Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched what he calls an anti-corruption campaign in early November last year. The crackdown led to the arrest of at least 200 of the Kingdom's wealthy elite, including businessmen, ministers and princes. The crown prince evacuated the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh and converted it into an opulent, marble-laden detention center.
Many of those detained have since been released, including billionaire businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (the crown prince's cousin), who owns shares in Twitter and has invested in luxury hotel chains around the globe. He was held alongside wealthy Saudi elite like Waleed al Ibrahim, chairman of Middle East Broadcasting Center.
According to the country's attorney general, the Saudi Arabian government collected over $100 billion in settlements as detainees handed over money, assets and shares in exchange for their release.
Analysts hold differing views on the crown prince's motives, but many maintain that it was a push to consolidate power.
"Calling it an anti-corruption probe is to buy into the line of Mohammed bin Salman, and his branch of the family," said James Gelvin, UCLA professor of Modern Middle Eastern studies. "What it really is, in effect, is an attempt to consolidate power in the branch, and this is one of several steps that have been taken in order to do that."
But Umer Karim, a researcher at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom trusts the official explanation. He said that the detentions will initiate a "swift and productive" anti-corruption campaign and is optimistic about their potential for positive change.
"This drive ends the traditional fiefdom culture within the Saudi system where one government department was totally under the control of a prince and he could financially patronize anyone by awarding contracts without due process," said Karim. "The new Saudi decision-making system is a very centralized one with the king and by extension the crown prince as ultimate deciding authority."
Some experts have offered an alternative explanation for the probe, suggesting it was intentionally orchestrated to collect billions of dollars in settlements from wealthy detainees.
"The prince has been able to get more than $100 billion from these figures in roughly three months without going into lengthy judicial proceedings that take
years to settle," said Karim.
Ben Rich, an international relations lecturer at Curtin University in Australia, noted that the Saudi government has financial concerns that may have prompted the detentions.
"[The Probe] sought to secure money for the administration to continue its painful economic reforms that have helped contribute to the rising debt in the midst of downward trending oil prices."
But Gelvin argues that the Al Saud family is itself very wealthy, and that the crackdown is more about consolidating power.
"The question of whether or not the crown prince is motivated by money I think is a moot point. I think the crown prince has his fair share – let's put it that way… he does not want for money," Gelvin said, pointing to Mohammed bin Salman's acquisitions in France, including a $300 million house.
To confound any potential explanations, experts have noted that these controversial detentions have coincided with popular social reforms propagated by the crown prince. Women will soon be allowed to drive and can now attend football games; bans on cinema and public concerts have been lifted; and the crown prince has promised a more moderate form of Islam in the country, vowing to destroy extremism.
It is difficult to reconcile these seemingly contradictory actions, but Gelvin said they share the same motivations.
"Just as the anti-corruption situation was in order to consolidate political power in this branch of the family and away from others, the movement away from so-called more radical forms of Wahhabi Islam is basically an attempt by this branch of the royal family to consolidate power and take away from [the religious] establishment," Gelvin said.
This move is unprecedented in Saudi history. The Salman family has historically been intertwined with religious authorities.
There has been speculation on social media that President Trump and Jared Kushner were involved with the detentions at the Ritz, citing Kushner's surprise trip to Riyadh days before the detentions started. This trip included one-on-one private meetings between the crown prince and Kushner.
Neither the White House nor the royal family confirmed whether Kushner and the crown prince shared a discussion about the probe.
Furthermore, neither Rich nor Gelvin believe that the United States has as much influence on Saudi Arabia as some social media commentators seem to believe.
"This was a demonstration of strength by the prince, showing figures such as Alwaleed bin Talal and Mutaib bin Abdullah that the rules had changed and that the administration would no longer accede to mere consultation with elites; it required their complete submission," Rich said.
No matter the motivations, the crown prince's recent detentions and reforms represent a sea change for the Kingdom.
"If we look at the modernization efforts of [Saudi kings] Abdullah and Faisal, for example, we see a general attempt to evolve the system, rather than engage in a serious revolutionary overturn," Rich said. "It appears the Salman administration is pursuing the latter, but how it will turn out in a social, economic and religious system that has traditionally been highly resistant to rapid change, has yet to be seen."