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Saudi crackdown widens amid reports of further arrests of royals

A roundup of royals and aides has widened in Saudi Arabia, according to several reports, in what is believed to be the latest crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the kingdom’s de facto ruler, against potential challengers to his power. On Saturday, a day after it was reported that two senior members of the royal…

Saudi crackdown widens amid reports of further arrests of royals

A roundup of royals and aides has widened in Saudi Arabia, according to several reports, in what is believed to be the latest crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the kingdom’s de facto ruler, against potential challengers to his power.
On Saturday, a day after it was reported that two senior members of the royal family were detained over an alleged coup plot, US media outlets said Prince Nayef bin Ahmed, a former army head of intelligence, was also among those being held.
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Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that the sweep broadened to include dozens of interior ministry officials, senior army officers and others suspected of supporting a coup attempt.
It came a day after the Journal cited sources familiar with the matter as saying that masked guards with the royal court on Friday arrested Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a younger brother of King Salman, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the king’s nephew and a former crown prince. The guards also detained a brother of Mohammed bin Nayef.
There has been no official comment from Saudi authorities on the arrests.
“There are some kinds of rumours and innuendos that there’s turmoil within the family in the form of criticism, but that doesn’t justify being arrested as criminals, with masked security forces coming to their rooms and yanking them out of their private residences,” Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
The detentions raised speculation about the health of 84-year-old King Salman and whether MBS’s succession to the throne was imminent, but on Sunday the official Saudi Press Agency released images of King Salman presiding over the swearing-in ceremony of newly appointed Saudi ambassadors to Ukraine and Uruguay.

Consolidating reign
A son of King Salman, MBS has moved to consolidate power since replacing his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne in 2017.
Later that year, dozens of senior members of the royal family and billionaire businessmen were rounded up and detained at a luxury hotel in the capital, Riyadh, in what the Saudi government described as being part of an anti-corruption drive.
Separately, rights groups have denounced the detention of hundreds of activists, including women’s rights campaigners, amid growing criticism over the kingdom’s human rights record, including the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents and the devastating war in Yemen.
“He’s not worried about people trying to make a coup,” Rami Khouri, a journalism professor at the American University of Beirut, told of MBS.
“He doesn’t want any independent voices that don’t agree with him,” added Khouri, pointing to the reports saying that Prince Ahmed was one of only three people on the Allegiance Council, made up of the ruling Al Saud family’s senior members, who opposed MBS becoming crown prince in 2017.
In late 2018, a video emerged of Prince Ahmed facing protesters outside his London residence and in which he seemed to criticise King Salman and MBS for the war in Yemen, described by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
“Don’t blame the entire family … Those responsible are the king and his crown prince,” he said at the time. “In Yemen and elsewhere, our hope is that the war ends today before tomorrow.”
Though Prince Ahmed quickly retracted his comments, insisting that his words were taken out of context, messages of support and pledges of allegiance began pouring in. 
The 78-year-old also issued a statement to deny speculation that he was interested in the role of the monarch and has largely kept a low profile since returning to Riyadh in October 2018 after two and a half months abroad.
‘Not in a vacuum’
Both Prince Ahmed and Mohammed bin Nayef were seen as possible rivals for the throne when King Salman dies, with reports suggesting they now face long-term imprisonment or even death.
Simon Mabon, a senior lecturer in international studies at Lancaster University, said even though the reasons behind the arrests were not clear, they did not happen “in a vacuum”.
“There have been a range of other things going on inside the kingdom, predominantly the long-standing efforts of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to seize power and to ensure that he has no form of internal or external descent,” he told Al Jazeera.
“What we saw with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and this latest round of purges against his rule and against the legacy that he is trying to create for himself for the next 50 years or so as he becomes king.”
Khouri said the idea of a coup being fomented was unlikely in light of the “immense, direct and brutal control” that MBS has over all of the kingdom’s security agencies. 
“It is a sign of the nervousness of the crown prince and the people around him who rule Saudi Arabia because they probably expect that the king will either abdicate or pass away soon,” he added.
“They expect there might be some kind of challenge to the succession.”

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Crackdown as HK security chief warns of growing ‘terrorism’ |NationalTribune.com

Hong Kong’s security chief on Monday warned “terrorism” was growing in the city as the local government rallied behind Beijing’s plan to impose national security laws on the restive territory and police fired tear gas and pepper spray at thousands of people who took to the streets to protest. “Terrorism is growing in the city…

Crackdown as HK security chief warns of growing ‘terrorism’ |NationalTribune.com

Hong Kong’s security chief on Monday warned “terrorism” was growing in the city as the local government rallied behind Beijing’s plan to impose national security laws on the restive territory and police fired tear gas and pepper spray at thousands of people who took to the streets to protest.
“Terrorism is growing in the city and activities which harm national security, such as ‘Hong Kong independence’, become more rampant,” Secretary for Security John Lee said in a statement.
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“In just a few months, Hong Kong has changed from one of the safest cities in the world to a city shrouded in the shadow of violence,” he said, adding that national security laws were needed to safeguard the city’s prosperity and stability.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told the public broadcaster RTHK on Monday that said he did not expect any delay in the drafting of the national security law.
Tam said members would start work on it soon after the NPC votes on the resolution on Thursday, adding that the standing committee would hold a meeting at the end of June to discuss the matter.
Earlier, Ray Chan, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, wrote on social media: “Call us terrorists, whatever you want, after the Wuhan Virus outbreak, China has no more credibility in the world.”

