.”
The commission has the authority to investigate, arrest, issue travel bans and freeze assets, say Saudi officials. They suggested more royals, the ruling House of Saud comprises an estimated 15,000 family members, could be detained in the coming days, and more assets seized. “The amounts, which prove to be linked to corruption issues, would be returned to the treasury of the State of Saudi Arabia,” the Information Ministry said Sunday.
Few Saudi-watchers believe weeding out corruption is the main point of the high-risk swoop. State finances and private finances of the members of the House of Saud have long been hopelessly mixed and seen as one and the same thing. The arrests have as their goal the tightening of the Crown Prince’s grip on power, say Saudi-watchers. Their scale suggests mounting fears by the Crown Prince and his father that a coup against them might have been in the throes of being hatched.
“The determination to consolidate power in the hands of the crown prince suggests both ambition and anxiety,” says analyst Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and author of the upcoming book “Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR.”
Writing for the website Al Monitor, Riedel says, “The young prince is a man in a hurry with a sweeping vision of transforming his country. But Mohammed bin Salman is also aware that his rise to power has alienated many in the royal family who have been sidelined.”
He says the large-scale wave of arrests “suggests deep opposition to the young prince's ambitions.”
The kingdom is at a crossroads and has seen several of the policies being pushed by the future king fail to come off. Saudi Arabia has been locked in a two-and-a-half-year war in neighboring Yemen against Iranian-backed rebels. A move to discipline another neighbor, Qatar, with an five-months-long economic blockade has failed to pay dividends.
And the kingdom’s principal rival in the region, Iran, has been gaining increasing influence across the Middle East.
With that as a backdrop, the Crown Prince has been pushing radical reform, from recently lifting a ban on women driving to launching an ambitious economic overhaul designed to make the country less dependent on oil. He has pledged to steer Saudi Arabia towards a moderate interpretation of Islam.
Reform makes enemies, say analysts. The House of Saud’s control of the kingdom has been based on twin pillars, oil-wealth that has allowed it to reward all the extended family, and appeasement of the austere ultra-conservative religious movement known as Wahhabism.
According to Zubair Iqbal, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, the House of Saud “has been broken into two parts between the traditionalists, who believe in consensus, against those who say they are going to enforce rules, regulations and policies without going through the process of consensus, which takes too much time and ends up diluting the intended policy.”
He told VOA, “The conflict is being taken care of by taking arbitrary measures against those who don’t agree with you,” adding he worries the Crown Prince is too impatient in how he is implementing change.
Some analysts who believe the crackdown’s scale and timing indicate fears of a coup, point to a mysterious helicopter crash Sunday near the Yemen border in which a senior Saudi prince, the son of another prominent royal pushed aside by King Salman, and seven top-ranking officials were killed. The Saudi Interior Ministry has not given a cause for the crash.
“Fear of a coup,” tweeted Jane Kinnenmont, an analyst at Britain’s Chatham House, a policy research group, “different from an actual coup.” Along with other analysts, she maintains that if the roundup Saturday was part of the crushing of a coup already unfolding, there would have been more arrests.