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Saudi Arabia’s Bin Salman Takes Preemptive Action Against Coup Threat

The crown prince, facing increased vulnerability while on his tour of Arab states, has scrambled the kingdom’s armed forces in response to rumors of dissent within the Saudi royal family

Mujtahid, a respected Saudi social media voice, reported on the Al-Khaleej Online newspaper earlier this week that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman had reshuffled military personnel and assets inside the kingdom in response to rumors that some members of the royal family may have been planning a coup against him.

The news comes as the prince continues a tour of Arab states that began last week and as the international community considers sanctions against Saudi Arabia over the assassination of U.S-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives in Istanbul last month, quite possibly on the orders of MBS – a popular shorthand for the prince in Western media.

Troops were reportedly diverted from the kingdom’s eastern and western provinces to the capital of Riyadh, a move that appears intended to deter a possible coup in the prince’s absence.

“Since the Khashoggi affair, there have been rumors that some members of the royal family had conversations amongst themselves about the need to change the country’s leadership or at least it’s leadership structure,” Gerald Fierstein, the senior vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, conveyed to The Media Line.

“It would not be surprising if indeed some type of conversation got to MBS to make him question the commitment of some members of the family to his leadership,” Fierstein added.

The crown prince’s crackdown on opposition spiked last year when he imprisoned numerous members of the royal family and other wealthy “dissidents” in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel. Other purges have taken place since then, giving some members of the royal family, notably Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, reason to seek extended sojourns abroad. Nevertheless, Prince Ahmed, who has expressed an interest in reforming parts of the Saudi government, returned to the kingdom in late October after spending months in the United Kingdom; he was reportedly warmly welcomed by the crown prince.

In his report, Mujtahid claimed that “had Prince Ahmad announced… the removal of King Salman from power, 95% of the family would have pledged allegiance to him on the spot.”

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told The Media Line that MBS “has alienated many members of the royal family during his Ritz Carleton shakedown. The assassination of Khashoggi has also added to the sense of instability.

“Anytime Bin Salman is out of the country, he is more vulnerable and if he is treated as a pariah abroad, it increases his vulnerability,” Riedel concluded.

Indeed, as the crown prince continues his foreign tour ahead of the G20 conference in Argentina at the end of November and makes his way through countries with traditions of liberal democracy and civil freedoms, he stands greater chances of being viewed as a persona non grata.

Such was the case when he landed in Tunisia earlier this week. Upon his arrival, he was met by animated protesters brandishing signs reading: “Bin Salman, war criminal” and “Stop killing children in Yemen.”

(Victor Cabrera is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)