Sweeping arrests, an OPEC+ setback, and rumours of the death of King Salman

Summary: Arrests of leading members of the Saudi ruling family, a humiliating setback in Vienna and rumours that King Salman died.

Dramatic events have been taking place in Riyadh over the weekend, with dozens of royal family members and security personnel arrested. Rumours that King Salman was dead caused the Saudi government to issue a statement and pictures on Sunday indicating that the king had presided over the swearing-in ceremonies of the newly appointed  Saudi ambassadors to Ukraine and Uruguay.

A picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on March 8, 2020 showing King Salman at the Royal Palace in Riyadh

On Tuesday the king is due to appear at the weekly cabinet meeting. A non-show will set the rumour mills swirling again.

Starting early Friday morning and continuing late that night, royal family members and security officers were rounded up, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a brother of the King, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the king’s nephew.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) are senior princes who command significant support both from within the royal family and also externally in the security services and among influential tribes. MBN has been under house arrest since Mohammed bin Salman removed him as crown prince and took the post for himself in June 2017.

MBS reportedly told some royal family members the reason for the arrests was because the two princes had been talking to European ambassadors about executing a coup d’etat and both have been accused of treason.

Between ten and twenty other members of the royal family were also arrested including the Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef and MBN’s younger brother Prince Nawaf bin Nayef. Prince Abdulaziz was targeted because he is known to be close to his uncle MBN and might theoretically have used his limited powers to try and strike back.

Prince Nawaf has no particular influence or position inside the government but used to serve as the communication backchannel between MBN and the rest of the royal family.

Others who have reportedly been detained include Prince Ahmed’s son Prince Nayef, the former head of intelligence General Yusuf bin Ali Al Idrisi (AKA General Yusuf bin Ali bin Yusuf bin Mohammed bin Ahmed Hersah) and Prince Mutib bin Abdullah. Mutib was previously detained in the Ritz Carlton roundup of November 2017 when over 200 leading businessmen and senior royals were arrested and detained at the five star Riyadh hotel in what was billed as a corruption crackdown.

Scores of lower-level officers regarded as potentially loyal to Princes Mohammed bin Nayef and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz have also been rounded up. A  Saudi source said that twice in the last six weeks Ahmed has been summoned to the Royal Court in an attempt to coerce him into giving MBS his support, twice he was offered anything he wanted in exchange for agreeing not to object to MBS acceding to the throne if the king abdicated, and twice he refused.

The arrests follow a humiliation at the OPEC+ meeting in Vienna that ended without a deal on production cuts the Saudis were keen to see implemented. The Russians left telling reporters that members could now pump what they like starting 1 April. Oil promptly dropped to US$45 and on Sunday fell another 25% to US$36 as a price war between the Saudis and the Russians kicked off.  Shares of Saudi Aramco slumped below their initial offering price for the first time since they went on the market in December last year. The Saudi stock market Tadawul in which many senior members of the ruling family are heavily invested slumped by more than 8% on the OPEC+ news and the growing Covid-19 crisis.

The market losses and the arrests have angered tribes and members of the ruling family as well as the business elite. The collapse of oil prices has further exacerbated the situation. According to those around MBS there are now two scenarios going forward.

The first is that the situation quickly spins out of control as the royal family rejects MBS’s latest wave of arrests, senior figures in the army and National Guard start to refuse orders and the regime breaks down. MBS has tried to forestall this scenario by including military officers he does not trust in last weekend’s arrests.

What is more likely however is that MBS temporarily manages to silence his critics once again and then continues to try and run the country through force. This is a risky strategy because without the backing of the royal family the regime may start to collapse from within.

By trying to exercise total control in the Kingdom using a strong arm policy of arrests and an ongoing climate of fear MBS is testing the Saudi system to its limits and in doing so risks everything.

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