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Feature Article

An Imprisoned Princess: Red Lines Crossed or Factional Dispute?

Princess Basmah bint Saud continues to languish in prison, one of a number of high-profile royals imprisoned without charge or "disappeared" on the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Is her case, like that of many others, the consequence of a falling-out with the heir to the throne, or is the real motive an internal family dispute?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Known as an outspoken critic of the Kingdom's governance and social mores, Basmah nonetheless enjoyed high status and regard as the daughter of a former king. At some point, however, she seems to have crossed a line. On February 28, 2019 she was taken from her seafront penthouse in Jiddah by a group of agents who awaited her in the building's lobby, shortly before she and her daughter Shuhud were scheduled to fly to Switzerland for urgent medical care. Her specially equipped private plane, rented for $87,000 from Redstar Aviation, never took off; instead, Basmah, on pretext of being summoned to a meeting with the crown prince, was detained "on suspicion of trying to flee the country". She was also accused of procuring a fake passport.

Since then, Basmah and her daughter have been held at the maximum security al-Ha'ir prison (normally reserved for the worst terrorist offenders), with no contact with family members, only being able to connect with her son Ahmad in May of this year. Her health is thought to be in jeopardy. Basmah suffers from several serious illnesses, including colonic and heart issues as well as osteoporosis, and claims she is being denied her medication as well as proper medical attention. In April of 2020, she used her verified Twitter account (posted by her royal office on her behalf), to send a plea for mercy to the king and crown prince. "Release me as I have done no wrong," Basmah tweeted. "I am currently being arbitrarily held at al-Ha'ir prison without criminal, or otherwise any charges against my person." She continued, "My health is deteriorating to an extent that is severe, and that could lead to my death. I have not received medical care, and my current health status is VERY critical."

The family has pressed US State Department officials to use their leverage to pressure the Saudis, but have been frustrated both by the former administration's lack of concern and the Kingdom's current refusal to assist. Those involved with the case on the American side believe it may be connected to her close friendship with Muhammad bin Nayif (known as MbN), the former Saudi crown prince who was ousted and replaced by his cousin Muhammad (commonly referred to as MbS), in June 2017. MbN was a favorite to become king after the current monarch, Salman, and was well-liked by Western countries due in large part to his past work with foreign intelligence agencies. After he was stripped of all his governing powers, however, he has not only suffered the loss of his assets and benefits but has been held incommunicado, under house arrest. Furthermore, a social media campaign recently gained traction, accusing him of plotting a coup, as well as smearing his reputation with malicious stories of his drug addiction.

The crown prince has dealt harshly with any and all threats to his hold on power, lending plausibility to the argument that Basmah's detention is connected with her rights advocacy, and her ties to those now suffering punishment at his behest. But there is another aspect, one which looks to be a common thread among all those detained, or formerly arrested and released, and relates to her financial affairs. Basmah's immediate family believes her imprisonment is nothing but a crude attempt to disrupt her efforts to pursue a multi-billion dollar inheritance left by her father, the late King Saud. Apparently Basmah has been trying to secure support from the broader family to unfreeze the rights to bank accounts, land, jewelry, and properties, all part of a wide range of assets promised her. As an example, the site of Ta'if University is in theory built on land entitled to Basmah, and while the family does not oppose the university, it wants compensation. However, in a long-running dispute, a number of royals have united against Basmah's attempts to seize lands she believes rightfully belong to her, and claim that some of the assets have been unfrozen and spent without proper authorization.

Related articles: The Changing Shape Of Royal Family Politics: Old Rivalries Revisited?
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Past Feature Articles
The Changing Shape Of Royal Family Politics: Old Rivalries Revisited?

The Al Saud has been riven with internal conflict throughout its varied history. This has typically taken the form of inter-sibling rivalry, as brothers jostle for power and position, whether in the courtyards of the palace or on the battlefield. Will a similar dynamic emerge in the modern era, or is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in a place of unassailable supremacy?

Rebranding the Kingdom: Illusion or Reality?

A new wrinkle in the saga of the famous "Salvator Mundi" painting, acquired by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman for a record sum in 2017, shines a revealing light on his character, mirroring the gradual erosion of his own carefully cultivated image.

It's Complicated: The Changing Nature of the US-Saudi Alliance

After the long-awaited release of a US intelligence report into the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration immediately took flak for seeming to give Muhammad bin Salman, named in the report as the man bearing key responsibility, a free pass. Has the White House made its point, or further emboldened the crown prince?

The Arab Spring Revisited: The Royal Response

Ten years on from the "Arab Spring", the royal family has solidified its grip on the nation. Increasingly confident in his ability to tamp down dissent, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is more concerned with burnishing his image as a progressive and pleasing his American ally than addressing the concerns of the citizen. In light of the contradictions between a professed desire for reform and the intolerance of dissent, what would be the response to a new round of anti-government sentiment, with the Kingdom in financial straits and pressure from the U.S. and Europe over the suppression of human rights at home?

Shock Therapy: Confronting a New Reality?

Saudi's haste to patch up relations with neighboring Qatar, rush to prosecute dissidents, and a volte-face on oil production cuts all come as U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on January 20. Is the Kingdom's crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, only now realizing the extent to which relations with its American ally will fundamentally change?