DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was shown in state media on Sunday in apparent good health and working, just days after the arrest of two senior princes triggered speculation about a possible coup attempt or a sudden deterioration in the king’s health.
Two people close to the royal family said that the two princes were under arrest for not supporting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has consolidated control of all major levers of power inside the kingdom with the support of his father, King Salman.
The arrests of the king’s younger and beloved brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, and the king’s nephew and former counter-terrorism czar, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, came after what one person in Saudi Arabia with knowledge of the arrests described as an accumulation of behaviour that was provocative to leadership.
The source added that the arrests sent a message to anyone in the royal family feeling disenfranchised: Stop grumbling and toe the line, because if Prince Ahmed can be arrested, any prince can and will be. Prince Ahmed was seen as a person who royals could look to when feeling vexed with the crown prince’s grip on power, the person said.
The reports of a crackdown emerged early on Friday. In the king’s first appearance since then, state media showed the 84-year-old king on Sunday standing and greeting two Saudi diplomats being sworn in as ambassadors. He was previously seen on Thursday meeting British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in Riyadh.
The arrests came as a surprise, given that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 60, was widely known to be under close surveillance since he was shunted out of the line of succession by the king’s son in mid-2017, a person close to the royal court said.
The arrest of Prince Ahmed, 78, was also unexpected since he is the king’s full younger brother and also a senior member of the ruling Al Saud family.
Prince Ahmed, however, has long held unfavourable views of the 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.
Both princes had served previously in the post of interior minister, overseeing security and surveillance inside the country.
There has been no official comment from Saudi authorities on the arrests.
The crown prince is popular among many in Saudi Arabia for pushing through bold reforms that have transformed life for many, including loosening severe restrictions on women and allowing concerts to be performed and movie theatres to open.
Still, his economic transformation plans have struggled to take off.
The kingdom continues to rely heavily on oil for revenue, despite efforts to diversify. Oil prices have plunged amid the disruptions caused by the new coronavirus, signalling trouble for producers like Saudi Arabia.
Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2020