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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has seized most levers of power since rising from relative obscurity, is trying to diversify the biggest Arab economy away from oil and open up the deeply conservative Muslim country by easing strict social rules and promoting entertainment.
He has won praise at home and abroad for his modernisation efforts, but he has also provoked unease with an anti-corruption purge last year, when scores of royals and top businessmen were detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.
Most were freed after reaching settlements with the government in a secretive campaign that sent shockwaves through the business community.
The arrest this month of nearly a dozen prominent activists, mostly women who for years urged reforms that are now being implemented and trumpeted abroad, has further disconcerted Western allies. Diplomats were unnerved that state-backed media had labelled the activists as “agents of the embassies”.
“It’s tough because to date we’ve been encouraging of the Saudi reform agenda,” one diplomat said.
“The Saudi government seems to be sending a message to friendly governments not to engage with anyone at all on government-led social reform, even where the messages we are hearing are supportive of the government and echoing what the government’s own international PR campaigns are saying.”
The official reason for the arrests was suspicious contact with foreign entities and offering financial support to overseas enemies. No details were provided and security spokesmen have not responded to requests for comment.
Following the latest arrests, diplomats in Riyadh have begun questioning how serious the kingdom is about change. Activists say the move signals that political openness will not be allowed to follow social liberalisation.
“It sends a message domestically that don’t even think about opposing any government policy, but the message internationally is completely different,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen from Texas-based Rice University’s Baker Institute.
He said it was difficult to assess the “opaque” decision-making process behind the crackdown.
“We just have no idea. It reinforces the perception that policymaking now is more unpredictable and concentrated in the hands of one man who perhaps lacks some of the decades of experience that his predecessors had.”
Prince Mohammed, 32, surpassed more senior cousins to become heir apparent a year ago, concentrating power and pushing through rapid change in a country which for decades was ruled by consensus. He has also taken a more aggressive stance against arch-rival Iran, beginning a three-year-old war in Yemen and leading a boycott of fellow Gulf Arab state Qatar.
The crown prince’s defenders said he may have had to placate religious conservatives, who had also been stifled in a previous crackdown on clerics opposed to social changes like lifting bans on cinemas and women driving.
Ali Shihabi, who runs the pro-Saudi Arabia Foundation in Washington, called the arrests a mistake and damaging to Saudi Arabia’s image. But Prince Mohammed had never pretended that political openness was on the cards, he said.
“To take on such a huge task, in a country with as wide a political and social spectrum as the Kingdom faces today… can only be done in a top down authoritarian manner. Nobody in Saudi pretends otherwise,” he tweeted last week.