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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Appears To Be Shifting How Power Works In The Kingdom


In Saudi Arabia, a five-star hotel was turned into a kind of five-star jail this weekend. Saudi's crown prince was behind a series of corruption arrests and confined several princes to the Ritz-Carlton. Those arrested include former and current cabinet members and a billionaire businessman who is one of the richest people in the world. The arrests have shocked and excited people in the kingdom. NPR's Deborah Amos covers Saudi Arabia and is with us now. Hey, Deb.


MCEVERS: So what's going on here? Is this just about corruption, or is it about something more?

AMOS: You know, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been signaling his moves for months, and the arrests were announced hours after he is named to head an anti-corruption commission. For the Saudis, the arrest list was astonishing. These are powerful, wealthy people thought to be untouchable in the kingdom. But as a supporter of the crown prince told me yesterday, these names are associated with corruption.

And the crackdown is popular on the Saudi street, which means on Twitter. One particular tweet caught my eye. Someone asked if MBS, as the crown prince is known, has pulled off a Red Wedding, a reference to the American TV show "Game Of Thrones" and a particularly bloody family massacre.

MCEVERS: So why is this popular with people in Saudi Arabia?

AMOS: Well, he has done a couple of things that seemed designed to appeal to Saudi's overwhelmingly young population. Here's one example. He's reopening an investigation into the 2009 disaster in the city of Jeddah, where more than 100 people died after torrential rains inundated that city. Many Saudis blame real estate corruption for the high death count, but no high official was ever held to account. The government has announced new trials for as many as 320 defendants, some who were already acquitted in local courts.

MCEVERS: So if the crown prince is responding to people's concerns in this way, does that mean that he will allow more democracy in a country that's long been run by a monarchy and that has a record for punishing dissenters?

AMOS: Not likely. Some of those dissenters have also been punished, but it appears the crown prince is trying to shift away from the way that power works in the kingdom. You know, for decades, the royal family worked through consensus glacially slow. Now supporters of the crown prince say that system is finished. You can't make hard decisions through family consensus.

The crown prince seems to be aggressively trying to modernize the kingdom. He's appealing to this youth generation. He's already made some highly controversial moves in the kingdom, including a royal decree that allows women to drive. He's limited the power of the religious police.

So this time, the target was the business community. There's one arrest that doesn't fit the pattern, and that's the head of Saudi Arabia's national guard. And so what it means now is that this crown prince is in charge of all of Saudi Arabia's security departments.

MCEVERS: So could this also be interpreted as he's getting rid of some of his enemies?

AMOS: Well, he has no challengers at this point. But it is expected that he will become king sooner rather than later. And I think the National Guard was one last card that needed to be dealt with.

MCEVERS: This comes at a time of course of regional turmoil - the war in Yemen on Saudi's southern borders heating up. Saudi Arabia closed Yemeni airspace over the weekend. What's going on there?

AMOS: Well, the Saudis say that a missile fired at the Saudi airport over the weekend didn't hit anybody, didn't injure anybody. But still, it was targeted at the Saudi capital, was an act of war. And the Saudis say that this is all Iran's doing, that they back the rebels in Yemen, that they supplied the missiles. And the Saudis say this is an act of war. This is heating up this rivalry between the Iranians and the Saudis. This closing of the airspace and the ports will only make the devastation in Yemen much worse. These are people that depend on humanitarian aid to survive.

MCEVERS: NPR's Deborah Amos, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "SMOKE AND MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.