In late March, the personal staff of Sultan bin Turki, living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, alleged that he had been forcibly taken from the country and brought to Saudi Arabia against his will. Sultan had already made claims of an earlier attempt at kidnap, which resulted in a lawsuit for the serious damage to his health he said the incident had caused him. Apparently, this time around Turki had been lured onto a plane for the ostensible purpose of visiting his father in Cairo, but the plane never arrived. Turki, a vocal critic of his own family's rule, had been extremely nervous about the trip, suspecting a trick, but after repeated reassurance from friends he decided to attempt the journey, despite his misgivings. The fact that his whereabouts are presently unknown is said to be proof of the kidnap by members of the royal family.
Two other princes seem also to have disappeared within a short time, lending credence to the story. Both Turki bin Bandar bin Muhammad, and Saud bin Sayf al-Nasr bin Saud have also vanished. Things not going well for Turki in the Kingdom, he "defected" to France in a huff and sought political asylum there in 2009. From his exile, he called for nonviolent reform, but also made appearances in propagandistic Iranian media stories and produced a series of YouTube videos beginning in 2011. Since the spring of 2015, however, when he went to Morocco, no one has seen Turki. Members of a Saudi opposition group claim a conspiracy, involving the Moroccan government, to capture Turki and send him home.
Saud bin Sayf al-Nasr became a dissenter later, beginning about 2014, when he started to use Twitter as platform from which to criticize his government, alleging corruption and gross mismanagement. He also called for the removal of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayif, and the deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. His Twitter account has been inactive since September 2015, prompting speculation that he too, has been the victim of an intensifying clampdown on wayward royals.
Adding fuel to the fire, the case of the three vanishing princes comes at a time when there is clearly no room for outspoken dissent at home. Political tumult in the eastern Province has been quelled, and what little freedom of speech exists has been sharply curtailed as well. In March, journalist Alaa Brinji was given five years in prison, an eight-year travel ban and a fine for, among other things, "insulting the rulers" in a series of tweets. Blogger Rauf al-Badawi was sentenced in May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes with a fine, on the charge of insulting Islam. These high-profile cases follow the execution of 47 Saudi prisoners, including prominent Shi'a cleric Sahykh Nimr al-Nimr, earlier this year. In an already incendiary environment, the stories of royal kidnapping, if true, only add to the impression of outright panic.
This approach assumes, however, that the royals themselves feel under threat. It is easy to see why this might be the case. King Salman is still new to the job (though he has spent his entire life preparing for it), and following in the footsteps of the popular Abdallah, the late king and his half-brother, is no easy task. Abdallah cut an almost avuncular figure, and was immensely popular. Most felt that he was finally dragging the country, kicking and screaming, into the modern century, and though his relations with the religious establishment and conservatives were strained, he played the game of politics well. No one doubts Salman's competence in the leadership role, but he is clearly uncomfortable playing the populist. Salman comes across more the stern paterfamilias than gracious benefactor - somewhat distant and inscrutable, though likable in his unguarded moments. In this respect, he reminds some of his predecessor King Faysal, who inspired such awe that diplomats were reputed to have fainted in his presence.