By Alexandra Prior
Rabat – By effectively jailing a number of princes and ministers in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is both respecting deep-seated tribal customs and signaling their demise.
Late Saturday night, reports spread that the recently appointed crown prince of Saudi Arabia made the unprecedented decision to arrest 11 Saudi princes, four current Saudi ministers, and 10 former ministers on counts of corruption.
Crown Prince Bin Salman ordered the arrests just hours after he formed a new anti-corruption committee within the Saudi government. The event had almost immediate international repercussions, including massive declines in the Saudi stock market and uncertainty for many of the companies in which one of the detained princes—billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal—has invested millions of dollars.
Most recently, several claims have been made as to the whereabouts of the arrested Saudi officials. Photos show what appear to be the Saudi princes sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor of a conference room in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Ironically, many of the princes and ministers attended a conference there last month, held on the stage of the very same room in which they are now captive.
However ridiculous-seeming the five-star treatment of the group of Saudi officials is, it is not entirely unreasonable. The Saudi monarchy and society at large is based on a deep-rooted history of tribalism—a social structure in which the worst offense is insulting a family patriarch or a senior authority figure.
The unprecedented purge of his senior family members was a risky move for the new crown prince, especially because different branches of the royal family are already in conflict with each other. Additionally, among those arrested are some of the wealthiest men not only in Saudi Arabia, but in the entire world—Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of the king, is worth an estimated USD 18 billion.
The tribal dynamics within the royal family support the reports that the prisoners are being held in the Ritz Carlton—throwing them in prison would have been an unacceptable humiliation that Prince bin Salman would have had to pay the price for.
However, if the accused are ultimately found guilty of their charges and end up in jail, this purge could represent a massive shift in the kingdom—a shift away from the nepotism and tribalism on which the Saudi government is based, and towards treating everyone, prince or otherwise, equally under the law.