Mohammed bin Salman purges rivals to clear path to throne

Salman has fomented tension among royals by violating established order of succession

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a new round of purges of potential royal challengers with the aim of clearing his path to the succession once his elderly and ailing father, King Salman (84), steps down or dies.

Bin Salman may try to achieve this objective before the G20 meeting of leading industrial nations in Riyadh in November. The detained princes are accused of "treason" for contacting foreign powers with the aim of carrying out a coup.

The crown prince’s most senior targets are prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the king’s full brother and former interior minister, and his son Nayef, head of the Land Forces Intelligence and Security Authority and the highest ranking member of the Saudi armed forces to be purged.

Prince Ahmed, a member of the Allegiance Council which decides on succession, has openly objected to his nephew’s rise to power and returned in 2018 from exile in Britain only after assurances that he would not be arrested.


Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, famed for his suppression of radicals, was named crown prince in 2015 when King Salman took the throne and replaced and put under house arrest in 2017 by bin Salman. Bin Nayef’s half-brother Nawaf has also been held, either at home or in jail.

The four belong to bin Salman’s “Sudairi branch” of the dynasty founded by Abdulaziz bin Saud, who had seven sons with Hassa al-Sudairi, the daughter of a powerful tribal chief. Two of the “Sudairi seven”, Fahd and Salman, have become king.

When Salman took power in January 2015, he fomented tension among royals by violating the established order of succession by choosing a Sudairi crown prince instead of a scion from another branch. Rotation had maintained balance and peace in the family.

Resentment deepened

Bin Salman’s record as Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader has not inspired confidence. His purge of family members, which began in 2017, has alienated royals; his crackdown on commoner dissent has made critics fearful but won him no supporters.

The brutal murder of expatriate journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has horrified global public opinion. Bin Salman's Vision 2030, intended to diversify the kingdom's oil-dependent economy, has faltered.

His ambition for a much needed triumph was thwarted when the public listing of state-owned Saudi Aramco stock took place on the Saudi exchange rather than in New York or London. His war in Yemen is an expensive disaster from which he appears unable to extract the kingdom.

Bin Salman’s repression of Shias has deepened resentment against the Sunni establishment in the oil-rich Eastern Province. By allowing women to drive, obtain passports and attend sporting events, by opening cinemas and promoting concerts, bin Salman has become popular with the young generation of Saudis who have no means to affect policies in the autocratic kingdom.

Riyadh's weekend decision to upend a three-year alliance with Moscow on oil production levels and pricing by boosting exports and cutting the price has precipitated the fastest fall in oil prices since 1991. It has led to a row with Russia and jitters in stock markets already shaken by the negative global economic impact of coronavirus.