Saudi Arabia arrests three royal princes, including the king's brother, for 'coup plot': reports

RIAD: Saudi authorities have arrested three princes, including King Salman's brother and nephew, accused of planning a coup d'etat, US media reported Friday, signaling a new consolidation of power by the de facto ruler of the kingdom

The arrests set aside the last vestiges of the possible opposition to the Crown Prince and occur when the kingdom limits access to the most sacred sites of Islam in a highly sensitive movement to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, brother of King Salman, and the monarch's nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, were charged with treason and taken out of their homes Friday night by royal guards dressed in black, he said the Wall Street Journal citing anonymous sources.

The Saudi royal court accused the two men, once possible candidates for the throne, of planning a coup d'etat to unseat the king and the crown prince and could face imprisonment or execution for life, the newspaper said.

The New York Times also reported on the arrests, adding that Prince Nayef's younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, had also been arrested.

Saudi authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The arrests mark the last offensive of Prince Mohammed, who has consolidated his control of power with the imprisonment of prominent clerics and activists, as well as business princes and elites.

Prince Mohammed has also faced a torrent of international condemnation for the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate of the kingdom of Istanbul in October 2018.

Already seen as the de facto ruler who controls all the main levers of the government, from defense to the economy, it is widely seen that the prince is leaving traces of internal dissent before a formal transfer of power from his father, King Salman, 84 years old .

Prince Mohammed is emboldened: he has already expelled any threat to his rise and imprisoned or killed critics of his regime without any repercussion, said Becca Wasser, a policy analyst at the US-based RAND Corporation, on the latest offensive.

This is one more step to shore up its power and a message for anyone, including royalty, not to cross it.

Prince Ahmed, in his 70s, had returned to the kingdom from his base in London after the Khashoggi scandal, in what some saw as an effort to shore up support for the monarchy.

Just before his return in October 2018, the prince had sparked controversy over the comments he made to protesters in London singing against Saudi royalty over the kingdom's participation in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

What does the family have to do with that? Certain people are responsible ... the king and the crown prince, he said, according to an online video of the widely circulating incident.

The comment was seen by many as a rare criticism of the leadership of the kingdom and its role in Yemen, but Prince Ahmed rejected that interpretation as inaccurate.

Prince Mohammed surpassed Prince Nayef, the former crown prince and Interior Minister, in 2017 to become the heir to the most powerful throne in the Arab world.

At that time, Saudi television channels showed Prince Mohammed kissing the older prince's hand and kneeling before him in a show of reverence.

Western media reports later said that the deposed prince had been placed under house arrest, a claim strongly denied by Saudi authorities.

The arrests come at a sensitive time like Saudi Arabia prohibits Muslim pilgrims from the holiest sites in Islam from containing the new coronavirus.

The kingdom has suspended the umrah pilgrimage throughout the year for fear that the disease will spread to Mecca and Medina, creating uncertainty about the next hajj, a key pillar of Islam.

The oil-rich kingdom is also dealing with the drop in the price of crude oil, its main source of income.