This article was first published on October 20, 2018 and updated on March 9, 2020.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, appears to be further tightening his grip on power following another wave of detentions against perceived challengers to his rule.
Among those detained in the latest sweep were two of the kingdom’s most prominent royals, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the king’s last surviving full brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz.
The Saudi government has not officially responded to reports that the princes were accused of a coup plot against Saudi King Salman and the crown prince, widely known as MBS.
Since he outmanoeuvred more senior rivals in 2017 to become crown prince, MBS has received favourable coverage in international media, with a multitude of reports focused on his economic and social reforms in the conservative kingdom.
However, previous arrests and an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, as well as the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has shifted the focus towards the darker side of MBS’s record. This also includes thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen and a rapid rise of the number of executions since his ascent to power.
With logistical support from the United States, the Saudi-UAE-led alliance have now carried out more than 20,000 raids on Houthi-held areas in an attempt to reverse their gains.
Human rights groups have accused the Saudi-UAE-led coalition forces of indiscriminately bombing civilians and hospitals, schools and other infrastructure.
The long-running war has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions more and left much of the country on the brink to famine, with the United Nations describing Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Speaking to Time in April 2018, MBS defended the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, saying: “In any military operation mistakes happen … Of course, any mistakes made by Saudi Arabia or the coalition are unintended mistakes.
“We don’t need to have a new Hezbollah in the Arabian peninsula,” referring to the Iran-backed Lebanese group.” This is a red line not only for Saudi Arabia but for the whole world.”
When Hariri travelled to the Saudi capital in November 2017, his phone was confiscated on arrival, and a day later he resigned his post live on a Saudi-owned television channel.
It transpired Hariri was summoned to meet both King Salman and MBS a day after his arrival, but was eventually presented with his resignation speech to read on television, sources told the Reuters news agency shortly after the event.
The move sparked outrage in Lebanon over what was publicly perceived as the abduction of a sovereign state’s prime minister by another country.
Saudi-Lebanese relations were strained, as President Michel Aoun refused to accept the resignation and called on authorities in Riyadh to release his country’s “detained” prime minister.
Hariri, for his part, accused Iran and Hezbollah of destabilising Lebanon and remained in the Saudi capital for two weeks.
He ultimately returned to Beirut weeks later after French President Emmanuel Macron’s successful mediation efforts and withdrew his resignation.
Despite denying all allegations of forcing Hariri to resign or holding him captive in the country, MBS was seen as one of the key players behind the bizarre episode.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive, a move seen by many as a progressive step for women’s rights in the kingdom.
MBS was generally seen as the main force behind the decision, but it was a group of Saudi human rights activists who first fought for the right to drive back in the 1990s and continued to publicly push for the right since then.
Several activists, mostly women but also several men, were arrested just weeks before the ban was officially lifted.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the arrests, saying it was an attempt by MBS to show he would not accept criticism of his rule.
— Amro Ali (@_amroali) September 26, 2017
“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘reform campaign’ has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement at the time.
“The message is clear that anyone expressing scepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail.”
The activists are currently still in prison, together with many other human rights activists arrested on other charges.
Speaking to Bloomberg in 2018, MBS said the arrests were “not about women asking for the right to drive … It’s nothing at all to do with that.”
He said some of those arrested had connections with foreign intelligence agencies and had tried to harm Saudi Arabia. “Qatar is one of those countries that recruited some of those people. And some agencies indirectly working with Iran. Those are the two main countries that are really recruiting these people.”
“I believe there will be a formal case against them based under Saudi law,” MBS added.
Following the arrest and imprisonment of several domestic women’s rights activists, Saudi Arabia got into a diplomatic spat with Canada in August 2018.
After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for the release of the activists and a general improvement of human rights in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh, freezing trade with the Northern American country and ordering all Saudi students based in Canada to return home.
“We don’t want to be a political football in Canada’s domestic politics. Find another ball to play with,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City in reaction to the measures.
“It’s very easy to fix. Apologise and say you made a mistake.”
Responding to Saudi Arabia’s actions, Canada’s then-Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa would not be changing its position.
“Canada will always stand up for human rights … We feel a particular obligation to women who are fighting for their rights around the world,” she said. “And we feel a particular obligation to people who have a personal connection to Canada.”
Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.
