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WASHINGTON - Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud was among dozens of arrested princes and former government ministers as part of a sweeping anti-corruption probe in the counrty.

A high-level employee at Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding said the royal - one of the world’s richest men - was among those detained overnight on Saturday.

The surprise arrests, reportedly also including two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, were hailed by pro-government media outlets as the greatest sign yet that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is keeping his promise to reform the country, long plagued by allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government.

Untouchable

Analysts have suggested the arrest of once-untouchable members of the royal family is the latest sign that the crown prince, 32, is moving to quash potential rivals or critics. The prince’s swift rise to power has unnerved elder members of the ruling Al Saud family, which has long ruled by consensus, though ultimate decision-making lies with the monarch.

The king named his son, the crown prince, as head of an anti-corruption committee established late on Saturday, hours before the arrests.

A Saudi government official said 11 princes and 38 others are being held in five-star hotels across the capital, Riyadh.

The scale of the arrests is unprecedented in Saudi Arabia, where senior royals and their business associates were seen as operating above the law. Saudi nationals have long complained of rampant corruption in government and of public funds being squandered or misused by people in power.

Shortly before the arrests, King Salman had ousted Prince Miteb bin Abdullah as head of the National Guard. The prince is reportedly among those detained in the sweep, as is his brother, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, once governor of Riyadh. Both are sons of the late King Abdullah, who ruled before his half brother King Salman. Prince Miteb was once a contender for the throne.

Saudi Twitter accounts released several other arrests: Alwalid al-Ibrahim, a Saudi businessman with ties to the royal family who runs the Arabic satellite group MBC; Amr al-Dabbagh, the former head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority; Ibrahim Assaf, the former finance minister; and Bakr Binladin, head of the Saudi Binladin Group, a major business conglomerate.

“The dismissals and detentions suggest that Prince Mohammed rather than forging alliances is extending his iron grip on the ruling family, the military, and the national guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war,” James M Dorsey, a Gulf specialist, said.

Saudi Arabia said late on Saturday it intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen at Riyadh International Airport. The crown prince, as defence minister, oversees the stalemated war against Yemen’s Iranian-allied rebels.

The Finance Ministry said the anti-corruption probe “opens a new era of accountability”, enhances the rule of law and improves the kingdom’s investment climate.

It is not clear what Prince Alwaleed or others are being investigated for. The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel said the anti-corruption probe was looking into the response to flooding in Jiddah that killed around 120 people in 2009 and devastated the city again in 2011, and the government’s handling of a Coronavirus outbreak that killed several hundred in recent years.

Prince Alwaleed’s investments include Twitter, Apple, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, Citigroup, and the Four Seasons, Fairmont and Movenpick hotel chains.

The kingdom’s top council of clerics said it was an Islamic duty to fight corruption - essentially giving religious backing to the arrests. A top royal court official, Barr al-Asaker, tweeted about a “historic and black night against the corrupt”. The anti-graft body can issue arrest warrants and freeze bank accounts. 

- AP