Saudi authorities arrested royal family members, sitting cabinet ministers and former government officials in an extraordinary purge on Saturday that reportedly included the arrest of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor who owns major stakes in such companies as Twitter and Citigroup.
Saudi officials and media outlets framed the detentions as stemming from an urgent new drive to root out graft in the kingdom. But it also appeared part of an ongoing effort by the country’s ambitious and brash crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to consolidate power by eliminating rivals or critics in the event that his father, King Salman, soon abdicates the throne.
News of the arrests was announced by the state news agency and the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel, which said in a report late Saturday that 11 princes, four current ministers as well as “tens” of former ministers had been arrested on the orders of Prince Mohammed, who was appointed by his father Saturday as the head of a new anti-corruption committee.
The announcements carried few names, but a senior Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to the Reuters news agency, said Alwaleed was among those detained. The reasons for his arrest were not immediately clear: The prince, who is the founder of the business conglomerate Kingdom Holding and one of the world’s most prominent investors, had been supportive, at least publicly, of the current Saudi leadership, as well as its controversial intervention in Yemen’s civil war.
The detentions came at a time of unprecedented political, social and economic upheaval in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that has quickly become one of the Trump administration’s closest Middle East allies. President Donald Trump and Salman spoke by telephone Saturday, but a White House summary of the call made no mention of the arrests.
Saudi leaders have embarked on a widely publicized drive to modernize the country, including by relaxing social restrictions in the ultraconservative kingdom and liberalizing its oil-dependent economy. Last week in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, a lavish conference that was intended to encourage international investment featured robots as well as planned, futuristic megaprojects.
In tandem with the reform drive, the leadership has sidelined potential challengers from rival branches of the royal family and cracked down on dissidents, arresting dozens of people, including clerics, in the past few months alone. The officials detained Saturday included Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the elite Saudi national guard and a favored son of King Abdullah, who died in 2015 and was the predecessor of the current king.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Kareem Fahim