Did Bin-Salman thwart a ruling family coup, or launch a pre-emptive strike to ease his ascent to the throne?
There are two plausible explanations for why Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman ordered the arrest of his uncle, Prince Ahmad Bin-Abdelaziz, and his cousin, former crown prince and interior minister Prince Muhammad bin-Nayef, on charges of treason and plotting a coup.
The first is that the two men were leading a rebellion against him within the ruling family, and it was intending to install them as king and crown prince as part of a ‘reordering’ of the House of Saud. This would have been aimed at reinstating its ‘traditional’ mode of rule, based on a more consensual and less confrontational approach to domestic and external affairs. Rumours that such a plan was being hatched surfaced last September after the mysterious killing of the head of royal security Abdelaziz al-Faghm.
The second explanation is that Muhammad Bin-Salman acted to get rid of his two principal opponents within the family – some reports claim a number of other members were also rounded up – as a prelude to shunting aside his father on grounds of ill health and incapacity and having himself declared king. He thereby dealt a pre-emptive blow to his main potential challengers.
News of Friday’s arrests was broken by two American newspapers: The Wall Street Journal, which is favoured by both Bin-Salman and Donald Trump, and The New York Times, which is critical of both. That suggests it was leaked by high-level US sources, perhaps in the White House or the intelligence services, most likely at Bin-Salman’s own instigation. That would be a way of warning other disaffected or quietly critical family members that they face the same fate if they make any move or object.
Bin-Salman has largely shunned the limelight since he was implicated in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi 17 months ago. He makes few public appearances and rules largely from behind palace walls, perhaps because of security concerns. He is well aware of the strong opposition he faces, especially within the ruling family, and relies on foreign contractors and intelligence agencies for his personal security.
Prince Ahmad, the king’s full brother and youngest of the so-called Sudairi sons of the kingdom’s founding monarch is popular within the ruling family and also among sections of the public due to his refusal to back Muhammad Bin-Salman’s elevation and his open criticism of the crown prince and his policies at private gatherings. During the time he spent in London, Ahmad told a group of demonstrators protesting outside his residence against the war in Yemen and calling for the fall of the House of Saud that, in effect, responsibility for the war did not lie with the ruling family but the king and crown prince. Visitors to Ahmad’s Majlis in Saudi Arabia say he never displayed the crown prince’s portrait alongside his father’s in the chamber, which became a meeting place for disaffected royals and others.
Under Saudi law, treason is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Whether such sentences are actually issued or carried out would appear to depend on anticipated and actual reactions within the ruling family. There has been no official comment yet on the reported arrests, but based on past experience, this silence can be taken as confirmation.
Bin-Salman, who rules with an iron fist and controls the army and security forces has carried out several previous waves of arrests, most notably in 2017 when he detained scores of senior princes, top businessmen and former officials on corruption charges. He has also incarcerated many prominent religious scholars, activists and intellectuals. But the arrest of his uncle Ahmad and cousin Muhammad bin-Nayef is the biggest and potentially riskiest such move he has made since becoming crown prince.
Saudi Arabia is facing tough times both politically and economically. Its massive budget deficit is set to grow drastically due to the inexorable fall in oil prices, coupled with the prospective loss of tens of billions of dollars in revenue from pilgrims and religious tourists because of travel restrictions related to the coronavirus crisis. There is also a sense of apprehension and incomprehension among Saudis about government policies generally, both at home and abroad, not least due to the huge costs of the Yemen war and the exposure of the country’s vital oil infrastructure to Houthi missile and drone attacks. These concerns can only be compounded by the detention of the ruling family’s two most prominent princes.
We should expect some surprising developments and changes in Saudi Arabia in the days to come.