- Saudi Arabia experienced an unprecedented weekend in both internal affairs and external relations.
- At the center of the changes is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
- A surprise anti-corruption purge launched Saturday by Mohammed arrested at least 11 princes, along with dozens of government ministers.
- And a prominent member of the royal family died in a helicopter crash.
Saudi Arabia experienced an unprecedented weekend that saw the upheaval of leading government officials and business figures, as well as increased tension with the kingdom’s rival, Iran.
At the center of the changes is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the next in line to the Saudi throne. Mohammed has been publicly pushing for economic modernisation for the kingdom and recently said he would lead the country back to “moderate Islam.”
Arguably the most noteworthy of the weekend’s actions is the surprise anti-corruption purge launched Saturday by Mohammed. At least 11 princes were arrested, along with dozens of government ministers.
“With the weekend detentions, Crown Prince Prince Mohammad bin Salman has succeeded in controlling all three Saudi security services, while cowing both conservative and reform-minded clerics — an unprecedented consolidation of power in the country’s history,” strategic consultancy firm The Soufan Group wrote in a Monday note.
Here’s what you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s ground-shaking weekend:
A purge of princes and ministers
Saturday’s arrests hit at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s government and business communities.
Among the 11 royals arrested were Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a prominent investor, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the now-removed head of the National Guard.
Alwaleed, a billionaire investor in US companies such as Twitter and Citigroup, is the owner of investment firm Kingdom Holding and is one of the world’s wealthiest men.
Miteb, as the head of the National Guard, oversaw protection of the royal Al Saud family, as well as important religious, oil, and gas sites.
By removing and replacing Miteb, Mohammed — who is also defence minister — sidelined a powerful rival. It appears that in addition to his role as defence minister, Mohammed will now have indirect control over the head of National Guard and the interior minister, who oversees internal security.
Other officials that were replaced by Mohammed include the minister of economy and planning, as well as the commander of Saudi Naval Forces.
The ousted princes and ministers are being held in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The government said over the weekend that the anti-corruption committee headed by Mohammed has the right to issue arrest warrants, impose travel restrictions, and freeze bank accounts.
A deadly helicopter crash
Hundreds of miles away from Riyadh on Sunday, another prominent member of the Saudi royal family died when his helicopter crashed during a tour of coastal projects in the west of the kingdom.
Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, the recently named deputy governor of Saudi Arabia’s Asir province, was the son of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who was at one point the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Seven other government officials were reportedly killed in the helicopter with Mansour.
Saudi’s government has not given a reason for the crash, but said a search of the wreckage was underway, according to the Associated Press. Reports have noted that the crash site is about 100 miles from Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been fighting Houthi rebels since March 2015.
Tensions rise with Iran
Aside from the internal upheaval in the kingdom, this weekend also highlighted Saudi Arabia’s rising tensions with regional rival Iran.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen — resigned on Saturday during a trip to Saudi Arabia. Hariri is part of a joint government that includes Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group, and he used his resignation speech to publicly criticise both.
After Hariri’s resignation, one member of Lebanon’s parliament told CNN, “We are back to an escalation between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Lebanese front.”
The same day, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile targeting King Khalid International Airport in the capital city of Riyadh. The missile was launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are also backed by Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister tweeted on Monday that the kingdom reserved the right to respond to Iran’s “hostile actions.”
A Saudi-led military coalition announced Monday it would close all air, land, and sea ports to Yemen, a move they claimed would lessen the flow of arms from Iran to the Houthi rebels, but which may also worsen a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
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