The heir to the throne in Saudi Arabia has consolidated his hold on power on Saturday night with a major purge of the kingdom’s political and business leadership, probably aimed at discouraging opposition to his intention of bringing the nation into the 21st century.
A transformation started by the new Saudi leadership of King Salman and his son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has replaced traditional moribund system with a series of reforms that are upending all aspects of Saudi society, granting new rights to women and running counter to a worldwide trend toward Islamic fundamentalism.
Authorities in Saudi Arabia conducted what appears to be a far-reaching purge, detaining more than two dozen royal family members, cabinet ministers and prominent businessmen in a sweep that further consolidates the position of the Crown Prince as he attempts to reform kingdom’s economy and society.
A new anti-corruption agency run by the Crown Prince detained 11 other princes, four sitting ministers and dozens of ex-ministers. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire with investments in Twitter and Apple, is among those held.
The state-run Saudi press agency said the commission’s goal was to “preserve public money, punish corrupt people and those who exploit their positions.”
Separately King Salman replaced the national guard and the navy chiefs.
The new anti-corruption committee has the power to issue arrest warrants and travel bans. Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said the status of the detainees would not influence “the firm and fair application of justice”, AFP news agency reports.
Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya said fresh investigations had been launched into the 2009 Jeddah floods and the outbreak of the Mers virus which emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012 – but analysts see the detentions as a clear move by the crown prince to strengthen his power base.
The events in Saudi Arabia are nothing short of seismic for that country. In a bold, pre-planned move, the 32-year old Crown Prince has removed the final obstacles to his gaining total control over the world’s richest oil producer and home to the holiest shrines in Islam.
Presented to the world as an anti-corruption drive, the arrests of princes, ministers and the billionaire tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal have shocked Saudis unused to sudden change.
The crown prince is largely popular, especially amongst young Saudis, but many older, more conservative citizens think he is moving too far too fast. He has started an unwinnable war in Yemen while still fighting the extremists of so-called Islamic State. He has also backed a damaging boycott of Gulf neighbour Qatar.
But his supporters hail his efforts to modernise Saudi Arabia and, after decades of rule by old men, they welcome a fresh vision from a man who could well be king for the next 50 years.
The religious police, the bane of many Saudi women’s lives, have been steadily stripped of their role in the kingdom over the past year, losing powers to arrest and to define what is right or wrong.
Last week, a decree was signed to absorb them into the interior ministry – a death knell for an organization central to generations of social and religious austerity in a kingdom resistant to change.
“To say that was a shock to the system is an understatement,” said a senior Saudi official. “This was a message to the people here and to the world that we are open for business, but on your terms, not ours. Investors need to have confidence that they can come here and do business transparently.”
As the detainees remain in one of Riyadh’s most opulent hotels, the Ritz Carlton, Saudi citizens were trying to make sense of what marks a profound departure from the way rulers have done business throughout the modern history of the kingdom.
“He is shredding a moribund system that had favoured the royals above all else,” said a senior Saudi businessman. “He is shattering the accommodation that had existed between the elite and the state. They were one and the same. This is at least partly about creating citizens from subjects.”
“We are determined to build a thriving country in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions,” said bin Salman in a statement released in April, along with a far reaching plan to reorganize the country. “Therefore, we will not rest until our nation is a leader in providing opportunities for all through education and training, and high quality services such as employment initiatives, health, housing, and entertainment.”
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