EXCLUSIVE: Saudi crown prince plans to become king before November G20 summit
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a purge against his chief royal rival, his uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, because he intends to become king before the G20 summit in Riyadh in November, sources briefed about the plans have told Middle East Eye.
Bin Salman, known as MBS, will not wait for his father King Salman to die because his father's presence gives legitimacy to the son, and he wants to use the summit in November as the stage for his accession to the throne.
Instead, MBS will force his father, who suffers from dementia but is in otherwise good health, to abdicate, the sources said.
This will finish the job started when MBS ousted his elder cousin Prince Mohammed bin Nayef from the position of crown prince, the sources said.
"He wants to be sure while his father is there, he becomes the king,” one source said. Over the weekend pictures were released of King Salman greeting ambassadors, to disprove rumours sparked by the purge that the king had died. Sources at the King Faisal Hospital dedicated to the care of members of the royal family also dispelled those rumours.
Before his arrest on Friday, Prince Ahmed, the king's younger full brother, was given one last chance, after years of public opposition, to come aboard the MBS project, and he refused, the sources said.
"There was pressure on Ahmed to give his full support to MBS. He met with the king, and Salman and others in the court used polite words to encourage him to back his son," a second source said.
"Ahmed made it clear he would not support this project. He did not give his word. Ahmed told the king he himself was not keen to become king but would look to others to come forward."
Summons from the king
Meanwhile, more details emerged about the circumstances of Ahmed's arrest.
According to the sources, Ahmed was not planning a coup before his arrest on Friday morning, as was claimed in one briefing given to Reuters, primarily because the prince had no power to make such a move.
"Prince Ahmed would have openly objected to his nephew's accession, as a member of the Allegiance Council, if the king dies and the question of accession to the throne comes formally before it," the source said.
"He would have clearly said no. But there was no attempted coup."
The Allegiance Council, or Bayaa, is the body which still nominally has to approve MBS's accession to the throne.
What is the Beya?+ Show - Hide
The Bayaa, or Allegiance Council, was created in 2007 by King Abdullah to secure the future succession to the Saudi throne. Previously this had been the sole prerogative of the king.
Its main purpose was to avoid a power struggle and ensure a smooth succession after all of the sons of Abdulaziz, the founder and first king of Saudi Arabia, had died.
The council is intended to ensure the collective loyalty to the monarch of all of the branches of the Saudi royal family. It was originally composed of 34 members, representing the number of sons of Abdulaziz who themselves had male offspring. When a member died or resigned they were replaced by their son, or a place was allotted to their branch of the family in the future.
The council has two principal roles: to determine if the king is capable of fulfilling his functions or to accept the king’s resignation; and to announce who the new crown prince will be following the accession of a new king, chosen nominally from three candidates offered by the king.
While the choice of crown prince is determined by a vote, in reality the council is expected to execute the new king's wishes.
However, a small but important clause in the council’s rules is that if the king is one of the founder’s grandsons, his crown prince cannot be from the same branch of the family (such as a brother or son).
This means that if Mohammed bin Salman becomes king, he would be expected to choose one of his cousins as crown prince.
The source said Ahmed had just returned from a falconry hunting trip abroad and had given a reception for his close circle on Thursday night.
Ahmed was passed a message that the king wanted to see him on Friday morning. This was about another arrested prince, Faisal bin Abdelrahman, whose case Ahmed had raised with Salman some weeks ago.
On Friday morning, Prince Ahmed went to the royal palace with his security detail. He was arrested the moment he entered the king's compound.
"He did not see the king. It was total betrayal," the source said. According to him, a second member of the Allegiance Council was also arrested in the purge.
Asked why this purge was launched now, the sources cited external and internal reasons.
They said MBS was becoming concerned about the possibility that Donald Trump would not secure a second term of office as US president.
All the presidential candidates remaining in the Democratic race are declared critics of the crown prince and had openly condemned him for allegedly ordering the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.
Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have consistently refused to hold the crown prince accountable for the murder of Khashoggi and blocked calls for a criminal investigation by the FBI or the UN.
In his last interview on the subject published in June last year, Trump said the Khashoggi murder "really didn't come up" in the discussions he held with MBS.
Trump said that Iran had killed more people, and he pointed to Saudi spending on US weapons and other goods.
"They spend $400bn to $450bn over a period of time, all money, all jobs, buying equipment," Trump told NBC News.
"And by the way, if they don't do business with us, you know what they do? They'll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese."
Secondly, the sources claimed that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ, who has mentored MBS and introduced him to the Trump clan before he became president, was also in on the scheme.
Hamed al Mazroui, a well-known blogger with links to MBZ, whose tweets were among the first to break the news of the purge in the Ritz Carlton in November 2017 and the 2017 start to the siege of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and others, tweeted two words in Arabic before the latest arrests were widely known. They translate as "Check mate".
"MbZ is instrumental in each move his protege makes. The more mistakes MBS makes and the greater the instability he causes, the greater the leverage bin Zayed has over the affairs of Saudi," the source said.
Internally, MBS's reforms are not going well.
The two latest hitches to his reform plan are the rapid fall in the price of oil, to below the level at which the state budget needs for its income, and his increasing unpopularity in the Muslim world, months before the annual Hajj is due to start.
Held back by curbs on oil output negotiated by Opec, Saudi Arabia's economy expanded just 0.3 percent in 2019, down from 2.4 percent a year earlier and short of the government's forecast of 0.4 percent.
MBS's economic woes deepened on Sunday, when the Saudi stock market dived by 8.3 percent, the lowest closing since November 2017, when he launched the first round of purges.
Shares in Saudi Aramco dropped below their IPO price of 32 riyals ($8.50) for the first time, losing 9.1 percent to 30 riyals.
'Delicate generational succession'
Controversy has also stalked MBS's decision to effectively close the borders of the kingdom to most visitors and all Umrah pilgrims, because of the coronavirus epidemic.
Critics have noted that the crown prince allowed a big concert, entitled "Persian Night," to go ahead as part of the Tanturah Winter festival on 5 March.
All these factors, sources say, convinced MBS to strike now against the last remaining hurdles in the way of his accession to the throne.
"This purge is different from the first one in 2017. Then, MBS was at the height of his popularity as a young and bold reformer. He sold the purge as an anti-corruption campaign, and it was popular even with journalists like Khashoggi. This purge comes after a series of scandals. It's as if MBS is trying to evade one scandal by moving on to an even bigger one,” another high placed Saudi critic said.
Justifying the arrests, Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator in Washington and a loyal supporter of the regime, appeared to confirm in his tweets that this was about a generational succession.
He wrote: "On Saudi: what people must appreciate is that the Royal family has had to go through a very delicate generational succession (that had been a cloud hanging over the country for over a decade given the large number of princes who were technically eligible to succeed)...
" ... and that no formula existed to sort that issue out in [a] fashion that could please everybody. What has happened since King Salman's succession is that he made his choice clear and that inevitably created a lot of disenfranchised royals some who were naturally displeased..."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.