In recent years, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a lawless crusade against critics and possible rivals. The case of a detained prince has shed light on his methods of using fear to consolidate power.
Not even members of Saudi Arabia's royal family, which boasts some 15,000 members worldwide, are safe from the grip of the current heir-apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — commonly known as MbS. There have been several waves of arrest over recent years, the latest being in March, when about a dozen high-profile family members were detained.
However, it was the arrest of 37-year-old Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz and his father back in 2018 that drew international attention and subsequently triggered a major campaign for their release.
The reasons for the prince's arrest are unclear. According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), he tended to carry out philanthropic work and had donated some of his wealth to social causes in underdeveloped countries.
He is not known for having political interests or ambitions but he did apparently meet California Democrat Adam Schiff during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Schiff, who chairs the Intelligence Committee in the US House of Representatives, is a vocal critic of Donald Trump, with whom MbS is closely acquainted.
According to AFP, the Sonoran Policy Group (SPG), a commercial lobbying firm, has signed a $2 million (€1.8 million) contract with a Paris-based associate of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz to advocate for his release. The move has the support of the governments of the US, Britain and the European Union.
AFP also reported in February that a delegation from the European Parliament had visited Saudi Arabia and called on authorities to release the prince and other detained royals.
"I remain confident that the release would positively impact the relations of the European Parliament with Saudi Arabia,” wrote Marc Tarabella, vice-chair of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with the Arab Peninsula, in a recent letter to the European Commission.
Major economic difficulties
Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing a difficult economic and political crisis, which has been further exacerbated by the fall in the price of oil and the COVID-19 pandemic. The kingdom has also been heavily criticized for its intervention in Yemen and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the crown prince is suspected to have orchestrated.
Some believe Saudi rulers might now be more willing to negotiate Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz's release than they have been to date. In April, for instance, the government introduced a few progressive criminal justice reforms, such abolishing the death penalty for minors as well as flogging.
If the crown prince assumes the throne currently occupied by his father Salman, he will be the first king of his generation, that of the grandchildren of the Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia.
"There are a whole series of aspiring candidates. He will now have to consolidate his power against them," explained Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) while speaking with DW.
MbS has clearly started to do this already. In early November 2017, the crown prince had dozens of royals, ministers and businessmen arrested and charged with corruption. They were detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh and released over the following weeks in return for a fee, which is reported to have totaled the equivalent of €86 billion.
Arrests continue unabated
This year, the arrests have continued. Prince Ahmed, a brother of the ruling king, and Muhammad bin Nayef (MbN), who was deposed as crown prince in 2017, were arrested in March and charged with treason. In March, two more arrests raised eyebrows. Those taken into custody were the children of former Interior Minister Saad Al-Jabri, an advisor to Nayef. Neither of the children have been seen since their arrests and it is widely believed that they are being used as leverage to force al-Jaabri to return to the kingdom from Canada, where he has been living in exile since 2017.
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Prince Faisal bin Abdullah al Saud, a son of the late King Abdullah, has also not been heard of since he was detained in late March. Faisal had been detained during the 2017 wave of arrests but he was released soon after. Still, he was barred from leaving the country. According to the non-profit organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), he had criticized the political system in the kingdom, albeit not in public, and was detained by security forces at his family compound north of Riyadh on March 27.
"Despite waves of criticism, the lawless behavior of Saudi authorities during the de facto rule of Mohammed bin Salman continues unabated,” says Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Now we have to add Prince Faisal to the hundreds detained in Saudi Arabia without a clear legal basis."
"MbS knows that almost nobody trusts him anymore," says ESOHR's Ali Adubisi, "He knows he has to live in constant fear of his rivals."
The crown prince's rule is thus essentially based on fear, not on loyalty and decency. When the children of Jamal Khashoggi recently issued a statement in which they forgave their father's assassins, observers assumed the crown prince himself might have persuaded them to do so.
"He wanted to show that he can make steps towards former opponents and that they can trust him," says Adubisi. "The message was if people stick with him they can count on his loyalty."