Saudi Arabia has arrested at least three members of the royal family in a new crackdown that appears to be part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to further shore up his control over the oil-rich kingdom.
The detentions include Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the 77-year-old brother of King Salman, considered by many as an obstacle to Prince’s Mohammed’s succession, two people briefed on the matter said.
Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince and interior minister, has also been detained. He had been under house arrest since being ousted by Prince Mohammed, who is known as MBS, in 2017.
Other senior officials and officers have also been caught in the purge, which has triggered fevered speculation about the king’s health, one of the people added.
“Are these arrests or temporary confinement, that isn’t clear,” he said.
The arrests, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, were denied by a Saudi diplomat. The government did not respond to a request for comment.
Since his father’s ascent to the throne in 2015, Prince Mohammed has launched far-reaching social and economic reforms while projecting Saudi power across the region.
Easing tight social strictures, such as opening cinemas and allowing pop concerts, has proved wildly popular among many in the kingdom’s large youth population.
But the opening up has been accompanied by a severe crackdown on dissent and conservatives have quietly grumbled about the pace and extent of change.
In 2017, MBS launched an anti-corruption crackdown, imprisoning princes and businessmen in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, and coercing them into handing over assets in a drive that the government claimed netted more than $100bn.
Outside Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen’s bloody civil war and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, blamed by some western officials on the crown prince, have tarnished the kingdom’s image in global circles.
The latest arrests form part of a campaign to shore up MBS’s power base and come at time when the kingdom is facing challenges on several fronts at home and abroad.
The economic impact of coronavirus has put oil prices under pressure as the kingdom joins neighbours in imposing unprecedented measures to limit the spread of the disease.
Prince Ahmed, who has previously been critical of some Saudi policies, returned to the kingdom in 2018, after receiving assurances of his safety.