Why It Matters

Political quake in Saudi Arabia

The arrest of 11 royal princes as well as dozens of high-ranking officials, ministers and business tycoons in a single day would be big news in any country. But in Saudi Arabia, this equates with a massive political earthquake: The Arab world's richest nation - where consensus rather than confrontation was the order of the day - is now in the throes of potentially the most dangerous transformation in its history.

Although official statements claim that most of those arrested are held on suspicion of corruption, there is little doubt the move is orchestrated by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the 32-year-old son of the Saudi King often known by his initials of MBS, and is intended to marginalise those opposed to his future succession. The allegations of corruption and claims the Saudi government is now moving to fight this scourge are meant to attract popular support in a nation where resentment about huge disparities in wealth is near boiling point. But ultimately, this is a struggle for power.

It is clear the Crown Prince is already Saudi Arabia's paramount ruler. All of those fired from their jobs or under arrest - most of them now allegedly held in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in the Saudi capital - are either MBS' rivals or, in the case of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the best-connected businessmen in the world; people who have it in their power to prevent MBS' future policies.

The prediction is that, with his enemies now out of the way, the Crown Prince will soon be proclaimed king; his father is ready to abdicate in his favour. Still, MBS will be wise to recall that the safest method of ruling is not necessarily by marginalising one's opponents, but by co-opting them. And the most dangerous time for any ruler comes not when a country stands still - as Saudi Arabia has done for decades - but when he attempts radical reform.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline 'Political quake in Saudi Arabia'. Print Edition | Subscribe