Call it shock and awe. Call it a purge. Call it a clean sweep. However it’s characterized, the mass arrest of some of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent royals, administrators, and tycoons last weekend has completely upended both the structure of the Saudi elite and the country’s way of doing business. It’s not exactly the Night of the Long Knives, as the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in which the detainees are being held is hardly a nightmarish gulag. But it is the latest installment in an astonishingly rapid series of upheavals whereby all power is being concentrated in the hands of elderly King Salman and his 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS.
If MbS is behaving like any of his predecessors it is King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, who founded the modern Saudi state in 1932. He is essentially positioning himself as a new Abdel Aziz who will create a new Saudi Arabia for a new era and a new economy. Clearly, he intends to do that by wiping the slate clean and beginning with an overwhelmingly strong hand that brooks no opposition. The purges are being carried out under the rubric of anti-corruption, in a populist spirit and with what appears to be a strong constituency of public support, especially among the youth. The prince is simultaneously implementing his Vision 2030, which includes an emphasis on local tourism and entertainment, and social changes deemed necessary for both modernization and economic diversification, particularly regarding women’s rights like the right to drive.