Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to the world’s attention last November when, soon after being appointed heir, he ordered the arrests of hundreds of princes, businessmen and government officials on corruption and money-laundering charges.
Most were interned in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Detainees included the Crown Prince’s one-time rival, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah (a former head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and son of former King Abdullah); the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi’s most famous investor and one of the world’s richest men (he is also owner of The Savoy hotel in London) — who told Reuters he maintained his innocence of any corruption; and other royals thought to resent his rise to power.
All but 56 have now been released, most after reaching undisclosed settlements.
It is claimed that between £70 billion and £500 billion of fraudulently obtained money and assets have been recovered.
Bin Salman also wrested control of all three branches of the Saudi security forces, and has since appointed his own yes-men to all leadership posts in the armed forces.
However, while his short-term position has clearly been strengthened, many fear that he has created the risk of long- term instability.
How much loyalty he commands will become clear when his father abdicates and he ascends to the throne.
Saudi Arabia has the world’s biggest known oil reserves, and the massive petroleum sector generates almost half the country’s gross domestic product.
This immense wealth has given the 15,000-strong royal family more than £215 bn a year to spend.
The majority of this pays for defence, local infrastructure and development, and an extensive welfare programme — for example housing and education grants and bonuses for civil servants.
Undoing a century of Wahhabi influence is a tall order, but the Crown Prince has already made extraordinary progress. Cinemas are opening for the first time since the Seventies.
Jazz festivals, rap concerts, and even fashion shows are suddenly the norm.
Five thousand live entertainment events are scheduled for this year — in a country where, until just a few months ago, football matches and beheadings were the only forms of public entertainment.
Women will be allowed to drive from June, they no longer need permission from a male guardian to open a business, and they can now join the military as soldiers.
A senior cleric has issued a ruling saying women are not obliged to wear the abaya, a long robe-like dress, in public, and the goal is for women to make up one third of the workforce by 2030.
The religious police have been severely curtailed, and a draft Saudi initiative to stop funding and promoting Wahhabism abroad has been sent to leading Western officials for consultation.
Saudi Arabia allocates 10 per cent of its annual budget to defence (compared with 3.3 per cent in the U.S. and 2 per cent in the UK).
That figure is set to increase dramatically over the coming years. The combined manpower of the armed forces — at least 700,000 — is impressive for a country with a native population of about 20 million.
As is the arsenal at their disposal. This includes Eurofighter Typhoons, American F-15 Eagle fighter jets, M1A2 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley fighting vehicles and Black Hawk helicopters.
The navy’s vessels are also made to order in American or European shipyards. There’s just one problem — and it’s a big one.
Much of the weaponry bought in the initial spending sprees of the Eighties and Nineties was bought by princes as a way of securing kickbacks for themselves from arms suppliers, and was left to rust in the desert.
The Crown Prince recently unceremoniously fired the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the army commander and the air defence chief.
One of the most pressing questions for the new Crown Prince is how he will pick his way through the tangled religious politics in the region.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia has viewed Iran as its main rival. Tensions came to a head in 2011 with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
Along with Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia gave Sunni rebel groups billions of dollars in a bid to oust President Assad. The resulting Syrian war — which also served as a proxy conflict between Saudi and Iran — has cost at least half a million lives.