Saudi Arabia rounds up princes, doubles down on Yemen: Kingdom's actions worry US

The State Department, US diplomats, the Pentagon and the CIA are all looking on with "growing alarm" as Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohammad bin Salman continues his mass purge of elite figures in the kingdom, reported The New York Times on Tuesday. Quoting a State Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity, the report said that the prince "is behaving recklessly without sufficient consideration to the likely consequences of his behaviour, and that has the potential to damage US interests."

These new remarks come on the heels of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statement last week when he admitted that the purge was raising "a few concerns".

The unprecedented roundup has seen more than 200 princes, ministers and businessmen detained over what Riyadh alleges is $100 billion in embezzlement, but what is also widely viewed as a move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to consolidate power ahead of his accession to the throne. The upheaval comes as Riyadh is locked in an intensifying proxy war with regional rival Tehran and enforces a crippling aid blockade of Yemen, which the United Nations has warned could trigger the world's worst famine in decades.

Tillerson, accompanying President Donald Trump on an Asian tour, said he believed the mass arrests ordered by a new anti-corruption commission headed by Prince Mohammed were "well intended". But he cautioned that the lightning roundup "raises a few concerns until we see more clearly how these particular individuals are dealt with".

US steps back from the whole-hearted support offered earlier by Trump

The top US diplomat's comments marked a step back from the fulsome support offered earlier this week by Donald Trump, who said he had "great confidence" in what the crown prince and his father King Salman were doing.

Saudi authorities have frozen the bank accounts of those accused and warned that assets related to the alleged corruption cases would be seized as state property. The crackdown comes as the young crown prince moves to accelerate his Vision 2030 programme to modernise the conservative kingdom, but also as Riyadh takes a more aggressive stance toward Iran.

Saudi blockade, Yemen 'setback'

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that a Saudi-led blockade of Yemen was threatening to undo efforts to rein in a cholera epidemic already affecting nearly one million people in the war-ravaged country. Almost 2,200 people have so far died from the waterborne disease, which has propagated rapidly due to deteriorating hygiene and sanitation conditions.

WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib warned that the Saudi-led coalition's decision to seal off Yemen's borders threatened progress made in fighting the epidemic. "We will suffer a major setback if we don't have full access to all affected areas," she told reporters in Geneva.

 Saudi Arabia rounds up princes, doubles down on Yemen: Kingdoms actions worry US

File image of King Salman (left) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). AP

The coalition imposed a blockade on all aid deliveries to rebel-held territory in the wake of a failed missile attack against Riyadh airport one week ago by Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels. Iran vehemently denied a Saudi charge that it supplied missiles to the Huthis but said they were justified in responding after years of bombardment.

Warning of new coalition

Lebanon has also become increasingly embroiled in the regional rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, prompting Tillerson to step in and urge all parties not to use the country to settle their differences. "The United States cautions against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country," Tillerson said.

International concern over Lebanon also sparked a warning from the UN chief that a new regional conflict must be averted.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "very worried" a conflict could break out in Lebanon and that he was engaged in intense contacts with all players to urge de-escalation. "It is essential that no new conflict erupt in the region," Guterres told reporters. "It would have devastating consequences."

Lebanon's prime minister Saad Hariri resigned in a shock move from the Saudi capital last week, citing Iran's "grip" on his country and threats to his life. But the head of Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement on Friday accused Saudi Arabia of holding Hariri hostage against his will. "The head of the Lebanese government is detained in Saudi Arabia, he is banned from returning to Lebanon until now," Nasrallah said in a televised address.

Foreign policy experts advise caution

Lori Plotkin Boghardt, an expert in Gulf Arab politics and US-Saudi relations at The Washington Institute, says the need for an anti-corruption drive "should not be dismissed." Nevertheless, she adds: "The scale and scope of the arrests... is unprecedented in recent Saudi history, especially of this type of elite elements. So this is a politically risky move."

The crown prince's power grab at home is mirrored in his "risky — some would say brave, some would say rash — policies in the region."

"He's essentially attempting to wipe out opponents," Boghardt said.

Simon Henderson, another Washington Institute fellow who has worked as a consultant for Arab governments, is also concerned. "The events are unprecedented and we don't know where they're going to end up and, frankly, I don't think the Saudis know where they're going to end up as well," he said.

Prince Mohammed, Henderson suspects, believes his power play will strengthen his own position and encourage foreign investment. "I think he may be wrong on both counts," he warns.

With inputs from AFP

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Updated Date: Nov 16, 2017 15:22:50 IST