Saudi Arabia’s billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was arrested on Saturday night alongside at least 10 other princes and several government ministers and former ministers. All were caught up in a zealous sweep organized by a new anti-corruption committee helmed by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose rapid rise and consolidation of power has raised eyebrows in the kingdom and around the world.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns the investment firm Kingdom Holding — worth approximately $10 billion — and is one of the wealthiest men in the world. His investments include companies like Twitter, Citigroup, Lyft, the Four Seasons Hotels, and Apple, among other global companies. Alwaleed’s net worth dropped by $750 million as news of the arrest broke on Saturday, according to CNN.
As the New York Times wrote Sunday morning, the official Saudi news agency Al Arabiya explained that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “anticorruption committee has the right to investigate, arrest, ban from travel, or freeze the assets of anyone it deems corrupt.”
The Saudi Ministry of Communications issued a press release explaining the crown prince’s anti-corruption committee was part of an "active reform agenda aimed at tackling a persistent problem that has hindered development efforts in the Kingdom in recent decades” on the part of King Salman.
Eleven princes and 38 government officials and businessmen are being held at the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel Riyadh, according to news reports.
The millennial anti-corruption prince on the rise
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made headlines since his father, King Salman, came to the throne in 2015.
At a Riyadh economics conference in late October this year, the prince announced fervently that he believed “moderate Islam” is the path to the future for the kingdom. He vowed to “eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon.”
"We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe," he told the audience, as reported by the BBC. "Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas." In September he supported the push to finally lift the infamous Saudi ban on women’s right to drive.
Saturday’s sweeping arrests are seen not just as a clean-up effort, but as a power play.
Salman’s power consolidation is far-reaching: The prince has been in charge of the Saudi defense ministry since 2015, and earlier this year he took over the internal security ministry. He has introduced an ambitious plan to shift the Saudi economy away from oil dependence. He’s also taken a lead role in foreign and social policy.
"This is the latest act of concentration of power in Saudi," global head of equity research at Exotix Capital, Hasnain Malik, told CNBC. "[A]s unprecedented and controversial as it may be, this centralization might also be a necessary condition for pushing the austerity and transformation agenda [Salman has championed].”
The New York Times today reported that the country has both enthusiasts and detractors of the young crown prince. Some are thrilled with his ideas to bring his country out from under oil dependence. Yet “[o]thers see him as brash, power-hungry and inexperienced, and they resent him for bypassing his elder relatives and concentrating so much power in one branch of the family,” the New York Times writes.
This power struggle has been coming for some time
This is not just a power struggle within the Saudi royal family.
As the New York Times noted today, the recently arrested Alwaleed bin Talal was among a group of wealthy buyers who sank money into Donald Trump’s Plaza Hotel in New York. Despite this, the Times notes, Trump and Alwaleed clashed publicly on Twitter in the early days of the 2016 campaign. This bitter exchange highlights that clash:
.@realDonaldTrump— الوليد بن طلال (@Alwaleed_Talal) December 11, 2015
You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.
Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win.
After the election, as the BBC wrote Sunday, Alwaleed quickly tried to make amends.
President elect @realDonaldTrump whatever the past differences, America has spoken, congratulations & best wishes for your presidency.— الوليد بن طلال (@Alwaleed_Talal) November 9, 2016
Earlier this fall the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and two other high-ranking administration officials were in Saudi Arabia for talks. News only broke of that trip six days ago. Politico noted last week that Kushner’s interlocutors were not revealed to the press, but that the young adviser has created a special relationship with the similarly aged Crown Prince Salman.