Are stunning Saudi corruption arrests about reforms or power? Yes.

Saudi Arabia's young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has instituted an array of moderate reforms even as he has moved quickly to quiet dissent and marginalize his rivals. The bold arrest of Saudi 'untouchables' on corruption charges is no exception.

In Mecca, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (l.), kissed the hand of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, shortly after replacing him as crown prince in a palace coup in June. The surprise dismissal and arrest on Nov. 4 of dozens of ministers, royals, officials, and senior military officers by the new crown prince is unprecedented in the secretive, 85-year-old kingdom, but so is the rise to the throne of a 30-something royal who, in another first, is succeeding his father.

It was a scene never before seen in Saudi Arabia: 49 princes, ministers, and tycoons – the untouchables – being arrested on corruption charges.

While some analysts have portrayed the move as a chilling purge of political rivals, others say Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is making good on his promise for no less than a new social contract for Saudi Arabia.

In fact, both appear to be correct. Mohammed bin Salman is killing two birds with one stone, observers say: ingratiating himself with a public that is sick of royal family excess, while moving swiftly to eliminate the last vestiges of opposition within the kingdom to his growing power.

The 32-year-old crown prince, who has styled himself as a modern reformer, has in less than a year pushed through radical economic, social, and political changes in the static conservative kingdom, notably loosening strictures on women and tightening the regime’s constraints on hard-line clerics.

Now he is making the argument that reigning in Saudi Arabia’s previously untouchable super-elites is part and parcel with modernizing Saudi’s economy.

With Saudi Arabia looking at life beyond oil, a $52 billion budget deficit, and inevitable cuts in government welfare and jobs, gone is the era where princes and princesses could siphon billions of dollars from the treasury with impunity, his supporters argue.

Sure enough, corruption has long been a much-talked-about issue among citizens behind closed doors in Saudi Arabia. With the dramatic drop in oil prices in 2015, the talk was only amplified.

Where is the money going?

Driving through the neighborhoods of Riyadh, middle-class Saudis would point out the various palaces of princes and princesses and their staff, discuss how much funds they took, how much land and investments they have in Jeddah and London, down to the dollar.

“I think there is probably a general sense in Saudi society of royal inefficiency, and corruption is a part of that,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“People look at their poor infrastructure and say: We have all this money, where is it going?”

The sense of corruption is compounded by the fact there are no clear lines between royal allowances and public funds. With members of the royal family numbering more than 12,000 – many living a lavish lifestyle – some average Saudis privately see many royals as “parasites” living off of Saudi Arabia’s wealth.

The crown prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 calls for increasing the private-sector contribution to the gross domestic product by an additional 25 percent, cutting unemployment to 7 percent, and scaling back government spending.

However, an attempt to cut back special allowances and bonuses for civil servants and military personnel, which account for 45 percent of government spending, was reversed last year after fierce opposition.

If the crown prince is to finally follow through on the pledge to cut back government handouts to revolutionize the economy, supporters say he will first need to show his willingness to crack down on the royal family.

It is more than a crackdown on graft, supporters say. It is the drawing up of a new social contract.

“It was always that the prince comes before the citizen, the minister before the ordinary employee,” writes analyst Jasser Al Jasser in today’s edition of the pro-palace Al Jazirah newspaper.

“Therefore, the response of King Salman to the scourge of corruption means that a real war has been declared on the corrupt, whatever their position in society.”

Reaction to the crackdown has been pronounced on social media. Many Saudis have been rejoicing on Twitter with hashtags such as #Saudifightscorruption and #Saudibecomingfirstworldcountry.

Despite tapping into populist sentiment and his promises to redistribute wealth, Mohammed bin Salman has taken no vow of poverty, and with his anti-corruption campaign he opens himself to criticism and potential accusations of hypocrisy.

He has a personal wealth of untold millions and owns several palaces and a private army. His splash purchase while on holiday in France shortly after being named deputy crown prince in 2015 – a $550 million yacht owned by a Russian vodka tycoon – is talked about in Riyadh and other Arab capitals.

Power play

Yet with the selection of the targets of the corruption crackdown, the crown prince sent a clear message to his royal rivals, Saudi citizens, and the rest of the world.

By arresting Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, one of the wealthiest businessmen on the planet, billionaire businessmen Mohammed Al Amoudi, and media mogul Walled Al Ibrahim, Mohammed bin Salman signaled that no-one would be above the new set of rules he is laying out.

The other targets of his roundup were clearly political.

Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, son of the previous Saudi king and contender for the throne, was detained and then replaced from the National Guard, the only check on Mohammed bin Salman’s control of the army and security services. With Prince Mutaib out of the ministry, and the arrest of Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the descendants of the late King Abdullah have been all but purged from official posts.

Observers note the speed with which Mohammed bin Salman is moving.

Having orchestrated an in-palace coup in June by replacing then-crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and pushing through rapid social change such as allowing the women the right to drive and pledging to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate” Islam, the ambitious young prince is set to stamp out dissent within the royal family before it has a chance to respond.

“I think a major factor is anxiety,” says Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and Saudi expert at the Brookings Institution.

“I think he knows that he stirred up a hornet’s nest, and that with his bold policies and the removal of Mohammed bin Nayef a few months ago has caused a lot of rioting in the royal family,” says Mr. Riedel.

The crown prince “knows if he doesn’t consolidate power now, it will slip away from him.”

“This is the final sweeping of the deck; he has already removed real challengers,” says Carnegie’s Mr. Wehrey. 

“The question is: Is this ambition sustainable?”

Atmosphere of disbelief

No matter the motivations, among some in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family kept disagreements away from the public eye and behind closed doors, the sight of princes being arrested and their properties taken away has created an atmosphere of disbelief bordering on paranoia.

Unsubstantiated reports have circulated on social media that Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, favored son of the late King Fahd and a young rival to Mohammed bin Salman, was shot and killed while resisting arrest Sunday.

With no official reports on the prince’s whereabouts or health as of Tuesday, Twitter has been awash with conspiracy theories on why the prince was “eliminated.” Palace intrigue has now become a spectator blood sport.

“Everyone in the family now has to fear that they might be next,” Riedel says.

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