Saudi Arabia, MbS and dissentWho’s afraid of Princess Basmah?
Things have been better for Mohammed bin Salman. Since the changing of the presidential guard in Washington, hardly a week goes by without negative headlines about MbS, Saudi Arabia’s 35-year-old Crown Prince who holds the reins of government business in Riyadh. Shortly after taking office, one of the first things Joe Biden did was to publish an intelligence agency report blaming MbS for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Just a few days later, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders filed a criminal complaint with the German public prosecutor accusing MbS of crimes against humanity.
And now, he’s also facing a challenge in the case of a detained princess and her daughter. Emboldened by the voting out of Trump, the princess’s supporters are now appealing for help. The case has primarily made headlines in Britain. "The two were abducted in March 2019 in Jeddah," says Henri Estramant, a legal adviser to both women who is now pushing for intervention in both London and Washington. "Since then, they have been arbitrarily held in a high security prison for terrorists," says Estramant, adding that the princess "is a political prisoner".
Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is one of the more than 100 children of King Saud, ruler of the country until 1964. Before her detention the princess, who is now 58, had returned to Saudi Arabia from London, although she continued to spend a lot of time abroad.
"Princess Basmah expressed herself very openly," Estramant describes her political standpoint, "she is not against the system of government in Saudi Arabia, but she criticised certain things that in her view transgress the boundaries of human dignity."
For example, while she lived in London Basmah gave an interview to the BBC. In it, the princess calls for Saudi Arabia to be turned into a constitutional monarchy and for human rights such as gender equality to be anchored in the constitution. She also takes a critical view of the Saudi war in Yemen, says Estramant.
Basman’s detention came to public attention last year. Since then, British media have documented what happened in February 2019 – just a few months after the dismemberment of Khashoggi in Istanbul. A leaked surveillance video even shows armed men waiting in the lobby of the princess’s villa to detain her. Basmah had planned to leave Saudi Arabia for a medical appointment in Switzerland, instead she and her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif ended up at Ha‘ir prison in Riyadh.
Internal power struggle
Basmah is not the only member of the sprawling House of Saud to find themselves in prison. Although he doesn’t have an exact number, says Adam Coogle of Amnesty International, he would estimate it to be at least a dozen. The most prominent prince behind bars is Mohammed bin Nayef, himself due to ascend the throne before MbS urged his father to place him first in line in 2017.
In Washington, it’s an open secret that many would prefer to see Bin Nayef in power in Riyadh. But it looks highly unlikely that this will ever happen: MbS had Bin Nayef arrested last year on charges of treason. Other princes detained on the orders of MbS at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh in 2017 were released, although many have fallen silent since.
This power struggle is evidently also a factor in the case of Basmah. "A number of things come together here," says a person close to the princess in conversation with Qantara.de, requesting anonymity for security reasons. Basmah maintained "close contact and a good relationship with Mohammed bin Nayef," the source says. The princess was "clearly viewed as a threat" by MbS and his people, the source continues. There had also been a row over her father’s fortune; and essentially, as a princess from another branch of the family with a critical voice and international contacts, she had been a thorn in the system’s side.
The dissident Madawi Al-Rasheed, guest professor at the London School of Economics, also believes the latter reason was the main motivation for Basmah’s arrest. "It is a battle between princes and princesses," she says. "Those princesses displaying absolute loyalty to MbS are promoted and appointed ambassadors, others whose views don’t toe the official line are targeted," says Al-Rasheed. For the professor, this is a sign that the regime is imploding; the inner circle has begun eliminating itself.