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Feature Article

Disappearance of a Princess: Private Dispute or Royal Affair?

Princess Basma bint Saud, along with one of her daughters, is said to be under house arrest in the capital, Riyadh. Was she detained for clashing with the crown prince, or are his critics too quick to assign blame?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

55-year old Basma, the youngest daughter of the late King Saud, is reportedly being kept under constant surveillance following her mysterious disappearance earlier this year. News media has seized on the narrative of an abduction, orchestrated by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), as the well-publicized detention of royal critics continues to dominate the airwaves. Indeed, just when it seemed that enough time had elapsed since the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul for some semblance of normality to return, the crackdown on dissent has intensified. Intellectuals, academics and activists are only the latest to be rounded up from a group which includes high-profile clerics and even royal family members, all for their perceived opposition to the reform plans (and stranglehold on power) of MbS. It would hardly be surprising if the outspoken Basma, a prominent rights advocate, was pushed to the sidelines for angering the crown prince.

Basma was reportedly abducted earlier this year "on suspicion of trying to flee the country" and has been unreachable since, although several family members seem to be in regular contact with her. The mother of five was apparently planning to travel to Switzerland for "urgent medical attention," as requested by her Swiss doctor, and had in fact been officially cleared for the trip. She had a travel permit to leave Jiddah, on 18 December of last year, with her daughter, but the plane was not not allowed to depart. Although the final destination was Geneva, authorities were suspicious that her flight was scheduled to pass through Turkey, which country had strained relations with the Kingdom at the time. Since then she has entirely disappeared from public view.

After her divorce from Shuja' bin Nama al-Sharin in 2007, Basma embarked on a series of business ventures and a journalism career. In 2010 she moved to London, but more recently has been living in Riyadh. As an author and thinker, she has written for al-Hayat, al-Ahram, and many English papers and magazines, but she has also has emerged as a fierce critic of the royal family, and has been an advocate for constitutional reform over the last decade. She has called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Saudi (believing this is what her father Saud wished for the country's future), and has spoken on human rights issues both in Saudi and throughout the region. Basma has also appeared at numerous international forums highlighting humanitarian concerns and inequality in wealth distribution, but her most pointed criticism is directed at domestic, institutionalized corruption. "You have 2,000 [royals] who are multi-millionaires, who have all the power, all the wealth and no-one can even utter a word against it because they are afraid to lose what they have", she said in a 2012 interview with the UK-based Independent.

She would not have been the first royal to point out the unfairness of the system, but things took a turn for the worse when she began touching on foreign and domestic policy, the domain of the senior leadership and now belonging almost exclusively to MbS. Basma says she began receiving "very strong hints and signals" that her critical stance was not acceptable. Even so, she explicitly called for an end to the Yemen war and the Gulf crisis with Qatar, in an interview with the BBC airing in January 2018. Given the assassinations, forced disappearances, imprisonment (including the infamous Ritz Carlton detentions) and intimidation of so many of the crown prince's critics, and given that even members of the royal family are not immune from the crackdown, Basma's outspoken advocacy would seem to have put her on a collision course with MbS. Has she been put of the way to stifle her campaigning, by the crown prince or one of his associates, possibly acting on their own to curry favor? If so, this would be a risky move, as Basma sits atop the uppermost rank of the royal family.

Related articles: Royal Dissidents And A Change Of House: The Gathering Storm?
New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?
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Past Feature Articles
The Evolving Foreign Policy Of MbS: Pragmatism Or Chaos?

The elevation of Prince Faysal bin Farhan to Foreign Minister, one among many young, Western-educated careerists to rise to prominence under the de facto governance of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), underscores the rapidity of change within Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, secretive talks with Israel, and an official visit by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, complicate the narrative of the Kingdom reaching out to the West in the face of an Iranian threat. Is a co-ordinated strategy in place, or is the confusion a hint of disfunction within the royal family?

New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?

Unprecedented attacks on the Kingdom's oil infrastructure have focussed attention on the leadership's failure to defend even the most critical facilities, despite overseeing the third-largest military budget in the world. Will royal patience finally wear out with crown prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman?

Royal Dalliance and Soft Power: Changing Mores or Sidelined Princes?

With the crown prince rumored to be dating American actress Lindsay Lohan, a similar affair from the past comes to mind, involving his predecessor and uncle, the late King Fahd. At the time, royal family opposition destroyed any chance of an enduring relationship; given Muhammad bin Salman's pre-eminent position within the family today, would the same dynamic hold?

Clerics and Confidantes: Royal Crackdown or Seismic Shift?

Shaykh Salman al-Awda, one of the most high-profile religious figures in the Kingdom, faces the death penalty for his perceived opposition to official government policy. Is his case unique, and the severity of his actions such that he represents a genuine challenge to power, or does he represent a shift in dynamic of the Al Saud's partnership with the religious establishment?

da Vinci and the Plumber: Royal Exceptions or the Rule?

Separate news events involving the crown prince and his sister highlight the often un-Islamic behavior of the royal family. Is this part of a long-standing pattern, or have the senior royals embarked on a dangerous and cynical new course?