(TNS) — Saudi Arabian authorities are presenting the surprise arrests of dozens of royal family members, current and former government officials, and top business leaders as part of an aggressive push to root out corruption that has long plagued the kingdom and hindered attempts at reform.
But the purge, announced late Saturday by the state-run news agency and the Saudi-owned satellite network Al Arabiya, was also viewed as the latest move by its young crown prince to cement his hold on power by eliminating potential rivals for the throne.
As the favored son of King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has in less than three years amassed oversight over nearly every major aspect of the country's economy, defense, internal security, social reforms and foreign policy.
At least 11 princes, Cabinet members and "tens" of former ministers were arrested overnight on the orders of a new anti-corruption committee headed by the crown prince, Al Arabiya reported.
No names were provided, but they reportedly included Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor who has held major stakes in companies such as Twitter, Apple and Citigoup. The princes are also believed to include two of the late King Abdullah's sons, one of them a former contender for the throne.
The accusations against them were not immediately clear. But Al Arabiya said the new committee was investigating the response to flooding in the city of Jeddah that killed more than 100 people in 2009, as well as an outbreak of the sometimes fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.
"The common thread of those arrested is that they were implicated in very public scandals and corruption problems that everybody knew about," said Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. "They were the poster children of corruption."
"The message that was sent is this will no longer be tolerated," he said.
The crackdown comes at a time of social and economic upheaval in Saudi Arabia, where the crown prince popularly known as MBS has been leading a drive to modernize the ultraconservative kingdom and reduce its historic dependence on oil. His "Vision 2030" calls for liberalizing the economy and easing social restrictions to preserve stability in the face of lower oil prices and an exploding youth population that has chafed under austerity measures.
"MBS has talked about this vision as a matter of life and death for the Saudi economy," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. "Anyone who doesn't subscribe to it is liable to be seen as a person who doesn't want the kingdom to move forward."
Saudi leaders said the launch of the anti-corruption investigation heralds a "new era" of transparency and accountability — reforms that are needed to attract more investment and appease a population that has long complained about graft at the highest levels of government.
"The state will never tolerate or condone any violations of local or international business standards," Finance Minister Mohammed bin Abdullah said in a statement Sunday carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. "Nothing and no one will prevent us providing a world-class investment environment to accelerate the pace and momentum of national transformation."
President Donald Trump spoke to King Salman Saturday, as the president headed to Japan, but did not mention the crackdown in remarks afterward.
The White House Sunday released a detailed description of Trump's phone call with the king. Salman had called Trump to express his condolences after the terrorist attack in New York City in which eight people were killed, the White House said,
The two also discussed Islamic State, the successful interception of a missile attack against Riyadh from territory in neighboring Yemen, Saudi purchases of U.S. military equipment, and the expected public offering of Aramco, the national oil company. The arrests were not mentioned in the White House's description of the phone call.
News of the arrests came just hours after Salman ordered the establishment of the anti-corruption committee to counter "exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest in order to illicitly accrue money," according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
The new body has the authority to issue arrest warrants and travel bans, freeze accounts and portfolios and seize assets to be returned to the state treasury, the agency said.
Among those reportedly detained were two sons of Salman's predecessor: Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was replaced Saturday as head of the elite National Guard, and his brother, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a former governor of Riyadh. Prince Mitleb was once seen as a contender for the throne.
Also arrested, according to an unofficial list circulated by Saudi Twitter accounts, were the heads of major businesses such as the national airline, the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and the Rotana entertainment group.
The country's top religious commission endorsed the corruption investigation, declaring that "Islamic sharia commands that corruption be combatted ... and fighting it is no less important than fighting terrorism."
Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.