— Foreign Policy CAN (@CanadaFP) August 3, 2018
Meanwhile, in November 2017, Germany’s then-former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticised Saudi Arabia for what it called “adventurism” in the Middle East and meddling in Lebanon’s internal politics by detaining Hariri during his visit to Riyadh.
Those comments started a 10-month diplomatic row between the two countries, leading to Saudi’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Berlin and denying accreditation to Germany’s ambassador in Riyadh.
In April 2018, Germany also introduced draft legislation aimed to prevent weapons exports and all other related goods and services to countries that may use them for human rights abuses, mostly focusing on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their involvement in the war in Yemen.
The diplomatic spat ended in September 2018 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, when Germany’s new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the countries had decided to put their dispute to rest.
“In recent months, our relations have witnessed a misunderstanding which stands in sharp contrast to our otherwise strong and strategic ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and we sincerely regret this,” Maas said.
Since he became crown prince, MBS has not only cracked down on human rights activists, but also on political rivals.
Those arrested were locked up for weeks in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where some were reportedly physically mistreated.
A report by the New York Times said 17 of the detainees required hospital treatment after physical abuse, including one who later died in custody.
According to experts, MBS used the purge to remove people that could potentially pose a political threat to the crown prince.
“If your goal really is anti-corruption, then you bring some cases. You don’t just arrest a bunch of really high-ranking people and emphasise that the rule of law is not really what guides your actions,” Greg Gause, a Gulf expert at Texas A&M University, told Al Jazeera at the time.
Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of contemporary Arab politics at Qatar University, said that the purge was part of MBS’s plan to consolidate economic and political power in Saudi Arabia.
“That required destroying other economic empires in Saudi Arabia,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to Saudi Arabia seizing more than $100bn in anti-corruption settlements from those arrested.
Following the allegations of abuse, HRW called on Saudi Arabia to hold those responsible to account.
“The alleged mistreatment at the Ritz-Carlton is a serious blow to [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman’s claims to be a modernising reformist,” said Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“While MBS jaunts across Western capitals to gin up foreign investments, investors should think twice the Saudis’ cavalier dismissal of the rule of law and fundamental rights.”
Speaking in November 2017 after the purge, King Salman said it was an attempt to tackle corruption and came in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money”.
On June 5 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a diplomatic and trade blockade on it.
The move to cut ties with Qatar, which was mainly driven by MBS and the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, seems to have achieved nothing significant other than dividing the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.
According to a report from The Intercept, the original blockade plan included a military aspect as well, with Saudi and UAE forces invading Qatar.
The plot involved Saudi ground troops crossing the land border into Qatar, and with military support from the UAE, advancing 100km (62 miles) inland and seizing the Qatari capital, Doha.
Based on information it said it received from a current member of the US intelligence community and two former State Department officials, The Intercept said the coup plot, which was largely devised by Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s crown princes, “was likely some weeks away from being implemented”.
Pressure from former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was concerned that the invasion would damage Saudi Arabia’s long-term relationship with the US, caused the Saudi crown prince to back down.
Almost three years later, the blockade against Qatar still stands.
Over the past couple of years, MBS has instituted several societal reforms in Saudi Arabia, including opening the country’s first movie theatres and allowing music concerts to take place, moves hailed by many as progress towards a more open society.
During the same period, the number of executions in the kingdom has steeply increased.
Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that still beheads people as a form of execution, has been in the five top countries for the number of executions carried out for more than a decade.
According to human rights organisations Reprieve and Amnesty International, the number of executions has seen a sharp increase in recent years.
“In the eight months after he was appointed crown prince, 133 people were executed,” Reprieve said in March 2018.
“Mohammed bin Salman has overseen the execution of 16 people on average per month, every month, since his appointment. If this rate continues, 2018 could see 200 executions, the highest number of executions ever recorded in Saudi Arabia in one year,” the organisation added.
Amnesty International has also condemned Saudi Arabia’s prominent use of the death penalty, adding the country uses the punishment as a way of stifling criticism from a Shia minority in the country.
“These brutal executions are the latest act in the Saudi Arabian authorities’ ongoing persecution of the Shia minority. The death penalty is being deployed as a political weapon to punish them for daring to protest against their treatment and to cow others into silence,” Amnesty said in 2017.
The organisation also criticised MBS personally, saying the crown prince should invest in human rights, not PR for trips abroad.
“If you didn’t know better, you would think Saudi Arabia is on a path to major reform. However, in the months since the crown prince’s appointment, we have seen little reason to believe that his overtures are anything more than a slick PR exercise,” Amnesty said earlier this year.
