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Saudi Arabia's crown prince in sweeping crackdown on dissident voices

New Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) talks with his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, whom he has replaced as heir to the throne, at a Gulf summit on December 9, 2015
FAYEZ NURELDINE (AFP/File)
Saudi's counter-terrorism agency said they are monitoring those who were in touch with 'foreign parties'

Saudi authorities have rounded up an estimated thirty clerics, activists, journalists, commentators and artists over the last week in a bid to hush dissident voices in the oil-rich absolute monarchy, human rights groups and families of the detained said.

"In recent years, we cannot recall a week in which so many prominent Saudi Arabian figures have been targeted in such a short space of time," Amnesty International's Samah Hadid said.

Authorities appeared to confirm the crackdown, with the country's counter-terrorism agency saying they were monitoring a group of people who were in touch with "foreign parties" with the aim of harming Saudi interests, according to a report in the Saudi Press Agency.

The Kingdom, a close ally of the United States and generous buyer of Western-made military equipment, has also slapped travel bans on government critics, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“This is unlike anything Saudis have experienced before,” Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi political commentator who is in self-imposed exile in the US told the paper.

“It was becoming so suffocating back at home that I was beginning to fear for myself,” he said. The Al-Hayat newspaper, based in London but owned by a member of the royal family, has reportedly pulled his regular columns. 

Speculation is rife that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is tilling the ground for the abdication of his father, King Salman.

Mohammed HUWAIS (AFP)

“Mohammed bin Salman is definitely preparing to become king,” the Wall Street Journal quoted a Saudi government adviser as saying on Wednesday. “He wants to tackle the internal debate about him becoming the king and focus on consolidating his power, rather than doing that while being distracted by dissidents.”

Mohammed bin Salman is seen as the driving force behind Saudi Arabia's leadership of a war against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Syria, in which thousands of civilians have died.

The young prince has also been a chief architect of Riyadh's diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar, who he accuses of funding terrorism, agitating for regime change and getting too close to the Kingdom's bitter regional rival, Iran.

According to activists, those arrested over the past week included clerics Salman al-Awdah and Awad al-Qarni.

The preachers, who have millions of followers on social media, were among Saudi clerics who opposed the presence of US troops in the kingdom during the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait.

Following a highly-publicized telephone call between the Crown Prince and the emir of Qatar, Al-Awdah tweeted his hope that it would lead to a resolution of the months-long dispute between the two resource-rich Sunni kingdoms.

Shortly afterwards, he was arrested.

MANDEL NGAN (AFP)

His brother, Khalid, was also arrested after tweeting about the disappearance of his brother, the New York Times reported.

Amnesty International said the rights situation in the Gulf state had "deteriorated markedly" since Mohammed bin Salman took over as crown prince and heir to the throne on 21 June. 

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO, also criticized the crackdown.

"Outlandish sentences against peaceful activists and dissidents demonstrate Saudi Arabia's complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform," the group's Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said. 

It is unclear how the United States would react to such a dramatic changing of the guard in Saudi Arabia.

President Donald Trump made his first official overseas visit to Riyadh, where he appeared to take seriously King Salman's counsel, calling him a "very wise man". 

(AFP contributed to this report)

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