Saudi Arabia Purge Leaves Crown Prince With All Levers of Power

  • Arrests reported hours after anti-corruption campaign revealed
  • Sweeping changes also hit national guard, economy ministry
Mohammed bin Salman

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman removed one of the royal family’s most prominent princes from his ministerial role and arrested other royals in a purge that clears any remaining obstacles to his son’s potential ascension to the throne.

Acting on orders from a newly established anti-corruption committee, headed by his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi police arrested 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers, Al Arabiya television said. Other changes announced separately on Saturday included the replacement of the economy minister and a new head for the powerful National Guard.

“Laws will be applied firmly on everyone who touched public money and didn’t protect it or embezzled it, or abused their power and influence,” King Salman said in comments shown on state TV. “This will be applied on those big and small, and we will fear no one.”

Prince Miteb, son of the late King Abdullah, was replaced as minister of the National Guard by Prince Khaled Ayyaf, according to a royal decree. Before his ouster, Prince Miteb was one of the few remaining senior princes to have survived a series of cabinet shuffles that promoted allies of the crown prince, who is the direct heir to the throne.

Meteoric Rise

King Salman had already sidelined other senior members of the royal family to prevent any opposition to the crown prince, Prince Mohammed, 32, who replaced his elder cousin, Muhammed bin Nayef, in June. That maneuver removed any doubt of how succession plans will unfold following the reign of King Salman, now 81.

In the course of his meteoric rise to power since 2015, the prince has announced plans to sell a stake in oil giant Saudi Aramco and create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, and has ended some social constraints, including a long-standing ban on female drivers. Women will be allowed to drive in June 2018.

Changing the head of the National Guard, an institution that’s been controlled by the clan of the late King Abdullah, “is not like changing the minister of oil,” said Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst with Geopolitical Futures and a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this leads to greater fissures within the royal family.”

Saudi Arabia, while never a democracy, had been governed for decades by a loose consensus among an extended royal family, who had control over different government agencies.

Now, Crown Prince Mohammed has emerged as the dominant figure in the desert kingdom. He controls almost all the levers of government, from the Defense Ministry to the central bank and the oil giant Aramco, which bankrolls the country. He’s also announced radical plans to sell state businesses, cut the public payroll and step up a regional power struggle against Iran.

Anti-Corruption

The king also replaced Economy and Planning Minister Adel Fakeih with Mohammad Al Tuwaijri, his deputy.

Al Tuwaijri, formerly vice minister for economy and planning, had already played a key role in shaping Saudi economic and fiscal policy over the past year. Before joining the government in May 2016, he was Middle East chief executive for HSBC Holding Plc. He’s served as a frequent spokesman for the government’s economic reform plan on TV and with Western journalists.

“These things are happening methodically and carefully with lots of pre-planning it seems,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington. “Some real political operators are mentoring this. If the economy and jobs don’t bring lots of changes there could be some pushback.”

King Salman also issued a decree forming an anti-corruption committee headed by the crown prince. Its powers include the ability to trace funds and assets, and prevent their transfer or liquidation on behalf of individuals or entities, along with the right to take any precautionary actions until cases are referred to relevant investigatory or judiciary authorities, according to a government statement.

The committee’s formation was deemed necessary “due to the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds,” the Royal Order said.

— With assistance by Zaid Sabah, Nadeem Hamid, and Vivian Nereim

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