For the past week, The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Jeddah has been the holding place for the greatest collection of well-placed suspects ever assembled in the wealthy state. A swoop by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has seen the tony hotel turned into the forced dwelling place of no less than 11 Saudi princes, more than three dozen senior officials and businessmen, and the commander of the national guard. Notably, the group also included the kingdom's well-known investor, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, famously known as Citigroup's largest individual shareholder and the No. 2 voting shareholder in 21st Century Fox. The indications are that the purge has not ended yet.
There is little question that Saudi Arabia needs change, and quickly. Corruption is endemic in the world's richest oil kingdom and billions in ill-gotten wealth are held in offshore accounts. That party cannot continue as a lengthy period of low oil prices has damaged the nation's cash reserves, as the government has to dip into these funds for national needs. With oil's future beginning to look dim, the search is on for viable economic alternatives. It needs a new model of development to not only survive but to also maintain its influence across the Arab world, where its principal strategic rival is Shia majority Iran.
For the House of Saud's legitimacy to prevail, it must rise to be more than the Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The question now is whether the 32-year-old Crown Prince has moved too quickly. The compact between the ruler, his subjects and the clergy - on which the Saudi tripod rests, along with stout external backing from the United States - has been rocked as the kingdom takes the unpopular decision to cut subsidies on utilities.
The clergy is suspicious of Prince Mohammed's moves to trim its influence in areas which were once its exclusive domain, such as education and the courts. His attempts to project a modern, moderate face of Islam will probably be welcomed in a kingdom where the median age is 30.2 years. The rest of the world would also prefer moderate Islam to triumph over intolerant forms of the religion. To achieve his goals, Prince Mohammed would be well-advised to make haste a little slowly. Already, he has left his neighbourhood unsettled by taking on Qatar, announcing a blockade of Yemeni airspace, and forcing the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister who was running a coalition government that included the Iran-backed Hizbollah.
While he does appear to have White House backing - President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner had a lengthy meeting with him in Jeddah days before the purge - the support could prove ephemeral if things spin out of control unexpectedly. Not for nothing did the Bedouins teach their children that a hasty angler loses the fish.