Growing calls for independence
On Monday, police said they arrested more than 180 people during protests on Sunday.
Authorities had fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse anti-government protesters who accused the police of using excessive force.
In a return of the unrest that roiled Hong Kong last year, crowds thronged the streets of the city in defiance of curbs imposed to contain the coronavirus.
In contrast with previous rallies, however, there were louder calls for independence with chants of “Hong Kong independence, the only way out,” echoing through the streets.
Calls for independence are disliked by Beijing, which considers Hong Kong an inalienable part of the country.
The proposed new national security framework stresses Beijing’s intent “to prevent, stop and punish” such acts.

INSIDE STORY | How much of a headache is Hong Kong to China? (24:51)

Hong Kong government agencies issuing statements in support of the legislation included the Commissioner of Correctional Services and Hong Kong Customs.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan wrote on his blog on Sunday the national security law “itself” does not affect investor confidence, only the “misunderstanding” of it does.
“The central government has already said the law is targeted at the minority of people who are suspected of threatening national security and will not affect the rights of the general public.”
Turning point for Hong Kong
Lee’s comments came amid growing signs that the June 4 candlelight vigil organised annually by civil society groups to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing could be banned.
While declining to go into specifics, former Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung told public broadcaster, RTHK, that anything that involves activities said to be “separatist in nature” may well be banned.
He explained that the purpose of the legislation was not to deter people from holding protests but to combat “terrorism”, and stamp out the activities of people who advocate independence for Hong Kong.
Leung is a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Police detain a protester during a rally on Sunday against the implementation of the national security law in Hong Kong [Jerome Favre/EPA]

RTHK quoted him as saying that whether the vigil itself could fall foul of the law could depend on what participants do even after the gathering is over.
The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concerns about the national security legislation, widely seen as a potential turning point for the city, which was guaranteed rights and freedoms unknown on the mainland when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
On Sunday, the US said the new legislation could lead to sanctions that would threaten the city’s status as a financial hub.
“It looks like with this national security law they’re going to basically take over Hong Kong and if they do … Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo will likely be unable to certify that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy,”  National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in an interview with NBC.
“And if that happens, there will be sanctions that will be imposed on Hong Kong and China.”
Beijing, meanwhile, has warned of a “new Cold War” with the US, saying the country has been infected by a “political virus” compelling people to continually attack China.
Taiwan, which has become a refuge for a small but growing number of pro-democracy protesters fleeing Hong Kong, said on Monday it would provide the people of Hong Kong with “necessary assistance”.
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MBS’s crackdown: What prompted the recent arrest of Saudi royals?

Saudi Arabia’s reported detention of senior royals and top officials earlier this month has raised myriad questions on what prompted the crackdown and whether it was the aftermath of an attempted coup in the Saudi royal court. To many observers, the detentions appeared to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) latest effort to consolidate…

MBS’s crackdown: What prompted the recent arrest of Saudi royals?

Saudi Arabia’s reported detention of senior royals and top officials earlier this month has raised myriad questions on what prompted the crackdown and whether it was the aftermath of an attempted coup in the Saudi royal court.
To many observers, the detentions appeared to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) latest effort to consolidate power by targeting two of the royal family’s most influential members, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, the youngest brother of King Salman, and Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince and interior minister.
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The two senior royal family members were detained on Friday, according to the New York Times and other US media reports. There was no official comment from Saudi authorities.
Saudi experts and observers, including sources with connections to the royal palace, told Al Jazeera it remained unclear whether there had been a plot against MBS.
But what was apparent, they said, was that Prince Mohammed, who has been tightening his grip on power since he was appointed as crown prince in 2017, felt increasingly threatened by his two main rivals: Prince Ahmed and Mohamed bin Nayef, the man he replaced.
With both appearing to be alternative centres of power or legitimate successors to the throne, their presence – and rejection of MBS as the future king – made him fearful that other members of the royal family may rally around them.

