Cracks within Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are widening. Undercurrents are getting more and more pronounced and visible. And if all the signals are being read correctly, nothing could be ruled out.

The young crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MbS, has been working, rather feverishly to tighten his grip on power by sidelining all possible contenders to the throne and to improve the finances of the country, at times by twisting arms of rich individuals — royals and non-royals included. The list reportedly included some foreign leaders, who had business interests with implicated Saudi leaders.

Consequent to all this, the very stability of the oil-rich Saudi Arabia seems under threat.

Dissensions within, what used to be a well-knit royal family, is beginning to come out in open.

Last November, 11 Saudi princes’ along with ministers and business tycoons were rounded up.

A news agency quoted sources as saying that MbS opted to move on his family when he realised more relatives were opposed to him becoming king than he had initially thought.

By arresting the members of the royal family, Prince Mohammad gave the signal, “anyone wavering in support should watch out,” the agency quoted a source familiar with the events as saying. “The whole idea of the anti-corruption campaign was targeted towards the family. The rest is window dressing,” the source added.

Just before the early November swoop, some senior clerics who had questioned the policy of isolating Qatar and were put behind bars. These included influential cleric Salman al-Awda, who enjoyed huge following on social media.

Early this month, Saudi Arabian authorities detained another batch of 11 princes after they gathered at Qasr al-Hokm palace in Riyadh demanding, as per the public prosecutor, ‘the cancellation of a recent decree that halted state payment of water and electricity bills for royal family members.’ They were also seeking compensation for a death sentence implemented in 2016 against one of their cousins, Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer. This was unheard in recent Saudi history.

Not everyone accepted the official explanation. Prince Abdullah bin Saud bin Mohammed in an audio message ‘reportedly’ said, the government’s publicly stated reasons for arresting 11 princes were “false” and “illogical.” The prince, who only last October was appointed as the president of the Saudi marine Sports Federation was sacked from his official position immediately after. No official reason was given for his removal.

In the meantime, the 86-year-old Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a half-brother of King Salman is reportedly on hunger strike since November 10, apparently over the ongoing purge and the arrest of his three sons, including Prince Al Waleed bin Talal.

There is also no definitive word on the fate of Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, who was termed by Madawi al-Rasheed, as the “MBS who never made it.” Despite official denials, chatter continues that Prince Abdulaziz resisted arrest, and during the fight that ensued, he suffered a stroke or a heart attack. He is believed still to be alive, but in a vegetative state, according to several sources quoted by various news sites. Earlier last year, he defied MbS in various tweets.

Small-scale street protests, against petrol price hikes, were also reported from Qassim region of the kingdom. Authorities were swift in making arrests of some of the protesters and the organisers. The region is known as the power base of Saudi clergy.

With Saudi financial difficulties, making it incumbent upon the ‘king in making’ to take unpopular decisions, the crown prince is also looking at another possible source of revenue; coercing and extracting deals with those arrested under the ‘pretext’ of corruption. The Wall Street Journal reported the crown prince is potentially eyeing $800bn in seized assets.

Some have already given in to the pressures. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the former head of the powerful National Guard, who was reportedly mistreated physically during the incarceration, made a deal with MbS at a reported cost of around $1billion. Many other royals too bought their freedom. Consequently, the number of the ‘royal prisoners,’ at the opulent Ritz Carlton in Riyadh has dwindled.

However, those still holding out include the billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal. His assets, as per Bloomberg, stand at around $19 billion. Some reports now say Prince Mohammad is demanding Alwaleed to sign over ownership of his entire Kingdom Holding Company. However, as per CNBC bin Talal is balking at the $6 billion settlement fee and/or governmental control on some of his assets. In order to bring more pressure on Prince Waleed, he’s been reportedly moved from the ‘luxury of Ritz Carlton’ to the high-security Al-Hayer prison in Riyadh.

Some shareholders of Saudi Arabia’s biggest construction company, the Bin Laden Group, may also have transferred stock to the kingdom to “settle outstanding dues.” However, the Saudi Binladin Group later said in a statement that the company remains private. A Reuters report says the government has taken managerial control of the country, and may also erase up to $30 billion in debt it owes the company. Bakr Binladin, a scion of the closely-held firm was also swept up in the early November crackdown.

In the meantime, it has been reported that Riyadh also plans to pursue extradition of some Saudi corruption suspects living abroad.

Cracks within the royal family are thus too visible. Those closely monitoring developments feel that while some branches of the Saudi royal family were known to be corrupt, they were left untouched, while arrests were mostly directed at the bin Abdullahs and the bin Talals.

“Other branches of the family have been known for decades for their corruption, Prince Bandar said so in his own words on TV. Where is Khalid bin Sultan? Mohammed bin Fahd? Why aren’t they part of this investigation? Tell me it’s justice to catch some and leave out others well known in their corruption,” a source told the Middle East Eye.

Things are murky. While on one hand, Riyadh seems intent on pushing through austerity measures and widening further the anti-corruption net, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman has also been reported on a buying spree. These included $450 million purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, a yacht for $400 million and a French chateau at $300 million.

All this is bound to generate friction. This is a recipe for disaster. If the signs are interpreted correctly, Riyadh seems in for some real upheaval.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2018