06 Jan 2018 |Margherita Stancati, Summer Said and Benoit Faucon| Wall Street Journal
Saudi authorities arrested 11 princes for criticizing the government, the latest indication that the country’s rulers are moving to stamp out traces of internal dissent as it pushes through a painful economic transition.
Saudi Arabia’s attorney general said the princes were arrested after staging a sit-in outside a royal palace in Riyadh to protest the government’s decision to stop paying electricity and water bills for members of the extended royal family. He said they were also asking for compensation for the execution of a relative who was sentenced to death for murder last year.
“Despite being informed that their demands are not lawful, the 11 princes refused to leave the area, disrupting public peace and order,” Sheikh Saud al Mojeb, the attorney general, said in a statement on Saturday.
But people briefed on the event said the princes, who belong to a distant branch of the royal family, were also detained because they complained about the concentration of power in the hands of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and intended to present those grievances to his father, King Salman. They said the men were rounded up during a gathering they held in Riyadh in response to the arrest of a close relative.
The princes were taken to the high-security prison of al-Ha’ir, the attorney general said.
King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammed, have moved to consolidate their authority as they push through economic reforms aimed at reducing Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil revenues.
But as the kingdom’s government carries out a plan to overhaul the economy, it is also mindful of public criticism, particularly as mass protests triggered by economic frustrations continue in rival Iran. As a result, it is trying to cushion the pain felt among ordinary Saudis.
In a royal decree issued late Friday, the monarch ordered a one-off 1,000-riyal ($267) bonus payment for all state employees and soldiers to ease pressure of the rising cost of living after the government increased the price of gasoline and electricity and introduced a 5% value-added-tax on Jan. 1. He also ordered a 5,000-riyal bonus payment for soldiers fighting in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, among other perks.
In a statement, the government said the handouts were intended to “soften the impact of economic reforms on Saudi households.”
The government, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed, is also taking steps to reel in the royal family.
Several senior princes were among the 200 people detained in November as part of a crackdown on corruption. About two dozen detainees were freed after paying cash settlements. Others, including billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, remain at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which in effect has become a five-star prison.
This week’s detention mostly targeted members of the Saud al Kabeer branch of the royal family, who are far removed from the center of power, according to the people familiar with the matter. They had gathered following the arrest of one of their relatives, Prince Bander bin Abdullah, after he wrote a message on Twitter critical of the monarchy on Jan. 2
The economic reforms, he said in the message, were partly intended to “restructure the House of Saud by the crown prince.”
Among the other grievances discussed by the princes who were rounded up was the government’s decision to stop paying utility bills for royals.
“They met because they wanted to protest to the king about what MBS is doing,” said a person close to the royal family. “They wanted to tell the king: ‘Now we are considered outsiders. MBS is stripping us of perks and privileges.’”
Opening up the economy to outside investors, a goal of the economic reforms, threatens the interests of royals who have long benefited from a business climate that values personal connections.
The government is also considering reducing—or abolishing—the monthly stipends that are paid to thousands of members of the House of Saud. That sum is smaller for distant royals than it is for the direct descendants of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Only his male descendants are eligible to assume the throne.