ABDEL BARI ATWAN | 5 NOVEMBER, 2018
A Royal Reshuffle?
The return of Prince Ahmad
Many questions were raised about the prolonged stay in London of Prince Ahmad bin Abdelaziz, youngest of the seven Sudairi sons of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch – especially after he told a group of protestors outside his residence that they should not blame the ruling family as a whole for the war in Yemen. Even bigger questions are now raised by his return to Riyadh and the fact that he was greeted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Speculation is rife about the ‘surprises’ the Saudi royals may have in store.
Prince Ahmad left Saudi Arabia before the criminal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But it is unlikely he would have returned, or been accorded such a warm welcome, were it not for that crime, and the current Saudi leadership’s admission that it was carried out by an 18-member ‘death squad’ whose members were sent to Istanbul for the purpose.
Muhammad bin Salman, who due to his father’s illness is the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has never shown the least tolerance towards his opponents or those who failed to support his elevation to the post of crown prince, be they members of the royal family or commoners. Some 1,500 of them remain behind bars, by his own admission, including princes. So it was striking that he should accord a respectful welcome home to the most prominent of those opponents. His uncle Ahmad never pledged allegiance to him, and refused to hang his portrait alongside those of his father and grandfather in the reception hall of his palace in Riyadh.
According to reliable Saudi sources in London, Ahmad – who is married to the sister of the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Prince Muhammad bin Nawwaf – had planned on an extended stay in the British capital. His unexpected return four weeks after the murder of Khashoggi could not have happened without some arrangement having been made, in conjunction with US and British authorities, for reordering the royal house in Riyadh via a bloodless coup.
It is hard to speculate upon the formula that could transpire as a result of Prince Ahmad’s contacts with American and British officials in London, and the meetings he will have in Riyadh. Key interlocutors there include Prince Talal bin Abdelaziz, deputy chairman of the royal family’s allegiance council, and Prince Muqrin bin Abdelaziz, the former crown prince replaced by King Salman as soon as he had assumed the throne, despite his predecessor King Abdallah’s insistence that he should remain next in line to the throne.
Changing the crown prince has ceased to be a difficult undertaking since King Salman assumed the throne in 2015. He replaced two crown princes within a matter of months – first his brother Muqrin, then Muhammad bin Nayef, whom he shunted aside in favour of his own son Muhammad. It is not unlikely that we may see another move of this kind in the weeks ahead, as numerous leaks and news reports suggest.
A number of questions need answering in this regard.
First, if there is an intention to give a top post to Prince Ahmad, what will it be, king or crown prince? And if he becomes king, who will become his heir apparent?
Second, has he met with King Salman since he returned? There are conflicting stories affirming and denying that such a meeting took place.
Third, what is the Trump administration’s attitude to Prince Ahmad? Does it acquiesce to his becoming king or crown prince?
Fourth, what role is to be given to Prince Khaled bin Salman, the current Saudi ambassador in Washington. Until recently, he was tipped to take over from Adel al Jubeir as foreign minister. Might he be named crown prince if, in a ‘pre-emptive strike’, the king abdicates and Muhammad bin Salman formally assumes the throne?
It is perhaps significant, though not widely known, that throughout his time as a government official – whether as deputy interior minister under his brother Prince Nayef, or after he took over from him as minister – Prince Ahmad never visited the US. Nor did he receive any US officials, according to a Saudi friend who often visited him in his office at the interior ministry. Contacts with the US were handled by Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who was in charge of security. The two men were at odds because the latter would often bypass him on certain issues and deal directly with King Abdallah and the royal court.
The Saudi royal family has always been secretive about its internal affairs, so everything that can be said about this sensitive matter must remain in the realm of speculation, hearsay and analysis. This secretiveness also means that its decisions are for the most part announced suddenly, with no prior stage-setting.
As for the US, and especially the Trump administration, all it cares about in its strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia is for the arms deals to keep coming. We doubt any of the ruling family’s princes, whether in or out of power, will dispute that.
The fallout from Khashoggi’s assassination is set to continue producing surprises and changes, including at the very top. We have only just begun to see them. More are sure to follow.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of Rai al-Youm, an Arab world digital news and opinion website.