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Feature Article
2020-03-12

A Royal Purge, Part Two: Crisis Ahead, or Smoothing the Way?

Reports that another round of arrests had ensnared two senior princes, including the king's brother, sparked speculation that a major upheaval was underway. Was Salman really on his deathbed, and the crown prince springing into action? Was this a response to an impending coup, and a crackdown on the ringleaders? Or was this all part of a longer-term plan by the crown prince to ensure his place in succession?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The first roundup took place in November 2017, when dozens of princes, including high-profile members of the royal family such as the late King Abdallah's son Mit'ab, and well-known investor al-Walid bin Talal, were taken to the Ritz Carlton hotel and held there in relative comfort (though there were some claims of torture as well). Being framed as a clampdown on corruption, the sweep was not at all unpopular domestically, but the message had been sent: the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) was not to be underestimated. Or defied, since a less charitable assessment would view the purge as a consolidation of power. This time around, the stakes were even higher, as those detained include Ahmad, the king's own full brother, until now assumed to be beyond the reach of the ambitious heir to the throne.

Ahmad had returned from a brief self-imposed exile in London on assurances (guaranteed by the CIA and MI6) that he would not face repercussions at home following his perceived criticism of the country's leadership under MbS, who acts as the de facto king in place of his aging father. Ahmad seemed the last and best hope of those opposed to the crown prince's power grab, both because he was a plausible successor to Salman (by right, he can claim to be next in line), and because he had some sway with the king himself. Perhaps a word or two in Salman's ear could at least reign in the impulsive son, and allow room for other princes to participate, rather than being forced to the sidelines while the allies and friends of MbS were promoted despite any lack of qualification. But the wish was ephemeral, as MbS continued his unstoppable climb, and opposition failed to coalesce around Ahmad as critics of the family had hoped. It was nonetheless a shock to see Ahmad detained. It is also a gamble on the part of MbS, who is counting on the unequivocal support of U.S. President Trump, after making a mockery of the assurances given by intelligence agencies that he would protect Ahmad.

The second senior prince to be detained was Muhammad bin Nayif (MbN), the former Interior Minister, who also served as crown prince from April 2015 until his removal in June 2017. He has been confined to a villa since then, and despite a seeming acquiesence to his usurper (with subsequent public appearances alongside MbS), there was a concerted campaign to destroy his reputation, accusing him of being a drug addict whose whole existence was a failure. The social media effort has now been resuscitated, and he is accused of being a drug taker and traitor.

Indeed, if there had been a coup attempt, it is likely it would have originated somewhere in this nexus. Opposition (to the extent there was any in tangible terms) was gathering around the person of Ahmad, and MbN was the only other senior royal with the connections and patronage network, if only residual, to have made any sort of a challenge viable in practice. But without the support of key ministries, such as Interior and the National Guard, it is very hard to see any actual threat being manifested. The fact that high-ranking army officers and key staffers at Interior had been caught up in the sweep lent credibility to the idea that a coup against MbS had been staved off, but in reality the crown prince's iron grip on the apparatus of state is too secure by this point.

More likely was the rumor that Salman had died, or was about to at any moment, forcing the crown prince's hand. His accession must be formalized on the king's passing, and a few key royals like Ahmad could stand in his way. It is no secret that his brash ways and failure to involve the rest of the family, as per tradition, have alienated many of the royals, and Ahmad could easily have rallied those around him, undoubtedly provoking a crisis but one whose outcome was uncertain. However, state television promptly aired coverage of the king meeting with foreign diplomats to dispel those rumors.

Related articles: Mixed Signals: Falling in Line or Falling Behind?
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Page 2: a challenge to succession?
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Commentary
Mixed Signals: Falling in Line or Falling Behind?

As the Kingdom seemingly opens up to modernization, while at the same cracking down on any kind of dissent at home, confusion abounds. Are even senior members of the royal family fully on board with the reforms of the crown prince, or are they reflexively reacting to perceived threats to the old order, imagining a state of affairs which has already been superseded by the new realities around them?

Phone Hacks And Hangers-On: Change Of Course Or Character In Action?

Tech experts have agreed with "high certainty" that the phone of billionaire Jeff Bezos was compromised, and personal data stolen, by the crown prince through messaging app trickery; there is now concern that British PM Boris Johnson may have been been similarly hacked. Does this campaign represent an intensification of Muhammad bin Salman's ongoing efforts at repression and control, or are the revelations merely an accidental glimpse into his character?

Hitmen and Masterminds: Drawing a Line or Trouble Ahead?

News that eight defendants had been found guilty by a Saudi court of participating in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappointed those who had been hoping for closure, since the alleged architects of the killing at the consulate in Turkey were not even put on trial. Does the Kingdom's willingness to defy American demands for accountability reflect a broader desire to move out of Washington's orbit, or is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman betting on his personal relationship with U.S. President Trump to ride out the storm?

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?

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?

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