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Saudi Crown Prince Spends Weekend Stifling Dissent And Triggering Oil Price War

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Saudi Arabia's crown prince spent the weekend throwing international oil markets into chaos and crushing dissent at home. The move raises alarm again about Mohammed bin Salman's leadership. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam joins us now in the studio. Welcome, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So there are credible reports that dozens of people, including Saudi royals, have been arrested over the past few days. What more have you learned?

NORTHAM: Yes, at least three senior Saudi princes were detained, and they're considered part of the inner circle of the royal family. And that includes a full brother to Saudi Arabia's King Salman. Military officers and government officials were also rounded up and detained by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and he is the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom and is a man, Audie, who brooks no dissent.

You'll recall the CIA determined that the crown prince had direct links to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We understand that some people have been released, but this is a very closed society. And it's really hard to get real-time information out of there.

CORNISH: What triggered this? Any sense of the reason behind the crackdown?

NORTHAM: I reached out to Saudi Arabia's embassy here in Washington, D.C., looking for clarification, and I got no response so far. But Saudi watchers believe there are one of two reasons why this happened. The first is that King Salman, who's 84 years old and in frail health, is close to death, and Crown Prince Mohammed wanted to consolidate his power ahead of that. The other school of thought is that the crown prince feared the people that he detained were plotting against him. Ellen Wald, the author of "Saudi, Inc." says the arrests show the crown prince is worried about a challenge to his power.

ELLEN WALD: It really does show an element of fear on the part of the monarchy, whether or not there was even a plot to overthrow him. And this is really a warning to them.

NORTHAM: Now, a prominent Saudi commentator who has been close to the royal family, Ali Shihabi, tweeted that rumors of the king's death or a possible coup are nonsense. But he acknowledged there are a lot of quote, "disenfranchised royals" who are deeply displeased with the prince.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what you mean by disenfranchised royals? I mean, why do they feel left out?

NORTHAM: Well, there's a lot of dissatisfaction with how the crown prince has been leading the country since he became heir to the throne three-plus years ago. You know, he maneuvered himself into that position by sidelining royal rivals. He rounded up hundreds of princes and businessmen, you recall, and held them at the Ritz Carlton for several months. And his ambitious plans to overhaul the kingdom's economy have floundered.

Now, you know, it would be one thing if all this remained in Saudi Arabia. But as we saw today, the crown prince's decision to increase oil production, effectively slashing the price per barrel, means his actions go far beyond Saudi's borders.

CORNISH: It had such an impact on the stock market today. Why did the crown prince decide to boost oil production?

NORTHAM: It's part of a bitter spat with Russia. Saudi Arabia was pressing Moscow to lower production in order to keep prices up. But Moscow refused, so suddenly Saudi Arabia decided to pump more, which drove prices down. And I spoke with Noah Brenner, who's an analyst at Energy Intelligence, and he said traditionally technocrats in Saudi Arabia would have made those decisions.

NOAH BRENNER: Now, you know, we see with Prince Mohammed fully in control of what's happening, there's definitely a potential for greater volatility and as well, you know, seeing that personal aspect move into this.

BRENNER: And Brenner says it's his understanding that the decision to boost oil production came after Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to take a phone call from the crown prince.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.