RIYADH • Saudi Arabia has arrested dozens of senior figures - including princes, ministers and a top business tycoon - with the authorities yesterday pledging "fair" justice after the sweeping purge seen as consolidating the Crown Prince's hold on power.
Prominent billionaire Al-Waleed bin Talal was among the princes arrested late last Saturday, a government source told Agence France-Presse, immediately after a new anti-graft commission headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was established by royal decree.
Separately, the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, once a leading contender for the throne, as well as the navy chief and the economy minister were replaced in a series of high-profile sackings that sent shock waves through the kingdom.
The dramatic shake-up comes at a time of unprecedented social and economic transformation in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, as Prince Mohammed steps up his reform drive for a post-oil era.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV reported that 11 princes, four current ministers and dozens of former ministers were arrested as the commission launched a probe into old cases such as floods that devastated the Red Sea city of Jeddah in 2009.
The government official gave AFP a list of 14 of the most high-profile names, including Prince Al-Waleed.
"The suspects are being granted the same rights and treatment as any other Saudi citizen," Attorney-General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said in a statement, adding that a number of investigations had been initiated. "A suspect's position or status does not influence the firm and fair application of justice."
Recent political developments in Saudi Arabia
CHANGES AT THE TOP
On Jan 23, 2015, King Salman took the throne at the age of 79 after the death of King Abdullah. He made key changes in the order of succession, choosing his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince and promoting his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now aged 31, as defence minister. The latter was made crown prince in June this year.
WAR IN YEMEN
In March 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition launched an air campaign to prop up Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against Shi'ite Houthi rebels and their allies.
RUPTURE WITH TEHERAN
In January last year, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people convicted of "terrorism", mostly Sunnis linked to Al-Qaeda, but also including prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. His execution stirred a diplomatic crisis with rival Iran.
ECONOMIC REFORMS AND INVESTMENTS
In April 2016, the Saudi government approved a major reform plan dubbed "Vision 2030", aimed at diversifying the oil-dependent economy. The plan involves privatising part of oil giant Aramco and creating a US$2 trillion (S$2.7 trillion) sovereign wealth fund. In late October, Riyadh unveiled plans for high-tech "giga projects" and sought to promote the kingdom as a welcoming business destination.
DEALS WITH WASHINGTON
In May this year, US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip since taking office. Washington and Riyadh announced contracts worth more than US$380 billion, including a US$110 billion arms deal aimed at countering perceived threats from Iran and radical Islamists.
In June this year, Saudi Arabia and several Gulf allies and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting "terrorists" and being too close to Iran. They also took economic measures against Doha.
In December 2015, Saudi Arabia opened up elections to women as both candidates and voters for the first time. In September this year, a royal decree announced the end of a longstanding ban on women driving as of June 2018.
Last month, Prince Mohammed pledged that the kingdom will return to be "a country of moderate Islam".
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan was quoted as saying by Saudi Press Agency: "With this (crackdown), the kingdom heralds a new era and policy of transparency, clarity and accountability. The decisive decisions will preserve the investment environment and boost trust in the rule of law."
The kingdom's top council of clerics lauded the anti-corruption efforts as "important", essentially giving religious backing to the crackdown.
An aviation source told AFP that security forces had grounded private jets at airports, possibly to prevent high-profile figures from leaving the country.
"The breadth and scale of the arrests appear to be unprecedented in modern Saudi history," said Mr Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas.
"The reported detention of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, if true, would send shock waves through the domestic and international business community," he told AFP.
Prince Al-Waleed, a big investor in top Western companies such as Citigroup, Twitter, Apple and Time Warner, is known as the international face of Saudi business.
The purge comes less than two weeks after Prince Mohammed welcomed thousands of global business leaders to Riyadh for an investment summit, showcasing his reform drive which has shaken up the kingdom. It follows a wave of arrests of influential clerics and activists in September as the 32-year-old prince, often known as MBS, cements his grip on power.
Analysts said many of those detained were resistant to Prince Mohammed's aggressive foreign policy, which includes the boycott of Gulf neighbour Qatar, as well as some of his bold policy reforms, including privatising state assets and cutting subsidies.
Already viewed as the de facto ruler controlling all the major levers of government, ranging from defence to the economy, the Prince is widely seen to be stamping out traces of internal dissent before a formal transfer of power from his 81-year-old father, King Salman.
At the same time, he has projected himself as a liberal reformer in the ultra-conservative kingdom with a series of bold moves, including the decision allowing women to drive from next June.
Foreign diplomats predict that Prince Mohammed, set to be the first millennial to occupy the Saudi throne, could well be in control of Saudi Arabia for at least half a century.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS