The arrest of two senior Saudi princes is an indication that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is consolidating his power amid mild reforms that have infuriated elements of the ruling elite.
Friday’s swoop on the king’s younger brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, and the king’s nephew and former counterterrorism czar, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, came after comments and behaviour that provoked the leadership to action, according to Saudi sources.
What makes the arrests so remarkable is that Prince Ahmed is known to be personally close King Salman, with one source describing the monarch’s brother as “beloved”.
That such a prominent member of the royal court should find himself behind bars is being taken as a signal that no critic of the regime, not even a lofty member of the royal household, is exempt from feeling the Crown Prince’s wrath.
It is also seen as confirmation that King Salman is firmly behind Crown Prince Mohammed, event to the extent of supporting action against his closest relative.
The source said the arrests were a message to all those in the royal family feeling disenfranchised to stop grumbling and toe the line, saying that if Prince Ahmed can be arrested, any prince can and will be.
Prince Ahmed, 78, has long held unfavourable views of the 34-year-old Crown Prince and was one of just a few senior princes to abstain from pledging allegiance to him when the young royal sidelined more senior princes to become first in line to the throne.
He recently told protesters who were accosting him in London to ask the king and his son about the humanitarian disaster sparked by the war in Yemen.
Prince Ahmed also grumbled about the decision to close Islam’s holiest site in Mecca to stymie the spread of coronavirus, according to one of the people familiar with the arrests.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 60, is well-liked by US intelligence officials for his counterterrorism cooperation in past years against al-Qaida. As head of the interior ministry, he oversaw the long arm of the government that both prosecuted and closely monitored and jailed dissidents and critics of the kingdom.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the arrests, quoting unidentified sources allied with the royal court as saying the princes were plotting a palace coup that would halt the rise of the crown prince.
The Journal has since reported that the sweep broadened to include dozens of Interior Ministry officials, senior army officers and others suspected of supporting a coup attempt.