Mohammed bin Nayef had been replaced as crown prince and heir to the throne in 2017 when King Salman elevated one of his sons, Mohammed bin Salman, to the role and gave him wide authority to effectively run the kingdom.
Mohammed bin Nayef had earlier served as the country’s interior minister, developing a close working relationship with U.S. security officials.
Both the arrested men could claim a more senior place in the line of succession to Mohammed and were seen as potential rivals to the throne.
The two princes had returned together from a hunting trip late Thursday when they received a call summoning them to meet the crown prince at the royal palace, said one of the people who had been briefed on the events by members of the royal family. When they arrived, they were taken into custody, according to the account.
The arrests come at a sensitive time for the kingdom, with oil prices plummeting and Mohammed’s decision to halt visits to Mecca in response to the coronavirus stoking discontent. The arrests were first reported by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
The royal family also has faced international criticism over the October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi. The United Nations blamed what it called an “extrajudicial execution” on Saudi state agents, and U.S. intelligence officials have privately told Congress that Mohammed, who is often called by his initials MBS, was responsible.
Mohammed, the crown prince, has been consolidating his power over the past couple years, seeking to disarm critics and silence dissent both at home and abroad.
While he has succeeded in concentrating authority in his own hands to a degree that’s highly unusual in the kingdom, it’s unclear what kind of opposition he might face to becoming king when his elderly father dies. It is also uncertain what may have prompted the reported detentions.
Some Saudi commentators said the arrests suggest rifts within the royal family over the succession of the crown prince, whose strong-arm tactics have alienated many princes.
“The arrest of several senior disgruntled princes such as Ahmed and MBN [Mohammed bin Nayef] reflects a growing discontent with the ‘Son King’ over his despicable hegemony and erratic social, economic, foreign and religious policies,” tweeted Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic based in London and a fierce critic of the crown prince.
Hugh Miles, editor of ArabDigest.org, a subscription service offering political analysis about the Middle East, noted that fissures within the royal family could post long-term difficulties to the crown prince once he takes the throne.
“Although many questions still remain about what has happened in Saudi Arabia in the last 24 hours, what is clear is that MBS is now facing ruling Saudi Arabia without the backing of the rest of the royal family,” said Miles, who is based in Cairo. “This is a major problem for him because any would-be Saudi King is expected not only to have the royal family’s full allegiance, but also to be able to prove it.”
As a son of the founder of the Saudi kingdom, Prince Ahmed is senior in line to Mohammed, but was passed over in favor of a new generation of younger princes.
As Mohammed has strengthened his grip, there had been speculation that he could be considered as an alternative to Mohammed bin Salman.
Mohammed bin Nayef had been living in Britain, afraid to return after he made comments that appeared to criticize the crown prince. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 2018 after Khashoggi’s killing after being given assurances for his safety, according to the person with knowledge of the arrests.
Mohammed bin Nayef has survived four assassination attempts, including one in which he was injured by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber in 2009.
In 2017, the crown prince ordered the arrests of hundreds of princes, government ministers and business people, detaining some of them in a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Ostensibly an anti-corruption crackdown, the sweeps were seen as a part of his effort to consolidate power.