Deep tensions in Saudi Royal Family

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East CorrespondentWednesday 10 June 2020

Pic: Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: King Salman bin Abdelaziz and Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has the unswerving support of the US administration, his reckless rule has provoked destabilising opposition closer to home.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been serving the world a ruling style characterised by bouts of aggressive adventurism which have backfired politically and rapidly set back human rights. Recently, the 34-year old Prince fired an ally and banned him from travel. This prominent Islamic scholar had previously called for reducing the country’s ballooning number of prisoners. A few weeks prior he also arrested two of his closest relatives; an uncle and a cousin.

The two royals arrested were Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al Saud and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef al Saud; King Salman’s brother and nephew respectively. Both were accused of treason for an alleged coup attempt. Prince bin Nayef was ahead of Prince Mohammed bin Salman in line to the throne before he was unseated in 2016. Prince Ahmed, the Crown Prince’s uncle, previously used his base in London to air concerns about the future of the Saudi monarchy, calling out the reckless policies pushed by Prince bin Salman.

The clique around the Prince tried to promote the notion that all royal matters have been settled by Prince bin Salman, with no opposition from his family. The arrests, however, betray a tension inside the family; something Prince bin Salman has tried to conceal. The fact that many royals had been in house arrest as suspects of disloyalty months prior to the arrests, unable to communicate effectively with others to plan a coup, is a testament to the deep resentment of the Crown Prince’s excesses.

From the day he rose to power, when his father took the throne in January 2015, Prince bin Salman sought to cast himself as an assertive leader. Similar to the founder of the Kingdom, Abdulaziz, who at the young age of 30 captured Riyadh in 1902 from the rival Rashidi clan, the Crown Prince sought traits of valour. In the five years he’s been in the international arena, Prince bin Salman, however, has never failed to shock with measures that critics decry as ill-considered and counter-productive.

From the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, and the all-out abrupt siege of neighbouring Qatar, to the gory killing of a Saudi journalist and dismemberment of his body with a chainsaw, the Prince’s decisions have often brought unintended consequences for the whole kingdom, making more Saudis fear for the future of the oil-rich desert country. But nothing has proven more baffling than his attack on his own House of Al Saud; a tight-knit family whose closeness in the past has helped bolster former monarchs and keep the ruling family in control for over a century.

Prince bin Salman has not only upset the decades-old structure for the rights to succession, which had been in place since King Abdulaziz died at age 88 in 1953, but has moved inexplicably further to humiliate some family influencers and seniors who favoured the conventional way of ascending to the throne. Traditionally, a monarch’s younger brother would succeed to the throne over the king’s own sons. The Crown Prince leapfrogged his uncle, as well as his nephew.

The recent arrests of the high-profile royals indicate that while Prince bin Salman may have won backing from the White House, he still has work ahead to pacify his very own, the House of Al Saud

In 2017, Prince bin Salman arrested several members of the royal family, many of whom hadn’t been as forthcoming as he’d like in publicly backing his non-conformist march to the throne. Facing accusations of corruption, the cash-laden royals were not released until they coughed up a whopping $100bn in cash. The campaign was meant to further deter ambitious rivals to the throne.

Previous Saudi rulers saw the family as a major asset and leveraged their experiences and opinions. They were often rewarded handsomely for their service and loyalty, but that too may be ending under Prince bin Salman. Prince bin Nayef, who is 26 years older than the Crown Prince, was a Washington favourite for his experience in government affairs and role in fighting militant groups. He was the kingdom’s interior minister and key counterterrorism interlocutor with the Central Intelligence Agency in combatting Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Yet, Prince bin Salman outmanoeuvred him by cultivating warm relations directly with United States President Donald Trump and his influential son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The young Crown Prince sealed the deal during President Trump’s 2017 visit to Riyadh. He gave an enticing presentation of an overhaul of the Saudi economy, known as Vision 2030, and said it would open up the Kingdom for more US companies, create a million new jobs in the US and offer some $350bn in deals over ten years. With international backing secured, Prince bin Salman moved to operate on the assumption that he can draw a different path to power away from the traditional backing of the Al Saud family. Instead of unlimited power for the family, he has worked towards an absolute grab for himself only.

Prince bin Salman moved to construct a base among young Saudis. Those under 30 make up 65 per cent of the country’s 33 million people. With much fanfare, the Prince gave them a series of new entertainment options cloaked as new liberties, such as allowing the mixing of sexes at music concerts. He also surrounded himself with ultra-secular activists, journalists and intellectuals rather than the typical pragmatists and religious conservatives who helped buttress the Al Saud dynasty from the 18th century.

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Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: King Salman bin Abdelaziz and Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The March spat with Sheikh Saleh Al-Maghamsi, who is the imam of the ancient Qebaa mosque, considered to be the oldest in Islam, showed that the silencing of the religious establishment is far from the previously promoted done deal either.

Prince bin Salman spent a good part of his initial years rounding up popular scholars and activists known for their independent views, leaving mostly subdued preachers to issue longwinded favourable fatwas backing his irregular power grab. But in a tweet at the end of March, Al-Maghamsi urged the ruling authorities to release inmates in an apparent request to mitigate the influence of the Covid-19 outbreak on overcrowded jails, but also in a slight against the country’s rapidly multiplying population of political prisoners.

A few hours later, Al-Maghamsi, a long-time supporter of Prince bin Salman, was forced out of his job and was told that he could no longer travel outside Saudi Arabia.

In April, a Saudi tribesman was shot and killed by Saudi security forces for resisting forced evacuation from his land and house in Tabuk to clear way for bin Salman’s pet project, Neom – a $550bn utopian desert city. Abdul Rahim Al-Hwaiti had earlier resorted to social media to draw attention to the plight of his tribe and asked for room to express his views in the kingdom.

More news of the worsening rights conditions continued when a Saudi princess managed to sneak out tweets that she and her daughter have been in the notorious Al-Hayer prison for a year with no medical care. Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz, who had advocated for a constitutional monarchy in the conservative kingdom, wrote that her health was deteriorating and appealed to the international community to intervene in her case.

The small community of Saudi reformists was also riled when 69-year old Abdullah al-Hamid, a well-known advocate for change in how the royal family conducts business, died in prison, reportedly due to lack of medical care with some critics alleging that he died under torture.

The course Prince bin Salman has taken to the throne has been convoluted and not without opposition despite official statements indicating otherwise. The recent arrests of the high-profile royals indicate that while Prince bin Salman may have won backing from the White House, he still has work ahead to pacify his very own, the House of Al Saud.

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at