Saudi authorities have arrested dozens of high ranking officials including the billionaire prince who owns the Savoy Hotel in London in an anti-corruption crackdown that strengthens Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grip on power.
Police arrested 49 people including 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers in raids across Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Royal planes were grounded as authorities swooped in, corralling princes, former officials and media tycoons into five-star hotels across the capital for questioning.
The arrests include relatives of Mohammad bin Salman, 32, and came just hours after the launch of a new anti-corruption mechanism he oversees.
The detainees include Prince Alaweed bin Talal, a multi-billionaire who has major stakes in News Corp, Citigroup and Twitter. He co-owns the Four Seasons hotel chain along with Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and he is sole owner of London’s landmark luxury hotel, the Savoy.
Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, centre, talks to his assistant, as Rupert Murdoch watches at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Media Summit | CREDIT: REUTERS/HANDOUT
Also caught up in the purge was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the last of the late King Abdullah’s sons to hold a position of real power. Until yesterday, he was head of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, which accounts for about half of the country’s military. The rest of the military answers directly Mohammad bin Salman.
Other arrests include Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former finance minister, Adel Fakieh, an economy minister, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a former governor of Riyadh. Major business figures including Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the big Saudi Binladin construction group, and Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, owner of the MBC television network, were also detained.
In a statement, Saudi Arabia’s Attorney General said the actions carried out by the supreme anti-corruption committee, which was formed by order of King Salman, the Crown Prince’s father, on Saturday, were undertaken “as part of the state’s judicial duty to combat corruption”.
“The suspects are being granted the same rights and treatment as any other Saudi citizen. A suspect’s position or status does not influence the firm and fair application of justice,” said Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb, the Attorney General.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman | CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PAVEL GOLOVKIN
He vowed “a firm application of justice”, calling the operation “part of an overhaul to ensure transparency, openness and good governance.”
Some are calling it a power grab by Mohammad bin Salman, who has been effective head of government since King Salman appointed him crown prince in June 2017.
MBS, as he is often known, has unveiled a raft of radical reforms since he came to power, including lifting a ban on women driving, pledging to turn the country towards a more moderate interpretation of Islam, and launching an ambitious economic reform program designed to reduce the country’s dependence on oil.
However, he has also been accused of seeking to concentrate power in his own hands and using reform as an excuse to crackdown on potential political adversaries.
The ousting of Miteb bin Abdullah, in particular, removes a powerful rival who was once seen as a contender to the Saudi throne.
“It’s very much Mohammad bin Salman’s style, to make the sudden, bold, dramatic overnight moves, but this is at the same time about going after corruption and about political convenience,” said Jane Kinnenmont, an expert on Saudi affairs at Chatham House.
Prince Miteb bin Abdul Aziz | CREDIT: HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
“This completes Mohammad bin Salman’s obtaining control of all security forces, either directly under him or under someone he appointed,” she added.
The arrests come amid a deepening confrontation between Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni Arab power in the Middle East, and Shia Iran.
The crisis has fueled a rapprochement between Riyadh and Washington, with senior Saudi officials praising President Donald Trump’s decision to de-certify, but not dismantle, the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Barack Obama.
Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and a top White House advisor, reportedly visited Saudi Arabia in October, something Ms Kinninmont says reveals the Trump administration’s “clear enthusiasm” for Mohammad bin Salman.
“Whenever there is high-level contact with the Trump administration, Saudi tends to emerge from that emboldened,” she said.
Mr Trump has publicly clashed with Alaweed bin Talal, the arrested owner of the London Savoy, who called him a “disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America” on Twitter in 2015 and predicted he would not win the election.
Then-candidate Trump fired back, labelling the prince “dopey” and accusing him of using his father’s money to try to control US politicians.