Saudi Purge Sees Senior Princes, Top Billionaire Detained

Updated on
  • Arrests reported hours after anti-corruption campaign revealed
  • Sweeping changes also hit national guard, economy ministry
Eurasia Group’s Ayham Kamel discusses the anti-corruption drive led by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman embarked on the most sweeping crackdown yet of his reign, ordering security forces to arrest senior princes including one of the world’s richest men and driving out one of the most prominent officials from his ministerial role.

The arrests, conducted shortly after the establishment of an anti-corruption committee headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reinforced speculation King Salman is clearing any remaining obstacles to his son’s ascension to the throne.

Security forces arrested 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers and prominent businessmen, according to Saudi media and a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Prince Miteb, son of the late King Abdullah, was removed from his post as head of the powerful National Guards. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was picked up at his desert camp, the senior official said. Authorities did not disclose the evidence that prompted the arrests but said the suspects are under investigation and were innocent until proven guilty.

“Laws will be applied firmly on everyone who touched public money and didn’t protect it or embezzled it, or abused their power and influence,” King Salman said in comments shown on state TV. “This will be applied on those big and small, and we will fear no one.”

Prince Miteb was replaced by Prince Khaled Ayyaf, according to a royal decree. Before his ouster, he was one of the few remaining senior royals to have survived a series of cabinet shuffles that promoted allies of the crown prince, who is the direct heir to the throne.

Meteoric Rise

King Salman had already sidelined other senior members of the royal family to prevent any opposition to the crown prince, 32-year-old Prince Mohammed, known as MBS among diplomats and journalists, who replaced his elder cousin, Muhammed bin Nayef, in June. That maneuver removed any doubt of how succession plans will unfold following the reign of King Salman, now 81.

“The hardline approach is risky because it will solidify the dislike many powerful Saudis have for the crown prince, but it is likely that MBS succeeds, and emerges from this episode more empowered,” Hani Sabra, founder of Alef Advisory, a Middle East political risk practice, wrote in a note. “We can’t confidently project when a leadership transition will take place, but today’s developments are a signpost that MBS is moving toward the role of king. ”

Changing the head of the National Guard, an institution that’s been controlled by the clan of the late King Abdullah, “is not like changing the minister of oil,” said Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst with Geopolitical Futures and a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this leads to greater fissures within the royal family.”

Alwaleed’s Surprise

Detaining Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of King Salman, was another surprising development. The prince has, more than once, expressed his public support to the monarch and his son. When Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran in 2016, the prince said he was halting plans to invest in the Islamic Republic. On National Day in September, a giant picture of Prince Mohammed was projected on Alwaleed’s Kingdom Tower in Riyadh during a firework display.

A spokesman for the prince’s Kingdom Holding didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment. The company’s shares plummeted 9.9 percent, while the benchmark Tadawul All Share Index declined 1.4 percent at 10:55 a.m. in Riyadh.

In the course of his meteoric rise to power since 2015, Prince Mohammed prince has announced plans to sell a stake in oil giant Saudi Aramco and create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, and has ended some social constraints, including a long-standing ban on female drivers. Women will be allowed to drive in June 2018.

Saudi Arabia, while never a democracy, had been governed for decades by a loose consensus among an extended royal family, who had control over different government agencies. Critics said the system had stifled any attempts to reform the kingdom to reduce the economy’s reliance on oil.

Total Control

Since his father’s ascension to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed has emerged as the dominant figure in the desert kingdom. He controls almost all the levers of government, from the Defense Ministry to the central bank and the oil giant Aramco, which bankrolls the country. He’s also announced radical plans to sell state businesses, cut the public payroll and step up a regional power struggle against Iran.

The king also replaced Economy and Planning Minister Adel Fakeih with Mohammad Al Tuwaijri, his deputy.

Al Tuwaijri, formerly vice minister for economy and planning, had already played a key role in shaping Saudi economic and fiscal policy over the past year. Before joining the government in May 2016, he was Middle East chief executive for HSBC Holding Plc. He’s served as a frequent spokesman for the government’s economic reform plan on TV and with Western journalists.

“These things are happening methodically and carefully with lots of pre-planning it seems,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington. “Some real political operators are mentoring this. If the economy and jobs don’t bring lots of changes there could be some pushback.”

The anti-corruption committee’s powers include the ability to trace funds and assets, and prevent their transfer or liquidation on behalf of individuals or entities, along with the right to take any precautionary actions until cases are referred to relevant investigatory or judiciary authorities, according to a government statement.

The committee’s formation was deemed necessary “due to the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds,” the Royal Order said.

"The suspects are being granted the same rights and treatment as any other Saudi citizen," Attorney General Saud Al Mojeb said in a statement. "A suspect’s position or status does not influence the firm and fair application of justice. During the investigation, all parties retain full legal privileges relating to their personal and private property, including funds."

— With assistance by Alaa Shahine, Zaid Sabah, Nadeem Hamid, Vivian Nereim, and Riad Hamade

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