Saturday 25 November 2017

Saudi heir tightens his grip on power with purge of enemies

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Getty Images
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Getty Images

Stephen Kalin in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia's future king has tightened his grip on power through an anti-corruption purge by arresting royals, ministers and investors, including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal who is one of the kingdom's most prominent businessmen.

Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of the king and owner of investment firm Kingdom Holding, invests in firms such as Citigroup and Twitter. He was among 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers detained.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Photo: Getty Images
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Photo: Getty Images

The purge against the kingdom's political and business elite also targeted Prince Miteb bin Abdullah who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf.

News of the purge came early yesterday after King Salman decreed the creation of an anti-corruption committee chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his 32-year-old favourite son who has amassed significant power since rising from obscurity three years ago.

The new body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions, and seize assets.

"The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable," the royal decree said.

Prince Miteb bin Abdul Aziz. Photo: Getty Images
Prince Miteb bin Abdul Aziz. Photo: Getty Images

Analysts say the arrests were another pre-emptive measure by the crown prince to remove powerful figures as he exerts control over the world's leading oil exporter.

The round-up recalls the palace coup in June through which he ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister.

MbS, as he is known, was expected to follow at least by removing Prince Miteb from leadership of the National Guard, a pivotal power base rooted in the kingdom's tribes.

Over the past year, MbS has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom's military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among parts of the Al Saud dynasty frustrated by his meteoric rise. Saudi Arabia's stock index was dragged down briefly but recovered to close higher as some investors bet the crackdown could bolster reforms in the long run.

The royal decree said the arrests were in response to "exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money."

The line between public funds and royal money is not always clear in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by an Islamic system in which most law is not systematically codified and no elected parliament exists.

WikiLeaks cables have detailed the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives as well as various money-making schemes some have used to finance lavish lifestyles.

Analysts said the purge aimed to go beyond corruption and aimed to remove potential opposition to Prince Mohammed's ambitious reform agenda, which is widely popular with Saudi Arabia's burgeoning youth population but faces resistance from some of the old guard more comfortable with the kingdom's traditions of incremental change and rule by consensus.

In September, the king announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted, while Prince Mohammed is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists.

The crown prince has also slashed state spending in some areas and plans a big sale of state assets, including floating part of state oil giant Saudi Aramco on international markets.

Irish Independent

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