In Depth

Saudi prince consolidates power in ‘Arabian game of thrones’

In Depth: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrests dozens of government officials and fellow royals in purported anti-corruption sweep

The young crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman made an audacious but risky power play this weekend, arresting 11 princes, four ministers and several dozen others while simultaneously accusing Iran of an “act of war”.

Prominent millionaire investor Alwaleed bin Talal is among those being held - a move not unlike the US “arresting Warren Buffett or Bill Gates”, diplomat Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told CNBC.

Some Saudi watchers believe a coup attempt was uncovered, or may have begun, and that Crown Prince Mohammed crushed it. “All those suspected of being involved are now being purged,” says The New York Times.

The mass arrests – under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign – come after other eye-raising changes in the kingdom, including new limits on the powers of the state’s religious police, and a royal decree allowing women to drive.

“This is very risky,” a Saudi business leader told The Washington Post, noting that MbS – as the 32-year-old Crown Prince is known – is challenging senior princes and religious conservatives simultaneously. “He’s fighting too many wars at once.”

Indeed, the prince is fighting internally and externally.

Saudi state media “lashed out” at Iran today over the firing of a ballistic missile toward Riyadh by Houthi rebels in Yemen, reports Al Jazeera English. Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of being behind the missile and has labelled it a potential “act of war”.

Tehran rejects the Saudi claim, the latest in “a multifronted confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran which is playing out on political and military battlefields throughout the region, including Lebanon, Syria and Yemen”, says The Daily Telegraph.

The outcry follows the shock resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who delivered his resignation speech from the Saudi capital Riyadh on Saturday. Hariri cited Iranian influence across the region and said he was stepping down because he feared suffering the same fate as his assassinated father.

His resignation has “raised worries that the Gulf kingdom, under the leadership of its increasingly bullish Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, will squeeze Lebanon as a way to get to Iran’s proxy in the country, Hezbollah”, says The Washington Post.

Hezbollah, founded with Iranian support in 1982 to resist the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, has emerged as a regional power, to the consternation of Saudi Arabia.

The events of the past few days have led to parallels being drawn with the television show Game of Thrones, which follows a complex web of alliances and conflicts among noble families vying to either claim the throne or gain their independence from it. 

“If this is an Arabian game of thrones, the headstrong young prince, who seeks to embody the pent-up aspirations of a people two-thirds of whom are under 30, has left no one in doubt he means to win,” David Gardner writes in the Financial Times

“The weekend’s momentous events will inevitably revive the febrile speculation that King Salman, 81, is preparing to abdicate in MbS’s favour. All eyes are still on the throne.”

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