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The Saudi Purge Isn’t Just a Power Grab

It’s a go-for-broke upheaval. The question now, for hopeful investors, is whether the crown prince follows his corruption crackdown by opening up an economy dominated by plutocrats and royal cronies.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a palace in Riyadh in 2016.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a palace in Riyadh in 2016.

Photographer: Luca Locatelli

It makes sense to be cynical about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ostensible crackdown on corruption in Saudi Arabia. Among the 11 princes, 4 ministers, and dozens of well-known businessmen arrested were some of the 32-year-old’s last potential rivals to the Saudi throne. The move also smacks of an asset snatch. Police nabbed 3 of the Arab world’s 10 richest men, including investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire best known for rescuing Citicorp in 1991 and making big bets on Apple Inc. and 21st Century Fox Inc. But was it only a Machiavellian power play? Or is this the start of a dramatic, go-for-broke attempt to transform a country that’s resisted change for decades?

Prince Mohammed seems to be playing the equally ruthless roles of autocrat and reformer. The millennial has been outspoken about his bold plans to modernize Saudi society and wean the kingdom from fossil fuel. Now, Prince Mohammed has locked up globe-trotting tycoons and other dynastic rivals, sending shock waves across the desert and around the world. Since Saudi Arabia’s founding in 1932 by his grandfather, Abdulaziz Al Saud, successive kings have sought consensus among the family’s thousands of princes, balancing religious, princely, and tribal factions to maintain stability in the world’s largest oil supplier. Decisions were made at a glacial pace, often capped with generous payouts for anyone left unhappy. Prince Mohammed has smashed that conservative status quo in an act, he no doubt believes, of creative destruction.