Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took several dramatic steps in the past few days to further consolidate his power in the kingdom. He had four members of the royal family arrested, all of whom could be potential claimants to the throne. The first two arrested were Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, an uncle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his son, Nayef bin Ahmed. Also arrested were Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his brother, Nawaf bin Nayef. Reports indicated that the two senior Princes were charged with treason, a crime that could carry the death penalty in the kingdom. Rumors immediately began that the arrests were due either to an attempted coup against the King and the Crown Prince or that the King was near death and that the Crown Prince wanted to reduce chances that anyone would challenge his ascension to the throne. While either or both of these are possible, the government released pictures of King Salman said to have been taken this past Sunday greeting visitors and appearing to be in good health.
Both of the more senior princes could legitimately pose a viable alternative to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s claim to the throne in almost any circumstance. Both are older, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was the Crown Prince before King Salman chose to elevate his young son to the position. Prince Abdulaziz is an uncle to the current Crown Prince, and is a prominent member of the royal family being the youngest of the Sudairi brothers – the seven brothers who were sons of the founder of the kingdom by his favorite wife. This group of brothers includes King Fahd (king 1982-2005), two crown princes who died before having the opportunity to ascend the throne, and the current king. Given the history of this clan of brothers running the kingdom over the past forty-plus years, it is certainly possible that the elder members of the royal family were not happy about being passed over or given their due. The scope of the threat perceived by the Crown Prince may be indicated by the reports of a charge of treason.
In addition, Crown Prince Salman, who has been given broad powers by the King to run the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom, has made some dubious policy choices during his time in power. The most prominent of these choices is the war in Yemen which continues to go poorly for the kingdom both militarily and in terms of its economic cost. Others include the kidnapping and roughing up of the Lebanese Prime Minister and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by members of the Crown Prince’s staff and possibly on his direct order. Finally, the kingdom under the Crown Prince’s close relationship with the Trump administration was not able to protect oil infrastructure from attack by long-time rival Iran, and the kingdom also did not strike back militarily, two potentially signs of weakness or incompetence. While the Crown Prince took similarly drastic actions when he was first elevated to power to quell possible dissent within the royal family and among other prominent Saudi families, his various missteps could have prompted senior members of the royal family to plan for his ouster over the past several months. Regardless, while these types of actions may consolidate his control in the short-term, they may undermine the broader legitimacy that would make the Crown Prince’s rule more secure over the long term.