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Feature Article

The 'Dissent' of Prince Ahmad: Bad Blood or Widening Rupture?

Prince Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz startled Saudi watchers recently by appearing to confirm the suspected chasm between the policies of the king and crown prince and the concerns of the broader royal family. Were his off-guard remarks to a crowd of protesters a clue to the family's simmering discontent, or do they reflect a more personal animosity?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Senior royal Ahmad, one of the last remaining sons of the Kingdom's founder and once thought to enjoy a secure place in the line of succession, was confronted by a crowd in front of his U.K. residence chanting slogans against the Saudi royal family. A video clip making the social media rounds shows Ahmad, accompanied by Muhammad bin Nawwaf, the Saudi ambassador to the U.K., turning to address a small group of protesters (Yemeni and Bahraini) chanting "down, down Al Saud" and "criminal family Al Saud." The heavily-edited clip, shot at night in London, apparently shows Ahmad asking the group why they are complaining to him and other family members rather than his brother (King Salman) and nephew (Muhammad bin Salman, commonly known as MbS). "What do all of Al Saud have to do with this?" Ahmad says, "Certain individuals, maybe they're responsible. What's the family got to do with it?" When a protester asks who then is responsible, Ahmad says the king and the crown prince. Another protestor shouts for an end to "oppression in Bahrain", to which Ahmad replies, "God willing". Later, he appears to say he hopes wars in "Yemen and elsewhere" will stop "as soon as possible."

The clip has been clearly edited, and its disjointedness seems to have encouraged an interpretation by activists that Ahmad was distancing himself from the senior leadership. Notably, the assertion that the protesters should take up their grievances with "those responsible" was a marked show of disunity in a family known for closing ranks and presenting a common front. In the past, this meant the difference between political (or even personal) survival, and leaving an opening for an opponent to drive a wedge into the heart of the royal governing consensus. Whether in the face of a tribal rivalry or religious insurgency, such a concession (from a senior and highly respected member) is virtually unprecedented. It is one thing for a little-known prince from a far-flung cadet branch in 'self-imposed exile' to criticize family affairs, quite another for a royal from the inner sanctum to more or less publicly acknowledge what is by now an open secret - that aside from the king and his son, even the family's most senior members hold no sway.

As soon as word got out that the clip was garnering attention, the state-controlled Saudi Press Agency put out a brief, official statement, purportedly by Ahmad - "I have made it clear that the king and the crown prince are responsible for the state and its decisions...this is true for the security and stability of the country and the people. Therefore, it is not possible to interpret what I said in any other way." The statement was published on the front page of several Saudi newspapers the day following the encounter, an indication of the seriousness with which this was taken at the top. Further, multiple pro-Saudi social media accounts posted images of Ahmad kissing the hand of King Salman, with the obvious aim of suggesting unity within the royal family and countering the rumors to the contrary.

Despite this, many interpreted the video as explicit criticism of the policies being followed by the king and crown prince, in itself nearly as serious an infraction as the overt display of disunity. There is an unspoken imperative that, although differences may be aired in private, once the family has decided upon a course of action, dissenters fall into line. It is well known that there have been previous episodes of intense disagreement behind the scenes (King Abdallah's insistence on undercutting the influence of the religious establishment, for example, by moving forward with a proposal for a co-ed university project, or, further back, the debate over whether to allow American troops to operate from Saudi soil during Operation Desert Storm), and yet outspokenness, after the losing side has bowed to the majority will, is unheard of. In one reading, Ahmad has crossed multiple boundaries.

Related articles: The Crown Prince, Canada and Aramco: Shattering The Illusion?
A Year As Crown Prince: Forward Progress Or Sideways Shift?
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Page 2: leader of the opposition?
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Past Feature Articles
The Crown Prince, Canada and Aramco: Shattering The Illusion?

The surprising decision to go on the offensive against Canada has baffled Saudi watchers, but in the context of the broader goals of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman it makes perfect sense. With sanctions comes prestige, yet at the same time a ruthless suppression of dissent at home exposes an agenda not so different from his predecessors.

Royal Crackdowns and Vanished Princes: Shakeup Or Shakedown?

As dozens of prominent individuals remain in Saudi government custody, the arrest of activists continues. Nothing is known of the true aims of the purge's beneficiary, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, though competing explanations are equally convincing.

A Year As Crown Prince: Forward Progress Or Sideways Shift?

The Disappearance Of Muhammad bin Salman: Rumor Mill Or Going Rogue?

The crown prince has apparently vanished from public view, stirring speculation that he was injured, or even killed in events three weeks ago that some described at the time as an attempted coup. Given the provenance of reports raising concern over his absence, how much credence should the rumors be given?

A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?

Historically, the royal family of Saudi Arabia has struggled with the tension between the urge by successful rulers to solidify their power and the necessity of providing for the inclusion of less prominent princes in order to maintain domestic stability. At critical inflection points the family will either rally around a disruptive leader who challenges the status quo or find itself dissolving into disunity.