FILE - In this May 14, 2012 file photo, King Salman, left, speaks with his son, now Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as they wait for Gulf Arab leaders ahead of the opening of Gulf Cooperation Council, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The arrests of apparent Islamist sympathizers and critics of the crown prince have thrown an already anxious kingdom into deep unease, raising questions about the country's steadiness as speculation mounts that the crown prince, also known as MBS, could soon replace his father as king. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
Saudi King Salman (l) speaks with his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi security officials have detained more than two dozen people in a crackdown over the past week © AP

Saudi security officers, their faces hidden by balaclavas, conducted the raids in the middle of the night, arresting dozens of people and confiscating books and laptops.

The operations were conducted last week as if the security forces were hunting militants. But instead the targets were clerics, academics and businessmen rounded up in what activists say is the biggest crackdown on dissent in the kingdom since the 2011 Arab uprisings.

“In the past, one [an activist] would be called in and told of an arrest order,” says Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, now living outside the kingdom. “There were no masked men — that was exclusively kept for terrorists.”

More than two dozen people were arrested over the past week, according to relatives of those detained and activists. They include Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, a popular Islamist cleric who has more than 14m followers on Twitter; Mustafa al-Hasan, a well-known professor at King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals; and Essam al-Zamil, a software entrepreneur from a respected merchant family in the Eastern Province.

The crackdown has been linked to Riyadh’s feud with Doha, with those detained deemed to have been not sufficiently supportive of the Saudi-led regional embargo imposed on Qatar. But analysts say it illustrates a sense of anxiety among Saudi leaders following the shake-up of the succession order that saw Prince Mohammed bin Salman leapfrog his elder cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to become heir apparent.

The decision in June sparked a flurry of intrigue and rumours that it had triggered disgruntlement within the huge ruling al-Saud family — the government was forced to dismiss reports that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also sacked as interior minister, was being kept under house arrest.

In July, Prince Mohammed, 32, set up a new security department, the Presidency of State Security, in what analysts interpreted as a move to concentrate his powers. Now speculation is mounting that the crown prince is preparing to assume the throne from his ailing father this year or next. Saudi officials have dismissed suggestions of an imminent abdication by King Salman.

Against this backdrop, the crackdown has focused on anyone who might be willing to speak out against government policy. And it comes as Prince Mohammed grapples with domestic and foreign challenges.

The dispute with Doha, which erupted after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut transport and diplomatic ties with Qatar in June, is deadlocked. Riyadh has redrafted Prince Mohammed’s flagship reform programme — its National Transformation Plan — acknowledging that many of its goals were overly ambitious.

“On the one hand, he’s expanding social and economic freedoms, which are popular among Saudi youth, on the other hand, he’s narrowing space for civil society and members of the royal family to criticise his reforms,” says Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s essentially autocratic liberalisation — as the reform programme hits road bumps, the crown prince isn’t hesitating to use autocratic methods to keep the population in line.”

Activists fear that any further setbacks to Prince Mohammed’s plans could trigger more oppression.

“We have reached an advanced stage of totalitarianism when it comes to managing media and relations with people,” says a Saudi writer. “Saudi Arabia has always had a margin for silence. A margin for limited and acceptable criticism. Some space to manoeuvre. But now? This is really scary and unusual.”

The government has not commented on specific arrests or released a list of the people arrested. But the official Saudi Press Agency last week published a statement from the State Security Presidency that said authorities had arrested a group of Saudis and foreigners on the suspicion of being engaged in “intelligence activities . . . for the benefit of foreign parties”.

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A human rights group said Sheikh Salman al-Ouda was detained for expressing happiness at reports that Saudi Arabia and Qatar could resolve their dispute © Emad Alhusayni/Flickr

The Senior Scholars’ Authority, the country’s top religious body, last week declared its support to the steps taken by the government. “This blessed nation was founded on the book of God and the guidance of his messenger,” said a statement posted on Twitter. “Therefore, there is no place in it for political or ideological parties.”

The al-Saud family has for decades had a complex relationship with Islamists. It has used the Wahhabi establishment, which promotes a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, to legitimise its rule in the conservative kingdom. But it has also viewed Islamist extremists and political movements as the gravest threat to its grip on power.

Mr Ouda, the most prominent Islamist arrested in the crackdown, was a leader in the Sahwa movement, which called for domestic political reforms in the kingdom in the 1990s. He revived the calls when he spoke up in favour of the Arab uprisings that swept across the Middle East in 2011. That was the last time there was a large crackdown in Saudi Arabia, when it mainly targeted protesters from the Shia minority in the country’s east, and Mr Ouda avoided commenting on politics in the years since.

This time, the action has targeted Sunni Islamists and mainstream critics.

“It appears that Mohammed bin Salman’s widely promoted ‘Vision’ for 2030 [reform agenda] is really a giant prison where no one can speak freely or hold independent views,” says Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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