Saudi analysts have cast doubt that a coup attempt, in its traditional sense of an army takeover, would have occurred.
But one analyst said the arrests might have been the result of the uncovering in recent months of a plot to remove Prince Mohammed.
Others pointed at King Salman’s old age and possible ill-health as a trigger, compounded by the upcoming US elections and the possibility of US President Donald Trump – one of MBS’ main international allies – not being re-elected.
Allegiance and compliance
A former adviser to the late King Abdullah, who still has connections to the royal court, told Al Jazeera the biggest reason behind the crackdown was Prince Ahmed’s refusal to pledge allegiance to Prince Mohammed.
“King Salman has summoned Ahmed to the palace every year to convince him to accept his son’s ascent to the throne,” said the former adviser, who wished to remain anonymous. “The last time this happened was last month.
“But Ahmed refused to give bay’a [pledge allegiance] to MBS, saying the throne was his rightful place, based on their father’s will.”
He added: “Prince Mohammed feels that if he does not take the throne during Trump’s reign, he will never get the chance.”
Prince Ahmed was one of three members of the Allegiance Council, the royal body that endorses the line of succession, to oppose MBS’s appointment as crown prince in place of his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef in 2017.
As the youngest of the seven Sudairi brothers from whom King Salman also hails, 78-year-old Prince Ahmed has been seen a legitimate successor to the throne. He has been publicly critical of MBS’s policies, including the kingdom’s role in Yemen.

Who was detained in Saudi’s crackdown?

Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident and head of the Movement for Reform in Arabia, who described the culture of coup attempts in Saudi Arabia as “non-existent” due to the “scattered nature of the army and heavy surveillance of Saudi royals”, confirmed the narrative.
“Prince Ahmed was summoned twice to the royal court in recent months, in an attempt to coerce him to accept MBS’s ascent to the throne. But he refused,” said Faqih, adding that Prince Ahmed may have also been in conversation with other members of the royal family, prompting the latest crackdown.
“Ahmed may have been speaking to his nephews about his rejection of MBS as king, looking for them to do the same. Even though all his communication is monitored because he is under MBS’s surveillance, these conversations may have been regarded by the palace as a coup attempt or amounting to treason,” al-Faqih told Al Jazeera.
Al-Faqih added that Prince Mohammed “is worried that if Trump doesn’t win the elections this year [he] will find less support because, apart from Trump, the US administration doesn’t support him”.
Even after accusations were levelled against MBS over the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Trump vowed to remain a “steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia.
According to Glen Carl, a former US intelligence officer and an expert on the Saudi royal court, if the US administration changes, Washington’s approach to Saudi Arabia will likely change too.
“There will be more open pressure or possible isolation of MBS in international settings… and a change in policy to temper some of Saudi Arabia’s actions,” said Carl, referring to regional conflicts, including the civil war in Yemen.
King Salman’s health
A source, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said speculations generated by a recent visit to the hospital by King Salman was “an emergency situation that forced MBS to take that move”.

The detentions had sparked widespread rumours that the 84-year-old king’s health was failing, but state television aired video footage of him accepting oaths of office from two new Saudi ambassadors and attending a weekly cabinet meeting.
“If the king has been unwell, MBS must be nervous. He needs Ahmed’s pledge of allegiance while the king is still alive. That’s his only way to an automatic ascent to the throne after the king’s death,” said the source.
Carl, the former US intelligence officer, agreed: “Once the king dies, it becomes harder for MBS to take the throne because others can contest that by saying the tradition succession is different.”
Who are MBS’s rivals?
While Prince Ahmed is seen by some as the legitimate heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Nayef is another strong contender, regarded as a committed ally of the US, a respected figure in the “war on terror” and former interior minister and crown prince.

“Nayef had good relations in the British and American intelligence services. He was a rival power … where there aren’t many power structures beyond MBS,” said Carl.
“For the US and UK, Nayef was considered a good successor to the throne … [seeing] that Saudi policies were congenial to the US and UK on the whole [during his time as crown prince],” he added.
According to Ali al-Ahmad, a Saudi scholar and expert on Saudi political affairs, Mohammed bin Nayef is not only a strong contender for the throne, but he also has connections inside and outside the kingdom.
“There may have been a plot by Nayef to get rid of MBS. Nayef is the most experienced security individual [in the kingdom] with strong allies and a patronage network,” said Al-Ahmad.
“He also has external support from former CIA officials … who are working with him and his aide to plot against MBS.”
Yayha Assiri, a Saudi dissident and former member of the Royal Saudi Air Force, told Al Jazeera that disapproval of MBS is not only in Saudi Arabia but is also growing overseas.
“Many forces both inside and outside the country don’t want MBS,” said Assiri.
“Whether they are members of the US administration or EU officials, everyone is worried that MBS [as king] would create more instability in the region. He comes across as rash and dangerous due to his role in the war in Yemen, the blockade on Qatar and the assassination of Khashoggi.
“These actions make allies wanting to find a replacement for him,” he added.

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