During the past month, news about domestic Saudi Arabian politics has been dominated by frenzied speculation over an imminent coup within the world’s most opaque and important ruling family: the House of Saud. This rumour was started by a little-known website dedicated to Middle Eastern affairs. It was then quickly picked up by the Guardian and numerous other British newspapers, and a few days ago was given new impetus when splashed by the Independent.
Remarkably, there is only a single source for all of these stories of senior, disgruntled, dagger-wielding royals lurking in the vast palaces of Riyadh and Jeddah: a Saudi prince who is one of the 12 surviving sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz, and who has requested anonymity ‘for security reasons’. His sensational claims are backed up only by a gaggle of overseas-based Saudi activists, who again are quoted ad nauseam.
There has only been one palace coup since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932, when King Saud was deposed in 1964, so at first glance the prospect of another in the world’s biggest oil producer does appear intriguing. In fact, the parallels are striking: Saud was deposed because of the overlapping crises of the government’s finances (also in dire straits today) and the civil war in Yemen in which Saudi Arabia, then as now, was a key player. However, at a cursory second glance it becomes obvious that this latest story is hokum and represents the British media’s reporting on the Middle East at its worst.
For a start, the prince being quoted has absolutely no influence in the royal court. Moreover, he has been spouting the same nonsense – almost always without the cover of anonymity – for half a century. Since he has suddenly requested anonymity, I am not about to out him here. But if I know who he is, then so do his fellow Saudi royals and, of course, the vast Saudi security apparatus. If he was even the slightest threat to the latter he would long since have been given the classic treatment meted out to perceived fifth columnists inside the kingdom – as when dissident prince Sultan bin Turki was allegedly drugged in Switzerland, bundled onto a private plane and whisked back to Saudi Arabia to be placed under permanent house arrest. And all he was guilty of was mumbling something, in private, about how corruption was getting out of hand. The current oft-quoted prince has not been silenced because, while considered a maverick and a nuisance, he does not pose a serious risk to the status quo. The only reason he has suddenly cloaked his new coup narrative in anonymity, I suspect, is that if his name were attached to the story, it would provoke little more than the collective yawn that greeted his previous yarns.
The justification for the Independent returning to the story with such excitement was the prince’s claim that he now has the support of ‘eight of the 12 surviving sons of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch’. Sounds impressive. Until, that is, we ask the all-important question that no one else so far has. Namely, who are they?
Aside from Salman, the current king, who obviously is not a part of the grand conspiracy, none of them hold government positions. All who did in the past were close to the last king, Abdullah. And they are all now well into their seventies or eighties (one, Bandar bin Abdulaziz, is 93!). As I explained in a previous piece for The Spectator, when Abdullah died in January, the Al-Sudairi branch of the family, led by King Salman, sacked or marginalised everyone associated with his rule or family branch. So while this proposed ‘coup’ against them has been justified by reference to apparent widespread discontent among the Saudi population, it really amounts to nothing more than sour grapes on the part of Abdullah’s marginalised clan – who, during their own time in government, were every bit as oppressive as the debauched madmen currently at the realm. As things stand, they will be out of the line of succession to the throne for generations, and in the highly unlikely event that a coup does take place, we should remember that their own lack of power and influence (not the Saudi people’s) is all they will be worried about. How else to explain their collective silence during King Abdullah’s reign, even when the above-mentioned prince was drugged and kidnapped (when Abdullah was the de facto ruler) and two of Abdullah’s own kidnapped and incarcerated daughters were pleading for help?
All of which brings us to the equally opportunistic Saudi activists who have championed, and thus given false credence, to the coup-plotting prince’s self-serving cause in the name of progress and reform. The news articles about the coup have quoted the very same ‘experts’ who duped me into publishing a piece in the Washington Times a decade ago about a new liberal Saudi opposition party that had massive support throughout the kingdom and was going to usher in radical change faster than you can say ‘senior Saudi prince caught in sex-and-prostitution sting’. Ten years on, the promised political party – the Saudi Democratic Opposition Front – still does not exist.
John R. Bradley’s books include Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom