Two senior members of the Saudi royal family were arrested on Friday and placed under investigation for treason. Two of their younger relatives were also detained in what observers portrayed as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launching a pre-emptive strike against threats to his rule before King Salman bin Abdulaziz passes the crown to him.
The first two detainees were Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, King Salman’s younger brother, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, former Saudi intelligence chief, interior minister, and crown prince until Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known by his initials MBS), now 34 years old, took that position in 2017.
Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) was held in a nebulous state of house arrest for a few months in 2017 after MBS took the position of crown prince but was later seen in public reconciling with his much younger successor and cousin. Sources in the royal court told Voice of America News (VOA) that MBN, who is now 60 years old, has been under constant surveillance ever since and has been stripped of all official positions.
VOA noted that 78-year-old Prince Ahmed’s arrest was more surprising since he is the 84-year-old king’s younger brother and has always been treated fondly by the reigning monarch, but Ahmed has been critical of MBS and abstained from pledging allegiance to him after he became crown prince. For his part, MBN has been outspokenly displeased with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and the religious reforms MBS brought to Saudi Arabia.
Some Saudi sources say Ahmed and MBN were planning a “palace coup” to at least weaken MBS’s power if not dislodge him from leadership entirely. Others saw their detentions as a warning to the rest of the royal family that enthusiastic loyalty to the crown prince is mandatory as King Salman nears the end of his reign.
It is possible MBS wanted to consolidate power and stifle dissent in the ranks of the royal family before launching a high stakes oil price war with Russia on Monday. Arresting high-ranking members of the royal family conveys an impression of turmoil to some, but MBS could also be attempting to signal an era of greater stability for the Saudi government by making it clear that palace coups and other mischief will no longer be tolerated.
MBN’s younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, and Ahmed’s son, Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, were also detained over the weekend.
As of Monday morning, no formal charges had been filed against the detainees, but they are reportedly under investigation for treason. No public information has been released about their condition, location, or how long they will be detained.
There has been some chatter in the immense royal family that the detainees are under house arrest in private residences and might be planning to release a public statement soon, but the Wall Street Journal quoted other sources who said Ahmed and MBN might be fully prosecuted for treason and face either life in prison or execution.
According to the New York Times, Prince Ahmed and his son were taken into custody after returning from a falcon hunting trip abroad.
The New York Times quoted Saudi sources who said MBN was arrested by a squad of “armed men in black uniforms and face masks” who descended upon a desert camp near Riyadh that MBN frequently used for meetings with American officials during his days as head of Saudi intelligence. The camp was searched and its communication lines were cut during the arrest.
Although the arrests naturally raised suspicions that King Salman might be ill, dying, or preparing to abdicate, the Times noted he met with visiting British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week, and the Saudi medical system does not appear to be on alert for any health issues with the elderly king. The Saudi government made a point on Sunday of releasing photos of King Salman chatting with ambassadors and reading his mail to demonstrate his good health to apprehensive citizens.