A videotaped interview of an exiled Saudi prince living in Europe who is calling for regime change in his home country went viral this week. Prince Khaled bin Farhan was exiled from Saudi Arabia and given given political asylum in Germany in 2013, where he's not infrequently given interviews exposing the inner workings of the royal family, though he himself is distant in the line of succession.
While we don't expect the West to ever give close US-ally Saudi Arabia the Syria treatment of setting up a government in exile or establishing a "Free Saudi Army" to topple Riyadh, the fascinating interview given this week by the dissident prince included a brazen call for his uncles to take action to depose King Salman and the crown prince and take over the country.
Speaking to Middle East Eye early this week, Prince Khaled appealed specifically for his relatives Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz to mount a coup, saying that "99 percent of the members of the royal family, the security services and the army would stand behind them." Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was longtime deputy minister of interior from 1975 to 2012 and briefly served as minister of interior in 2012; and Muqrin bin Abdulaziz was briefly named crown prince in 2015 before quickly being replaced, and was head of Saudi intelligence until 2012.
"There is so much anger within the royal family,” Prince Khaled told Middle East Eye, "I took this information and appeal to my uncles Ahmed and Muqrin, who are the sons of Abdulaziz and are highly educated, well versed and able to change things for the better. I can say that we are all behind them and support them."
Though it's unclear how much clout, if any, Prince Khaled actually has inside the kingdom, his interview went viral this week amidst speculation and wild rumors claiming that Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was injured or killed after not being seen in public since April 21 — the same day gunfire was widely reported near the prince's residence, which the Saudis blamed on a toy drone breaching the security perimeter.
The Saudis appear to have quieted the stories questioning bin Salman's whereabouts and status by releasing a official photo of him chairing a meeting of government ministers. Much of the initial sourcing behind claims that the toy drone incident was actually a coup attempt come from both Iranian state media and a mysterious Saudi opposition blogger only known under the pseudonym Mujtahidd.
Prince Khaled, however, said the drone was a cover story which makes no sense: “I personally believe that this was not necessarily an attempt to bring down Mohammed bin Salman but rather an act of protest against him” he explained.
Khaled further warned of more upheaval to come, referencing MbS' very first act after coming to power — his infamous rounding up of close to 400 royals and other prominent officials who were perhaps less than completely loyal, locking them in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton, with some reportedly tortured and made to hand over their fortunes.
MbS staying in power will result in a continued "volcano" of instability according to Khaled, who explained: “I would like to say to the Europeans that the situation in Saudi Arabia resembles a volcano that is about to erupt. If it erupts, it will affect not only the situation inside Saudi Arabia or in the Arab region but it will have an effect on you too.”
Referencing the kingdom's volatile mixture of autocratic rule and Wahhabi clerical establishment, he said Islamic terrorism would explode in the region and throughout the world should a coup be successful coming from outside the royal family: "So, if Saudi Arabia descends into a state of chaos, there will be global chaos, and it [Saudi Arabia] will be a source of terrorism for the entire world as it will support and sustain international terrorism," Prince Khaled said. Though of course we would add that while the Saudi regime presents itself as 'firefighter' of the terrorist scourge, it is in reality the arsonist which uses its Wahhabi militants abroad, especially in places like North African and Syria, as the New York Times has pointed out.
"I have received a large number of emails from within the police and army in support of my call" - Exiled Prince https://t.co/tGtiIa0oT1— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) May 21, 2018
Concerning last November's supposed 'anti-corruption purge' — which aimed at recovering $800 billion in total assets for Saudi state coffers (according to WSJ figures, though the Saudis say they've netted $100bn) — Khaled said that while the over 300 detained royals were released, they are no longer free men as they have monitoring devices fitted to their legs, have their cell phones monitored, and are prevented from travel outside the country.
He said the prolonged detention, which drove world headlines for weeks and months, humiliated the royal family: "It was a shock for the entire family because prominent figures in the family were detained, in a way that held a great deal of humiliation. It was a shock for the entire family. The family is now facing the undermining of its standing in the eyes of the people. And this will inevitably undermine its legitimacy."
Of MbS' reform agenda, which includes lifting the ban of women driving and opening cinemas and liberalizing the workplace, Khaled dismissed as the attempt to create a smokescreen to appease the West, hiding the true nature of the Saudi oppressive top-down system, which places absolute powers to appoint judges and government members in the hands of the king. Indeed the continued crackdown and arrests this week of women's rights activists who campaigned against the ban in the first place seems to confirm this.
“The make-up of the state will constantly change with the personality of the king," Prince Khaled said. "Where is the strategic plan for the state? We need to have a clear goal that we’re working towards. And it’s the role of the king to come up with a tactical plan to help us enact these strategies."
He continued, "But, with the way we’re going, our country will be late reaching them. We’re already late. We use to think that we had financial assets and educated individuals, but unfortunately the situation right now is taking us back years."
Prince Khaled, who the Saudis have reportedly tried to lure back to the kingdom in order to detain and silence, has come under the protection of German intelligence, who have also warned him against any travel outside their borders for fear that Saudi intelligence would kidnap him.
This is unsurprising given that Khaled has also gone on record to describe MbS as mentally unstable and long suffering from “psychological problems" while revealing embarrassing internal family dynamics from MbS' youth. “I wouldn’t say he was violent," Prince Khaled recounted to Middle East Eye, "but when he was younger, in the royal family, he didn’t have status. He was an ordinary member of the family. His brothers had higher positions, and they had a voice within the Saudi ruling elite. Of course, his cousins were older, more experienced, better positioned, more educated and everything else."
"So I think he developed psychological problems, because one of his cousins whom he arrested, when he would meet him, he [Mohammed bin Salman] would have to ask for an appointment, and maybe the prince would meet him, or maybe not. So this created within him a psychological problem and today he is taking his revenge against his cousins."
Though it's impossible to verify many aspects of the exiled prince's testimony, one thing does seem certain — we are only one year into MbS' de facto rule (and he's not even king yet as his aging and ailing father is still on the throne), and yet the "volcano" of instability that Prince Khaled describes has already shown signs it is beginning to erupt.