Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s wholesale arrests in Saudi Arabia have been seen as fundamentally a power play to cement his internal control over the kingdom. But his aggressive moves to reshape both his country and the Middle East are likely to have wider consequences, further destabilizing a region already in turmoil while increasing the chances of a Saudi war with Iran. At this moment, when the United States, the kingdom’s trusted ally, should be counseling restraint, President Trump unwisely keeps giving the impetuous crown prince a green light.
Prince Mohammed, 32 and inexperienced, has been shaking up the conservative kingdom ever since his father, King Salman, installed him as first in the line of succession and made him defense minister in 2015. Some of his reforms are admirable, necessary, long overdue and overwhelmingly popular with millions of younger Saudis. He has allowed women to drive and to run for municipal office, and reined in hard-line clerics. But the pace of change and the methods he has chosen to achieve it, as well as his belligerent approach toward Iran, have raised questions about his judgment.
That was certainly true on Sunday when he shattered the consensus-driven, 70-year-old governing structure by arresting as many as 500 people, who are being detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, including at least 11 princes; the head of the most important military branch, the National Guard; and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men, who has been a major shareholder in Citigroup, Apple and Twitter.
The arrests were presented as a crackdown on corruption. Some of those detained are expected to face undisclosed criminal charges, and others may be pressured to testify about their roles in corruption schemes. Corruption and entrenched interests are serious problems in Saudi Arabia, and the crackdown is expected to be welcomed by the citizenry. Even so, the kingdom does not have a credible or transparent justice system, and it is far from certain that those arrested will be treated fairly.
The roundup has rattled the markets and could undermine the crown prince’s signature project, known as Saudi Vision 2030, to catapult the country into the modern age with an economic…