What Just Happened in Saudi Arabia?

Crown prince 'MBS' makes a risky move in an apparent bid to consolidate power
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 6, 2017 8:51 AM CST
What Just Happened in Saudi Arabia?
Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a file photo.   (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

The heir to the throne in Saudi Arabia ordered a series of stunning, high-profile arrests over the weekend. The upshot? Only what appears to be "the most sweeping transformation in the kingdom’s governance for more than eight decades," writes David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) rounded up dozens of royals, ministers, and investors in the name of corruption, but the move is widely seen as a play by the prince to consolidate power and box out rivals. Details and developments:

  • The tycoon: The biggest name among those arrested is Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, who is one of the richest men in the world, reports the Wall Street Journal. He has scores of major investments in US companies, from GM to Apple to Twitter and Citigroup. He could face money laundering charges.
  • The rival: Also arrested was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who ran the National Guard. The royal cousin—he is the son of the late King Abdullah, while MBS is the son of current King Salman—had been perhaps the crown prince's most serious rival for the throne. An analysis at the Middle East site al-Monitor sees this arrest as "the most crucial aspect" of the purge.

  • Unprecedented: Actually, to call the purge "unprecedented would be an understatement," per an analysis at the Economist. Power has always been delicately divided within the sprawling royal family, but the purge means that MBS now controls all three Saudi security services—military, the interior ministry, and the National Guard. For decades, they were split among different branches of the family.
  • Backfire? The crown prince is pushing ahead with economic and social reforms, but this purge poses a risk. "The lack of transparency or due process surrounding the anticorruption crackdown is sure to unnerve the same private investors he hopes to attract," per the Times.
  • A telling stat: NBC News takes a longer look at MBS' efforts to "rebrand" Saudi Arabia, including everything from his desire to make it less dependent on oil to allowing women to drive. It's largely driven by a jarring stat: 70% of the population is under 30, leading to fears of an Arab Spring kind of uprising unless modernization takes hold. MBS himself is only 32.

  • Strange timing: Hours after the purge, a helicopter carrying another senior Saudi prince crashed near Abha, reports the BBC. Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, deputy governor of Asir province, and seven others were killed. The cause isn't yet known. Mansour's father had once been crown prince himself, before being ousted by King Salman.
  • Threat of Iran: All this plays out against the backdrop of Sunni Saudi Arabia fighting for influence over arch-rival Shiite Iran in the region. One proxy fight is taking place in Yemen, where the nations back opposing sides in a civil war. The AP has the latest from that country, including the weekend shutdown of all inbound flights. The Saudis and Iran similarly back opposing sides in Syria.
  • Oil hits two-year high: One tangible effect of the purge: Antsy investors sent oil prices to a two-year high on Monday, with international benchmark Brent jumping to $62 a barrel, reports Reuters.
(More Saudi Arabia stories.)

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