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Opinion The Saudi crown prince just made a very risky power play

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he's cracking down on corruption. But the sweeping arrests of cabinet ministers and senior princes Saturday night looked to many astonished Arab observers like a bold but risky consolidation of power.

MBS, as the headstrong 32-year-old ruler is known, struck at some of the kingdom's most prominent business and political names in a new bid to gain political control and drive change in the oil kingdom. By the count of the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel, the arrests included 11 princes, four ministers and several dozen others.

"He's creating a new Saudi Arabia," said one Saudi business leader contacted Sunday. He noted that the anti-corruption campaign follows other aggressive but controversial moves, including a royal decree allowing women to drive and limits on the religious police.

“This is very risky,” the business leader said, because MBS is now challenging senior princes and religious conservatives simultaneously. The executive, who strongly supports MBS’s liberalization efforts, worried that “he’s fighting too many wars at once.”

The list of arrestees includes Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the previous king and the head of the Saudi national guard, traditionally a locus of tribal power. “The national guard was part of the balance among the royal family. He’s taken that balance out,” the Saudi executive noted. “He’s the goliath who can fight it all.”

MBS appears to be deliberately dismantling the traditional governance system in Saudi Arabia, which involved a slow, sometimes sclerotic process of consensus within the royal family. The young prince has instead seized executive power and wielded it aggressively to push his agenda.

The forward-leaning face of this change process was on display a week ago, when MBS hosted a gathering of technology and business leaders from around the world. Saturday night's arrests showed the iron fist inside the futuristic velvet glove.

MBS described his campaign in a brief video clip circulating on Saudi social media. "I assure you anyone involved in corruption will not be spared, whether he's a prince or a minister, or anyone." The arrests were accompanied by a decree creating a "supreme committee" to investigate corruption. The committee has "the right to take any precautionary measures it sees fit," including seizing assets and banning travel.

MBS has chosen what’s likely to be a popular target with younger Saudis. Corruption has enfeebled Saudi Arabia for generations, draining the royal treasury and impeding the modernization the crown prince says he wants. MBS is betting he can mobilize these younger Saudis, hungry for a new kingdom, against the older princes. He’s hoping the religious establishment, too, will support a purge of the elite.

“He’s closing the circle of people who can feed at the trough,” said a Saudi political analyst contacted Sunday. “Instead of 10,000 stakeholders, there will now be just a few.”

The roster of those arrested includes billionaire tycoons, such as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, head of Kingdom Holding Co. and one of the most prominent Saudi global investors; Saleh Kamal and Waleed al-Ibrahim, co-founders of Middle East Broadcasting Corp., the region’s first satellite channel; and Adel Fakieh, the minister of economy and planning, who until the putsch was one of MBS’s key lieutenants in developing his reform program.

MBS has now shattered the leadership circle of the previous king, Abdullah, who died in 2015. In addition to Prince Miteb, MBS arrested Prince Turki bin Abdullah, another prominent son and former governor of Riyadh province. Also arrested was Khaled al-Tuwaijri, who as chief of Abdullah's royal court was a virtual prime minister. In June, MBS toppled the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, clearing the way for him to eventually succeed his 81-year-old father, King Salman.

While accompanied by the rhetoric of reform, this weekend’s purge resembles the approach of authoritarian regimes such as China. President Xi Jinping has used a similar anti-corruption theme to replace a generation of party and military leaders and to alter the collective leadership style adopted by recent Chinese rulers.

MBS is emboldened by strong support from President Trump and his inner circle, who see him as a kindred disrupter of the status quo — at once a wealthy tycoon and a populist insurgent. It was probably no accident that last month, Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, made a personal visit to Riyadh. The two princes are said to have stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. several nights, swapping stories and planning strategy.

MBS would probably be flattered to be described as a Saudi Trump. But Xi and his anti-corruption power play may be the real role model.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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