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West Looks Away as Saudi Prince Begins Purge. But It Could Backfire

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019Credit: Kevin Lamarque/ REUTERS

“What does the whole of the Al Saud family have to do with this? There are certain individuals who are responsible. Don't involve anyone else,” said Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, the brother of King Salman, in response to demonstrations against the royal family that erupted after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz’s remarks, which he retracted shortly afterward, made him a target for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had already been perceiving his uncle as a dangerous rival.

Last week, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz was arrested by security forces on suspicion of plotting a coup. The crackdown also included the arrest of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the king’s nephew and former crown prince, as well as dozens of senior administration officials, army officers and other members of the royal family, according to unofficial reports. 

Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, who was deputy interior minister between 1975 and 2012, held a lot of power as the official responsible for domestic security.  Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was the interior minister, and they worked closely together. In 2012, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz was distanced from the family inner circle even though he was the youngest of the seven princes from the Sudairi branch of the family.

When King Salman in 2017 decided to appoint his young son crown prince instead of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz was one of the three members of the Allegiance Council – the body of senior royals that must approve successions to the throne – to oppose the move. He moved to London, where he lived until the storm erupted over Khashoggi’s murder. He then received assurances from King Salman that he could return to the kingdom and not be arrested. That’s when rumor spread that he was planning to replace the crown prince. 

Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef was removed from all his posts when Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince in 2017. During that year, the crown prince flexed his muscles against a long list of princes and Saudi businessmen and arrested them for alleged conspiracies to steal public funds. The princes were forced to part with billions of dollars and properties in return for their release. These arrests and the extortion of funds created a nucleus of embittered princes eager for revenge. 

Prince Ahmad bin Abdul Aziz gives a press conference in Mecca, October 20, 2012. Credit: AFP

During their decades of work in the Interior Ministry, the two princes developed close ties with American administrations and especially with the CIA. These ties contributed to the crown prince’s suspicions that the two were planning, with American help, to remove him from his position in order to heal the rift that had developed between the kingdom and Congress after Khashoggi’s murder. 

Western countries, particularly the United States, are preferring to remain silent about the arrests for now. The meteoric rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the close alliances he maintains with Western leaders is based on personal relationships. The West has no choice but to view the arrest of senior figures as an internal Saudi affair. 

Western countries have turned a blind eye to worse things.  One example is the tens of thousands of arrests and interrogations carried out by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against those suspected of planning the failed coup of 2016. The condemnations quickly got lost among the diplomatic and military interests that link Western nations to Turkey. Another example is Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Sissi, who enjoys warm and sympathetic treatment in the White House and in European capitals, despite his serious violations of human rights and the way he has trapped Egyptian democracy in a web of laws and regulations that allow him to rule autocratically. 

The main concern now is whether the Saudi crown prince may face a larger internal rebellion in the aftermath of the arrests. Opposition sites that operate primarily outside the kingdom reported this week that recent arrests were motivated by intelligence to the effect that officers in the Saudi military supported the arrested princes and a regime change. Some say that the arrest of senior officers is proof that at least part of the military leadership is displeased with the crown prince’s management of the war in Yemen and the lack of response to Iranian attacks on Saudi targets. On the other hand, there are those who think that the arrests in the army were meant to deter rather than to foil a revolt. 

It appears, therefore, that the current wave of arrests will not be the last, and that these are necessary to pave the way for Mohammed bin Salman’s coronation. It isn’t clear if he plans to depose his father or wait until he dies, but meanwhile he can exploit his father’s authority to eliminate competition.

In the near term, however, the crown prince will only be judged by how he handles the spread of coronavirus. His decision to practically seal the country off to visitors, including pilgrims to Mecca, conveys control and an understanding of the scope of the threat. If he manages to get through this crisis and present the kingdom as having defended its citizens against a plague, the arrests will become a footnote.

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