Three princes, including King Salman’s brother and nephew, were arrested by Saudi authorities on charges of plotting a coup, the US media reported on Friday, suggesting a further consolidation of power by the de facto ruler of the kingdom.
The detentions cast aside the last vestiges of possible opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and come as the Kingdom restricts access to the holiest sites of Islam in a highly sensitive bid to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King Salman’s brother, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the nephew of the monarch, were accused of treason and taken from their homes early Friday by black-clad royal guards, the Wall Street Journal reported citing unnamed sources.
The Saudi royal court has accused the two men of “plotting a coup to unseat the king and crown prince” as potential contenders for the throne and may face life imprisonment or execution, the newspaper reported.
The New York Times also reported the detentions, adding that Prince Nayef’s younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, had also been detained.
Saudi authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The arrests mark the latest crackdown by Prince Mohammed, who consolidated his grip on power with the imprisonment of prominent clerics and activists as well as princes and business elites.
Prince Mohammed has also faced a torrent of international condemnation over the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018.
Before a formal transfer of power from his 84-year-old father, King Salman, the prince is widely seen as the de facto ruler overseeing all the major levers of government, from security to economy.
“Prince Mohammed is emboldened—he has already thrown out any threat to his rise and jailed or murdered critics of his regime without any consequences,” said Becca Wasser, a political analyst at the US-based RAND Corporation, about the latest crackdown.
“This is a further step to shore up his power and a message to anyone — including royals — not to cross him.”
In the wake of the Khashoggi controversy, Prince Ahmed, said to be in his 70s, had returned to the kingdom from his base in London, in what some saw as an effort to support the monarchy.
Just before his return in October 2018, the prince had courted a dispute over remarks he made to protesters in London chanting against the Saudi royals about the kingdom’s involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
Read More: PM Imran in Saudi Arabia on a daylong visit
“What does the family have to do with it? Some individuals are responsible… the King and the Crown Prince,” he said, according to a widely circulated online video of the incident.
Many considered this comment to be a rare criticism of the kingdom’s leadership and its role in Yemen, but Prince Ahmed dismissed that interpretation as “unaccurate.”
In 2017, Prince Mohammed beat Prince Nayef, the former crown prince and interior minister, to become successor to the most powerful throne in the Arab world.
Saudi TV channels at the time showed Prince Mohammed kissing the old prince’s hand and standing before him in a display of respect.
Western media reports later claimed that the deposed prince had been placed under house arrest, a claim strongly denied by the Saudi authorities.
The arrests are taking place at a sensitive time when Saudi Arabia is barking Muslim pilgrims from Islam’s holiest sites to contain the novel coronavirus.
The kingdom has halted the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage over concerns of the spreading disease to Mecca and Medina, creating doubt over the coming hajj — a central pillar of Islam.
The oil-rich kingdom is also grappling with the plunging price of crude, its major source of revenue.