Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, 81, is apparently a man in a hurry. In what is seen as one of the most sweeping purges in the orthodox Kindgom’s history, he ordered security forces to arrest dozens of senior princes and officials, including the powerful heads of the elite Saudi National Guard, the Saudi Navy and billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal on Saturday. Some reports suggest many detainees are being held at the plush Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh pending further action. King Salman has earlier sidelined or removed several other senior members of the royal family to prevent any opposition to his son and crown prince, 32-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman , known as MBS, who replaced his elder cousin, Muhammed bin Nayef, in June. Saturday’s arrests came hours after the king issued a royal decree forming an anti-corruption commission body headed by his son.
Crown Prince Mohammed is seen as the poster boy for reforms in the ultra-orthodox nation, and credited with a series of bold moves including allowing women to drive from next June, and visit sports stadiums which were earlier reserved for men only. Speaking at a major investor conference in Riyadh last month, Prince Mohammed said he aims to “return Saudi Arabia to the moderate Islam that once prevailed” before the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Some 70 per cent of Saudis were under 30, and they did not want to spend “another 30 years of our lives living under extremist ideas,” he declared. Earlier in April, he released Vision 2030, an economic road map for the kingdom which among other things calls for privatising 5 per cent of the country’s petroleum company, Aramco.
While officials described the arrests as a ‘historic and black night against the corrupt,’ analysts see it as an attempt by MBS to stamp out traces of internal dissent before he formally assumes the throne. The question now is: Can he reshape Saudi Arabia into a more modern, moderate nation, or will the powerful backlash against this purge drive the nation off the cliff?