“In fact, Saudi Arabia retains an atrocious human rights record and the situation has only deteriorated since [MBS] was appointed as official heir to the throne in June 2017.”
When pressed on a spate of executions in the kingdom in a 2016 interview with The Economist, MBS stressed that all of those executed had been through three layers of the Saudi judicial system.
“They are reviewing a crime, and a procedure, and a trial, and a sentence, and carrying out the sentence,” he said.
After 18 days of denials, Saudi Arabia admitted the journalist was killed, allegedly in a fist-fight with Saudi officials inside the consulate.
From the very start of his disappearance, Turkish authorities said Khashoggi was killed immediately after entering the mission by a Saudi state hit squad. Saudi officials, however, kept insisting Khashoggi left the building shortly after he entered.
As international pressure increased on Saudi Arabia, its prosecutors finally released a statement on October 20, saying: “… discussions that took place between him [Khashoggi] and the persons who met him during his attendance in the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul led to a quarrel and a brawl with the citizen, Jamal Khashoggi, resulted in his death”.
Khashoggi, once an adviser to members of the royal family, fell out of favour for his criticism of MBS’s reform programme.
“As we speak today, there are Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed,” Khashoggi told Al Jazeera in an interview in March 2018.
“Now, nobody will dare to speak and criticise the reform … It would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critics, for Saudi intellectuals, Saudi writers, Saudi media to debate.”
In a report published in June last year, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, criticised the Saudi Arabian investigation into the killing.
In her 100-page report, Callamard said Khashoggi’s murder constituted a premeditated extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia’s leadership was responsible. The report also said it found “credible evidence” warranting further investigation into the crown prince’s liability for the killing.
Following an international outcry, 18 Saudi nationals were arrested over the issue.
In December, the kingdom’s public prosecutor said five people had been sentenced to death over the murder, but two top figures investigated over the killing had been exonerated.
The trials of the accused were carried out in near-total secrecy, though a handful of diplomats, including from Turkey, as well as members of Khashoggi’s family, were allowed to attend the sessions.
To date, Khashoggi’s body has not been found.
In an interview with US network CBS last year, MBS denied ordering the killing but said he took “full responsibility “since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government”.
Following the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure in September last year, criticism of MBS among members of the ruling family reportedly became more prominent.
The attack sparked concern among several prominent branches of the ruling Al Saud family, which numbers about 10,000 people, over MBS’s ability to defend and lead the world’s largest oil exporter, Reuters News Agency reported in October.
The September 14 attack set ablaze two of state oil giant Saudi Aramco’s plants, initially knocking out half of the kingdom’s oil production – five percent of global oil output.
Saudi Arabia has said Iran was responsible, an assessment that US officials share. Iranian officials have denied involvement.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, but at the time, the UN said it was unable to verify whether Iranian weapons were used.
Some Saudi critics said MBS’s aggressive foreign policy towards Iran and involvement in the war in Yemen exposed the kingdom to attack, according to sources quoted by Reuters.
In December 2019, meanwhile, Aramco’s record initial public offering gave it a price tag of $1.7 trillion, making it the world’s most valuable company.
But its shares have fallen more than 11 percent since the start of the year amid concerns the new coronavirus outbreak will slow oil demand from China and hurt the global economy.
Last week, several US media outlets reported the detention of two senior members of the ruling Al Saud family, Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Nayef.
The Wall Street Journal later reported the sweep has since widened to include dozens of interior ministry officials, senior army officers and others suspected of supporting a coup attempt.
In a Bloomberg report on Friday on the arrest of the two senior royals, a source was quoted as saying that the pair were accused of “treason”.
While there is still no comment by Saudi authorities, the detentions mark the latest crackdown by MBS in an attempt to consolidate power, analysts say.
Roxane Farmanfamaian, a lecturer on Middle East politics at the University of Cambridge, said this latest move is even a more “ruthless, more important step than we’ve seen so far”.
“I think he’s showing that he should not be underestimated,” Farmanfamaian told Al Jazeera.
“He’s approaching it in … a much harsher and more aggressive way,” she said, “He’s certainly establishing his position and he is silencing his critics inside.”
MBS had also launched a crackdown on dissent against activists, academics and religious figures, detaining dozens since 2017. The ruling Al Saud family has long regarded Islamist groups as the biggest internal threat to its rule.