Rashid Husain Syed is an energy analyst and consultant based in Riyadh and Toronto. For almost 25 years, he has served as vice-president of a leading Saudi trading and consulting house.
On an action-filled Saturday, three major events shook Riyadh to its core. First, a ballistic missile was intercepted – next to its King Khaled International Airport. Splinters of the missile were reportedly seen in the parking lot of the airport.
In the afternoon, Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation as the Lebanese Prime Minister, while still in Riyadh, reportedly under pressure from his Saudi patrons.
But the biggest story broke late in the evening, with the arrest of 11 Saudi princes, four sitting ministers and dozens of former ministers.
The level and scale of the operation are unprecedented in the recent history of Saudi Arabia.
A sense of urgency definitely has crept into the House of Salman. The young, brash, Mohammed bin Salman, wants his ascent to the throne formalized – as soon as possible.
By making the large-scale arrests, Prince bin Salman has definitely turned the table on his opponents, clearing his way to the top. Yet, he has opened a number of fronts too.
The list of those "relieved" or "arrested," makes for a stunning read. These include Prince Mita'ab bin Abdullah, the powerful head of the 100,000 plus National Guard – the force made up mainly of Shamri tribes, loyal to the late King Abdullah and his family. Prince Mita'ab himself was a strong contender for the throne. Reportedly, he was one amongst the few on the Saudi Allegiance Council, who had opposed the elevation of Prince bin Salman to the position of crown prince.
Others arrested included the maverick Saudi investor Waleed bin Talal, former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the once powerful brother-in-law of King Fahd and media house MBC owner Waleed Ibrahim, Khaled al-Tuwaijiri, the influential head of the Saudi Royal Court during King Abdullah's tenure, prominent businessman Saleh Kamel, the owner of the iconic Dallah Tower on Palestine Street in Jeddah, Adel Fakeeh, the current economic minister, Ibrahim al-Assaf, the former finance minister, Bakr bin Laden, the owner of the Saudi Binladin group, Omer Dabbagh, the former boss at the Investment Authority of the Kingdom and the Saudi naval chief, Abdullah al-Sultan.
The swift moves late Saturday follow a wave of arrests of influential clerics and activists in September. Many of those detained were reportedly against Prince bin Salman's aggressive foreign policy, as well as his agenda of reforms.
Just before the news of the purge began to break out, Saudi security forces had grounded private jets in Jeddah, possibly to prevent any high-profile figure from leaving the country, news agencies reported. In the wake of the arrests, the opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh was evacuated, to accommodate the "new" guests.
Prince bin Salman has been clearing the odds, one by one. News reports have been saying that immediately after being sidelined, former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef was put under house arrest and the guards at his palace were replaced with men loyal to the new boss – Prince bin Salman. Saudis deny it. A few other princes including Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd were also reportedly arrested last month. Similarly very few know today the fate of the people such as the powerful Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the former governor of the eastern province Prince Mohammad bin Fahd.
Even from the Salman scion – only the star of Prince bin Salmon himself has risen. Others, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the assistant oil minister (or deputy minister – as his office once insisted) remain stuck on the sidelines.
Interestingly the purge was announced within days of the low-profile visit of Jared Kushner to Riyadh. The incoming purge must have been discussed between Prince bin Salman and Mr. Kushner and it was executed only after receiving a green signal from the Trump administration, some are insisting.
In return, the Trump administration has asked the favour of listing the Aramco IPO on the NYSE. With U.S. Supreme Court cases lurking behind, listing Aramco on the NYSE poses threats. Yet, with Mr. Salman in absolute need of the support of the Trump administration, he has few options for turning down the request, some insist.
The arrests came just hours after King Salman ordered the establishment of a new anti-corruption body, with Mohammad bin Salman heading it.
Corruption has been rife in Saudi Arabia. Fingers often pointed to senior princes being involved. In the immediate aftermath of Saturday's purge, Saudi officials framed the detentions as part of the new initiative to root out graft in the kingdom.
This could be a shrewd move on the part of Prince bin Salman, as the Saudi youth may condone it as a necessary step. But the exercise also appeared to be part of the effort by the young crown prince to eliminate his rivals or critics.
With transition looming, and, King Salman reportedly not in good health, Prince bin Salman doesn't have much time at his disposal. This is a "now or never" scenario. The war is on, and, the reverberations of the "long knives" may just be starting.