Saudi Arabia had its first palace political upheaval about a decade after the death of its founder King Ibn Saud. That was when a group of influential princes staged a palace coup against their brother (or half-brother) King Saud Bin Abdulaziz. Crown Prince Faisal al Saud was a major drive behind the coup, which forced Saud to abdicate in favor of Faisal. After that there were no serious palace upheavals, not that we know about anyway. There was an incident in the late 1950’s when a group of rebellious princes (The Free Princes) sided with Nasser of Egypt and flew to Cairo in exile. One of them was Prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz, brother of the king and father of Prince Al Waleed. Another unrelated incident was when king Faisal was assassinated by one of his nephews in 1975.
Palace intrigue resumed openly and in full force after King Salman took over in 2015. There was a protracted turmoil as the king positioned his son MBS to gain absolute power over the country. That turmoil did not end when Mohammed took over absolute power, he felt insecure with too many important princes in prominent positions. So he went about cutting them down to size with purges.
The last ‘known’ major purge was in the fall of 2017, when a large number of businessmen, officials, and princes (including the once high-flying Prince Al Waleed) were incarcerated in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton for weeks and months. Many were shaken down for a share of their wealth, which they gladly gave up in exchange for restricted freedom and only within the kingdom. There have been other smaller purges since then, but nothing involving the most prominent princes who were so close to ascending the Saudi throne. These princes were politically emasculated, apparently.
Then, yesterday’s shock. Some of the most senior princes, in fact the highest princes in the kingdom were arrested yesterday. No charges announced yet, almost certainly none will be. Senior prince Ahamd Bin Abdulaziz is an elderly son of Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom. He was often mentioned as a possible heir during the past decade. But the main catch of this new purge is Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef (MBN), the former crown prince who was deposed after King Salman picked his own son (MBS). The third mentioned captive is a brother of MBN, a former deputy minister. Of course in such a system, a prince is never alone: he has many aides, sycophants, minions, and allies. So we can assume that many others have been arrested as well with these three prominent princes. Some of these other important detainees will also be princes. So, the circle, the radius of the purge, widens by nature, and covers more people over time, both royals and hapless non-royals. Meanwhile, the circle of princes and potentates left untouched by the purges shrinks.
Saudi Arabia was not historically known as an unstable country that experienced domestic political shock. Not in the royal palaces anyway. Not that any outsiders would notice. It may return to its past normal form after one person consolidates his secure power to such an extent that there will be no need to fear new upheavals. Maybe no more purges, but I doubt it. This is not his grandfather’s world anymore, nor is it his grandfather’s kingdom anymore.
M H Ghuloum