Senior Saudi princes said to be detained and accused of treason

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Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, has consolidated power with an unprecedented offensive against potential opponents in the family. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH (BLOOMBERG) - Saudi Arabian authorities detained a brother and a nephew of Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and accused them of treason, according to a person familiar with the matter - a move that extends a series of crackdowns on royal relatives by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne.

Former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was previously in line to be king before being sidelined, and Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud - a brother of the current king - were arrested on Friday (March 6), the person familiar with the matter said. Mohammed bin Nayef's brother, Nawaf, was also detained with him during a raid on their desert camp, the person said. The news was reported earlier on Friday by the Wall Street Journal.

The Saudi embassy in Washington, DC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015, his now 34-year-old son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, has consolidated power with an unprecedented offensive against potential opponents in the family, arresting other princes and removing them from key posts as he took control of ministries and major institutions. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is his older cousin, the previous heir to the throne and interior minister before being pushed aside in 2017.

Later that year, the current crown prince embarked on the most sweeping crackdown against other royals in the kingdom's history, ordering security forces to arrest senior princes and prominent businessmen in what was declared to be a crackdown on corruption. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was detained at the Ritz Carlton Hotel for months, and Prince Miteb, son of the late King Abdullah, was removed from his post as head of the powerful National Guard. While they were later released, many royals - including Prince Turki bin Abdullah, another son of the former king - remain under house arrest or are banned from travelling abroad.

Still, the arrests Friday will shake the kingdom's hierarchy even further. A full brother of King Salman, Prince Ahmed, is one of the only surviving sons of Saudi Arabia's first king, and was once viewed as a potential candidate for the throne. He's also a senior member of the allegiance council, a group of royals that votes on matters of succession. In 2018, he appeared in a rare video speaking to protesters in London, stirring controversy about potential discord in the ranks of the ruling family. He later issued a clarifying statement to dismiss questions about his loyalty. In October 2018, he returned to the kingdom after a period spent abroad.

The Saudi royal family has tens of thousands of members. While many of them pledge loyalty to the current crown prince, his consolidation of power has marginalised or alienated other relatives. The recent spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, and with it the prospect of a sustained period of lower oil prices, have only intensified potential risks for the oil-dependent kingdom.

Those risks were exacerbated after Russia on Friday refused to agree to Saudi Arabia's demand to cut output and prop prices up, sending oil prices plunging more than 9 per cent, the most since 2008.

"The Saudi leadership's challenges have snowballed in recent days," said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group consultancy. He said recent developments may have made King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed's branch of the royal family "more sensitive to risks of a coup," and "these moves would remove the most serious obstacles to a potential change in the leadership." The royal court told members of the allegiance council that Prince Ahmed and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef had been plotting a coup, according to the person familiar with the matter.

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