In a video circulated on social media on 4 September, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a younger brother of King Salman, is seen telling anti-government protesters outside his London residence that they should blame the King and Crown Prince rather than the entire Saudi Royal Family for the war in Yemen and other regional problems. Separately, Saudi activists said on social media that prosecutors will seek the death penalty against the prominent Islamist cleric Salman al-Awdah on terrorism-related charges. Al-Awdah is a long-standing critic of the Royal Family who has previously been repeatedly arrested by the authorities.
Overt criticism of the King and his son by a senior royal is very rare, especially since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) detained large numbers of royals and senior businessmen last year on the pretext of tackling corruption. That move, aimed at sidelining rivals and intimidating potential critics, has limited public dissent from royals, even though many remain angry at his heavy-handed approach. However, Prince Ahmed’s status as the King’s brother and a senior member of the influential Sudairi faction may explain his willingness to criticise MbS – even though his comments were seemingly unplanned. Regardless, his remarks show continuing anger among the Royal Family over MbS’s foreign and domestic actions. Ahmed’s willingness to voice such dissent also suggests that he is confident of his popularity among the wider Royal Family, which was indicated in February when he returned to Saudi Arabia and many royals met him at the airport.
Ahmed’s criticism will embarrass MbS at a time when his position has been weakened by media reports suggesting that the sale of a 5% stake in the state oil company Saudi Aramco has been delayed indefinitely. The Aramco IPO had formed a central part of MbS’s 2030 reform agenda which aims to diversify the economy away from its reliance on oil. The apparent suspension of the sale therefore not only represents a major embarrassment for the Crown Prince but also risks delaying elements of his Vision 2030, as he will now need to identify alternative sources of funding for some of his reforms.
Nonetheless, Ahmed’s statements are unlikely to trigger a broader royal challenge to MbS because most of his royal critics and rivals are not able to leave the Kingdom and will be afraid to publicly criticise him for fear of arrest. Indeed, despite his confidence, on 5 September Ahmed released a statement saying his comments had been misinterpreted, which was likely intended to avoid open conflict with the King and his son. MbS is therefore unlikely to moderate his heavy-handed approach to dissent. This is highlighted by the move to prosecute al-Awdah, and other clerics, which is likely intended to warn Islamists not to criticise MbS. However, the execution of such a senior Sunni cleric would be unprecedented and is highly unlikely. Nonetheless, the threat will anger Islamists as well as jihadists, who will seek to exploit this in order to recruit from hardline Islamists and conservatives.
Meanwhile, the indefinite postponement of the Aramco IPO and the indications of continuing high-level dissent in the Royal Family will contribute to foreign investors’ growing doubts over the practicality of MbS’s reforms, which could further deter foreign investment. If, as a result, MbS is unable to deliver key aspects of Vision 2030, such as bringing unemployment down to 7% and increasing job opportunities for the country’s rapidly increasing youth population, this will increase broader public dissatisfaction with the Crown Prince. This could embolden MbS’s opponents within the Royal Family, as well as Islamists, to begin publicly criticising him, which would have the potential to significantly undermine his position in the longer term. This may in turn force him to abandon elements of his reform agenda in a bid to retain his personal authority.
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