A powerful brother of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has returned to Riyadh for “crisis” talks with the royal family that may cover the kingdom’s troubled succession, sources have claimed, as pressure mounts on the crown prince over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a prominent royal who had been based in London, landed in Riyadh on Tuesday morning, according to sources close to the royal court in Riyadh and opposition activists abroad.
He had apparently feared travelling to the kingdom but has now returned home where he has been possibly earmarked by angry royal family members as a potential replacement to the current crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader and the king’s son.
The 33-year-old crown prince, known by his nickname MBS, is suspected by US President Donald Trump, among others, of involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, an opposition journalist who was killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. The 59-year-old journalist, who was living in exile between the US and Turkey, was strangled as soon as he entered the consulate, Turkey’s chief prosecutor said on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied that MBS was behind the operation, even though members of the hit team were traced back to his office, insisting Mr Khashoggi was killed by as-yet unnamed rogue officials. Saud al-Qahtani, a longtime adviser to MBS, has been dismissed from his post over the killing.
Prince Ahmed, King Salman’s sole surviving full brother, apparently returned to Riyadh with protection guarantees from European officials, and last night met with his two half-brothers, Prince Talal and Prince Muqrin in the family home, according to the sources close to the royal family.
“They are set in the coming days to hold a royal meeting to discuss the current political situation and the future of Saudi Arabia; MBS will not be there,” said one prince, who is from a rival line of the royal family.
“I heard [Prince Ahmed] was recommended to be king, not just by the royal family but also by Europe [officials], he is very popular right now within the royal family.”
The same prince claimed that they may reconvene the “Allegiance Council” which was formed more than a decade ago to announce royal succession but has been largely defunct since 2012 when now King Salman was first appointed crown prince without its input.
Another source – a Europe-based Saudi dissident who is in close contact with members of the royal family – agreed.
“I know [Prince Ahmed] is back, I know he has been given some kind of protection by the Europeans, I don’t know how this protection is provided. But I know he has been approached by many family members to take action to start the initiative to counter MBS. These are facts,” the source told The Independent.
“How much he is intending to do we are unsure. But there are strong rumours [talks] are in the direction of appointing Ahmed as king or crown prince and that he will work tougher with his [younger] brother Prince Muqrin as the only healthy sons of King Abdulaziz,” the source added.
“We know there will be some kind of meeting and that Europe backs him.”
Prince Ahmed, thought to be a favourite in Europe but not necessarily backed by Trump administration officials with close to ties to MBS, is one of the so-called Sudairi Seven, the powerful alliance of late King Abdulaziz al-Saud’s sons, two of whom have served as kings.
In Riyadh, a person close to the royal court said that Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz has no interest in being king but may become crown prince as a stopgap until someone more suitable is chosen, given MBS has become “compromised”.
“Prince Ahmed just wants to ensure that the royal family will emerge from this impasse. He doesn’t want to be king but will be crown prince to make it possible for someone else to be appointed in his position,” the person said.
However, people within the kingdom and experts pointed to the popularity and power of MBS and his close ties with King Salman, as a reason it is unlikely he would be replaced.
“MBS holds all the power including the prosecutor, and the security file so nothing can be done without him, he calls all the shots,” said one Saudi resident.
Michael Stephens, an expert on the Gulf and a fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a defence and security think tank, urged people to be cautious about Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz’s visit to Riyadh.
“Saudi court politics is always full of intrigue, but people should stop over-reading into things. [King] Salman has invested too much into MBS to watch him fall. Secondly, MBS still has the monopoly on security decisions, a threat emerging from a recalled prince is small indeed,” he said.
Mohamed bin Salman is widely regarded as the real power behind the throne after assuming many of the duties of his elderly and ailing father since being promoted to defence minister in 2015 at the age of just 30.
The popular young prince has also been at the steering wheel of a slew of new social reforms in the country, including allowing women to drive and reducing the powers of the strict religious police.
He has not been formally accused of involvement in Khashoggi’s murder and he has condemned the murder as a “heinous crime that cannot be justified”. Saudi’s top prosecutor has admitted the killings were premeditated but by a rogue team.
But several world leaders have questioned how distant the powerful crown prince can be from such a high profile killing.
Mr Trump said last week that MBS probably knew of the plot to kill Khashoggi, claiming: “If anyone were going to be, it would be him,” when asked whether the country’s de facto leader was possibly involved.
On Wednesday, Turkey cast doubt over whether Saudi Arabia was willing to “genuinely cooperate” in the investigation with a senior Turkish official telling AFP that Saudi officials seemed “primarily interested in finding out what evidence Turkey had against the perpetrators”.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, French foreign minister, meanwhile said that “not enough” was being done to find the culprits.
“This crime has to be punished and the perpetrators identified. The truth needs to come out,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, who was the first Saudi official to acknowledge that the killing was premeditated, arrived in Istanbul on Sunday. Mr Mojeb reportedly held talks with officials of Turkey’s intelligence service. He has not made a public statement in Istanbul.
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