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RIYADH, Nov 6, (Agencies): A campaign of mass arrests of Saudi Arabian royals, ministers and businessmen widened on Monday after a top entrepreneur was reportedly held in the biggest anti-corruption purge of the kingdom’s affluent elite in its modern history. The arrests are the latest in a series of dramatic steps by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to assert Saudi influence internationally and centralise his own power within a hereditary ruling system at home.
The campaign also lengthens an already daunting list of challenges undertaken by the 32-year-old since his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015, including going to war in Yemen, cranking up Riyadh’s confrontation with arch-foe Iran and reforming the economy to lessen its reliance on oil.
Both allies and adversaries are quietly astonished that a kingdom once obsessed with stability has acquired such a taste for assertive — some would say impulsive — policymaking. The crackdown has drawn no public opposition within the kingdom either on the street or social media. Many ordinary Saudis applauded the arrests, the latest in a series of domestic and international moves asserting the prince’s authority.
But outside the kingdom, critics perceive the purge as a further sign of intolerance from a power-hungry leader keen to stop infl uential opponents blocking his economic reforms or reversing the expansion of his own political clout. In an article in the Washington Post newspaper, prominent Saudi columnist Jamal Kashoggi applauded the anti-graft campaign but added: “He is imposing very selective justice.” “The crackdown on even the most constructive criticism — the demand for complete loyalty with a signifi cant ‘or else’ — remains a serious challenge to the crown prince’s desire to be seen as a modern, enlightened leader,” Kashoggi wrote. “The buck stops at the leader’s door. He is not above the standard he is now setting for the rest of his family, and for the country.”
The Saudi stock index initially fell 1.5 percent in early trade, and Al Tayyar Travel plunged 10 percent in the opening minutes after the company quoted media reports as saying board member Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar had been held by authorities. The stock exchange, or Tadawul, closed effectively fl at, up 0.09 percent, rebounding in afternoon trade.
The company gave no details but online economic news service SABQ, which is close to the government, reported Tayyar had been detained in an investigation by a new anti-corruption body headed by Crown Prince Mohammed. Dozens of people have been detained in the crackdown, which has consolidated Prince Mohammed’s power while alarming much of the traditional business establishment. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s best-known international investor, is also being held, officials said at the weekend.
The front page of leading Saudi newspaper Okaz challenged businessmen on Monday to reveal the sources of their assets, asking: “Where did you get this?” in bright red text. Another headline from Saudi-owned al-Hayat warned: “After the launch (of the anti-corruption drive), the noose tightens, whomever you are!” A no-fly list has been drawn up and security forces in some Saudi airports were barring owners of private jets from taking off without a permit, pan- Arab daily Al-Asharq Al-Awsat said. Among those detained are 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers, according to Saudi officials. The allegations against the men include money laundering, bribery, extortion and taking advantage of public office for personal gain, a Saudi official told Reuters.
Those accusations could not be independently verified and family members of those detained could not be reached. Saudi Arabian banks have begun freezing the accounts of suspects ensnared in an anti-corruption probe, banking and business sources told Reuters on Monday. The central bank ordered banks to freeze the accounts of people under investigation in the probe, the sources said, declining to be named because he was not authorised to talk to media.
Two of the sources said the number of accounts affected could run into the hundreds, but none of the sources mentioned the names of those affected. “The freezing of accounts has already happened,” said another source. “The freezing is a precautionary measure that will end as soon as the suspects are either charged or pronounced innocent.” A central bank spokesman was not immediately available to comment. Meanwhile, Saudi King Salman on Monday swore in new officials to take over from a powerful prince and former minister believed to be detained in a large-scale sweep that has shocked the country and upended longstanding traditions within the ruling family.
The official Saudi Press Agency released images of the king swearing in new National Guard chief Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin and new Economy and Planning Minister Mohammad al-Tuwaijri. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who for the past four years had led the National Guard, and Adel Fakeih, who was minister of economy since April, were both reportedly arrested as part of a purported anti-corruption probe led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Prince Miteb was once considered a contender for the throne, though he has not been thought of recently as a challenger to Prince Mohammed. The arrests began late Saturday. Eleven princes and 38 officials and businessmen are reportedly being held at five-star hotels across the capital, Riyadh.