High-profile Saudi arrests advance heir’s power grab
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne is overseeing an unprecedented wave of arrests of dozens of the country’s most powerful princes, military officers, influential businessmen and government ministers — some potential rivals or critics of the crown prince now consolidating his power.
Among those taken into custody overnight Saturday in the purported anti-corruption sweep were billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men with extensive holdings in Western companies, and two of the late King Abdullah’s sons.
The arrest of senior princes upends a longstanding tradition among the ruling Al Saud family to keep disagreements private to show strength and unity in the face of Saudi Arabia’s many tribes and factions. It also sends a message that the 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has the full backing of his father, King Salman, to carry out sweeping anti-corruption reforms targeting senior royals and their business associates, who have long been seen as operating above the law.
Reports suggested those detained were being held at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, which only days earlier hosted a major investment conference that the crown prince attended with global business titans. A Saudi official told the Associated Press that other five-star hotels across the capital were also being used to hold detainees.
The Ritz Carlton had no availability for bookings until Dec. 1 — a possible sign that an investigation of this scale could take weeks. Marriott International said in a statement that it is evaluating the situation at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, but declined to say more, citing privacy concerns.
A Saudi government official with ties to security forces said 11 princes and 38 others were being questioned. .
The surprise arrests were immediately hailed by pro-government media outlets as the clearest sign yet that Prince Mohammed is keeping his promise to reform the country, wean its economy from its dependence on oil and liberalize some aspects of the ultraconservative society.
The kingdom’s top council of clerics issued a public statement overnight saying it is an Islamic duty to fight corruption — essentially giving religious backing to the arrests.
It’s unclear if the U.S. had any advance word of the arrests. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner and others made an unannounced trip recently to Riyadh. Earlier on Saturday, Trump said he spoke to King Salman, though the White House readout of that call did not include any reference to the impending arrests.
Analysts have suggested the arrest of once-untouchable members of the royal family is a clear sign that the crown prince is sidelining potential rivals for the throne.
Meantime, Saudi-owned, Dubai-based satellite news channel Al-Arabiya reported that a helicopter crash Sunday in the kingdom’s south killed Prince Mansour bin Murquin and seven others. Prince Mansour was the son of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, an ex-intelligence director and one-time crown prince of the kingdom. Authorities gave no cause for the crash.
The young Crown Prince Mohammed has risen from near obscurity to become Saudi Arabia’s most talked about and powerful prince in less than three years since his father ascended to the throne. His swift rise to power has unnerved more experienced, elder members of the royal family, which has long ruled by consensus, though ultimate decision-making remains with the monarch.