Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, the younger brother of King Salman, has returned to Saudi Arabia after a prolonged absence in London, to mount a challenge to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or find someone who can.
The septuagenarian prince, an open critic of bin Salman (MBS), has travelled with security guarantees given by US and UK officials.
“He and others in the family have realised that MBS has become toxic,” a Saudi source close to Prince Ahmad told Middle East Eye.
“The prince wants to play a role to make these changes, which means either he himself will play a major role in any new arrangement or to help to choose an alternative to MBS.”
The source said that the prince returned “after discussion with US and UK officials”, who assured him they would not let him be harmed and encouraged him to play the role of usurper.
Apart from those western guarantees, Ahmad is also protected by his rank.
Last November, bin Salman conducted a sweeping purge of dissident royals, yet was not able to touch any sons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, who are regarded as too senior a target for him.
The 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne’s dominance in the kingdom has come under intense scrutiny following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October, leading to speculation that he could be replaced.
MEE understands that while Prince Ahmad was in London he held meetings with other members of the Saudi royal family who are currently living outside the kingdom.
Prince Ahmad also consulted figures inside the kingdom who have similar concerns and have encouraged him to usurp his nephew.
MEE also understands there are three senior princes who support Prince Ahmad’s move, who cannot be named for fear of compromising their security. All have held top positions in the military and security forces.
Meanwhile, in Washington disquiet grows.
Writing in the New York Times, former national security advisor to the Obama administration and US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said: “Looking ahead, Washington must act to mitigate the risks to our own interests. We should not rupture our important relationship with the kingdom, but we must make clear it cannot be business as usual so long as Prince Mohammed continues to wield unlimited power.
“It should be United States policy, in conjunction with our allies, to sideline the crown prince in order to increase pressure on the royal family to find a steadier replacement,” she added.
Prince Ahmad’s return will only increase the pressure on bin Salman, who is at the centre of a standoff between Saudi Arabia and Turkey after Khashoggi was murdered in his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
The Turkish authorities are demanding the Saudis tell them where Khashoggi’s body is, and the Saudis are insisting that Turkey hand over the audio tapes of the execution, details of which have routinely been leaked to the media.
In a thinly veiled attack on the crown prince, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday accused the Saudis of protecting the person responsible for the murder.
“A game to save somebody lies beneath this,” Erdogan told reporters following a speech in parliament on Tuesday. “We won’t leave Khashoggi’s murder behind.”
The Turkish president, who outlined some of the investigation into Khashoggi’s murder in an address last week, has promised to reveal more details about the killing but has so far refrained from doing so.
Saudi chief prosecutor Saud al-Mujeb has met Istanbul’s chief prosecutor Irfan Fidan twice in the last two days, but no progress has been reported.
The Saudis are continuing to refuse Turkish investigators access to the well in the grounds of the consul-general’s home, which is 500 metres from the consulate.
After first denying that Khashoggi had been murdered in the consulate, the Saudis now say they have arrested 18 suspects, 15 of which were members of a death squad sent to kill the prominent critic of the crown prince.
Bin Salman has repeatedly denied knowledge of the operation, which included five members of his personal security detail, three of whom accompanied him on high-profile trips to London, Washington and Paris.
On Monday Mujeb offered Fidan the suspects’ testimony. Turkey, though, demands their extradition, so they can stand trial and give evidence to a Turkish court. Saudi Arabia is refusing this.
Before the Khashoggi affair, Prince Ahmad’s opposition to his nephew was a matter of public record. He has challenged him openly on three occasions:
First, in the summer of 2017, when the king's brother was one of three members of the Allegiance Council, a body of senior royals tasked with choosing the succession, to oppose bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince.
Prince Ahmed pointedly did not give an oath of allegiance to his nephew when he was made King Salman's heir.
Second, when Prince Ahmad and King Salman’s brother, Abdelrahman bin Abdulaziz, died last year. Only two pictures were hung at the reception given by Prince Ahmad, that of King Abdulaziz and the current monarch. The crown prince’s portrait was notably missing.
Third, last month, when Prince Ahmad approached Yemeni and Bahraini protesters outside his London home who were calling the al-Sauds a criminal family.
The brother of Saudi Arabia's King Salman was heckled outside his residence in London.
So he confronted protesters telling them to blame King Salman and the Saudi Crown Prince instead pic.twitter.com/IzSY3tMs1Q
— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) September 4, 2018
He told them the family as a whole does not bear responsibility for the war in Yemen, only the king and crown prince do.
“They are responsible for crimes in Yemen. Tell Mohammed bin Salman to stop the war,” Prince Ahmad was recorded as telling them in Arabic.
Fraught with risk
Prince Ahmad’s return to Riyadh is fraught with risk.
He is believed to have the support of significant figures in the family who now believe after the Khashoggi affair that the crown prince is permanently tainted in the West and toxic to the reputation of the family as a whole.
A Saudi dissident prince in Germany, Prince Khaled bin Farhan, told MEE in May that princes Ahmad and Muqrin bin Abdulaziz could both restore the reputation of the family, which has been destroyed by King Salman’s “irrational, erratic and stupid” rule.
“There is so much anger within the royal family,” Prince Khaled said. “I took this information and appealed to my uncles Ahmad and Muqrin, who are the sons of Abdulaziz and are highly educated, well versed and able to change things for the better. I can say that we are all behind them and support them.”
Among other Saudi exiles in London and Istanbul opinions differ. Some call Prince Ahmad too weak a figure to wrought change in the kingdom.
Others say that he has personal motives for wanting to see the back of bin Salman, having been passed over for the position of crown prince himself.
The key question is whether he will be able to perform the same role as King Faisal, who ousted his brother Saoud in the only previous family coup in 1964.
If all fails, however, Prince Ahmad could find himself fitting another historic parallel: Ahmed Shafik’s attempt to oust Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in March’s election.
Shafik, seen as Sisi’s most serious challenger, was encouraged to return to Egypt after a period of exile in Dubai.
Yet on his return he was disowned by fellow generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and forced to abandon the presidential challenge.
Significantly Sisi did not attend the latest investment conference in Riyadh, the so-called "Davos in the Desert", despite an invitation by MBS to do so.