Saudi Arabia extends crackdown on royal family to fourth prince

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has ordered a wave of arrests that has netted at least four senior princes in the kingdom. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The scope of a new roundup of Saudi royals widened on Saturday (March 7) with word that a fourth senior prince has been detained under orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to two Saudis close to the royal family, in a sign that he is determined to crack down on even whispers of dissent.

The wave of arrests has ensnared a former head of army intelligence, Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, as well as at least three other senior princes, all detained on Friday (March 6). The full extent of the roundup is still not clear.

Crown Prince Mohammed, 34, has already consolidated his power as the de facto ruler of the kingdom in the name of his aging father, King Salman, 84.

But the arrests offered new evidence of how far the Crown Prince would go to lock down potential opponents within his family, stirring new fear within its ranks, according to several people close to the family.

The most senior family member detained was Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the father of Prince Nayef and the last surviving full brother of King Salman.

The arrests of both father and son stunned the royal family because Prince Ahmed's closeness to the King had so far appeared to provide him a measure of immunity against the wrath of the Crown Prince, even when he came down on others.

The detentions also raised questions about whether the Crown Prince might have feared a plot against him within the family, or that he might be seeking to shut down potential opponents as he prepares to take full power from the aging king.

"It is surprising he would move on Prince Ahmed with the King's authority still there," said Ms Kristin Smith Diwan, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

But two supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed who are close to the royal court insisted on Saturday that he had merely lost patience with members of the family he has long distrusted.

Those two people and a third person who is close to some of the princes who were arrested said the Crown Prince had heard reports that they were complaining about him in family gatherings and lost patience with them. All the people close to the family or the royal court spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

There were no signs of an imminent transition of power.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (left) meeting Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh on March 5, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS/COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT

The King was photographed on Thursday meeting the British Foreign Secretary. A doctor with ties to the elite Saudi hospital that treats the royal family said it had received no word that the King was ill.

Crown Prince Mohammed was conducting business as usual at meetings around a planned development on the Red Sea, according to a former American government official who tracks Saudi Arabia closely.

There were no hints of an imminent succession, the former official said, adding that the King appeared to have signed off on the orders to arrest his younger brother, Prince Ahmed.

Several people close to the royal court insisted that the Crown Prince had little fear of a coup against him because he already controls all the levers of power inside the kingdom, including the military, internal security forces and the national guard.

The Crown Prince has repeatedly cracked down before on the privilege and clout of his own sprawling royal family in order to tighten his own grip on the kingdom, and he has established a track record of bold and ruthless moves with little precedent in the kingdom's modern history.

In 2017, he detained hundreds of wealthy princes and businessmen in a Ritz-Carlton hotel that he repurposed as a prison. He demanded that they turn over large sums of their wealth as part of what he portrayed as a crackdown on corruption.

He also has led a five-year military intervention in Yemen that has created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters without any sign of victory.

Outside Saudi Arabia, the Prince is best known for his association with the killing of Mr Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident and Washington Post columnist, by Saudi agents in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.