In a new episode of the Saudi palace plot, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrested three members of the royal family, including a brother of the king and a former crown prince who had posed potential obstacles to his power.
These detentions were the latest manifestation of the Crown Prince's desire to take extraordinary measures to crush any alleged rival.
Crown Prince Mohammed demonstrated his iron grip on the kingdom for the first time in 2017 in locking up hundreds of royal relatives and wealthy Saudi businessmen in a Ritz-Carlton hotel.
The following year, he gained international notoriety by chairing the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul - an assassination that US intelligence agencies believe the prince ordered.
And he refused to back down from a five-year military intervention in Yemen that left the Saudis in a bloody stalemate and produced a humanitarian disaster.
The detentions come at a time when fears about the impact of the coronavirus have lowered the price of oil, the kingdom's main source of income, and the crown prince's famous plans to diversify the Saudi economy have fallen behind on his promises .
The detentions were not announced by the Saudi government and it is not known what motivated them. A Saudi Arabian Embassy official in Washington declined to comment.
They were unveiled on Friday by a member of the royal family and someone close to the clan. The two spoke on condition of anonymity due to the danger of speaking publicly about the crown prince.
A former senior US official also confirmed the detentions.
The oldest royal detainee was Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the younger brother of King Salman, who for some time had been the great hope of family members and other critics who wanted to prevent Crown Prince Mohammed, 34, from taking the throne.
The former crown prince who was arrested, Mohammed bin Nayef, is also a former interior minister and a longtime American favorite. He had developed close ties with US intelligence agencies during years of working together while he was Home Secretary. He was ousted from both roles by the current Crown Prince in 2017 and has effectively been under house arrest since.
His younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, was also arrested.
The crown prince, who acts as the de facto ruler of the kingdom on behalf of his aging father King Salman, has recently faced grumbling from within the kingdom and the Muslim world over his unilateral decision to suspend his visits in Mecca in response to the coronavirus - a move with little to no precedent in Islamic history.
Conservatives argued that even if he stopped pilgrimages, the modern entertainment venues the crown prince had introduced to the kingdom, like cinemas, remained open.
One of the possible reasons for these detentions could be linked to the aging of Prince Mohammed's father, King Salman, 84. The crown prince may seek to lock up potential adversaries to his own estate before his father dies or abdicates the throne.
However, none of the princes he detained gave any indication that they intended to challenge Crown Prince Mohammed.
Prince Ahmed is a particularly serious figure in the family as he is the only older brother of King Salman. Both are the sons of the modern founder of the kingdom, and the succession had previously passed from brother to brother, until King Salman raised his own son Crown Prince in 2017.
Critics of Crown Prince Mohammed have adopted Prince Ahmed as their hero after appearing to criticize the kingdom's current policies during a meeting with protesters in London in 2018.
Protesters chanted against Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and Prince Ahmed tried to distance the rest of the royal family from their responsibilities.
“What does this have to do with the Saud? " Prince Ahmed said, naming the royal family in comments captured on video. “Those responsible are the king and his crown prince. "
Disgruntled Saudis have started posting pledges of allegiance to Prince Ahmed on the internet. But he quickly made it clear that he had no plans to denounce the crown prince, issuing a statement saying his comments had been misinterpreted.
He returned to the kingdom later that fall, kissed Crown Prince Mohammed at the airport and appears to have enjoyed a warm relationship with his nephew ever since.
Unlike some other members of the royal family whom Crown Prince Mohammed suspects of disloyalty, Prince Ahmed had been allowed to enter and leave the kingdom freely. He returned on Wednesday from a trip abroad for falconry - a popular pastime among the Persian Gulf royals - and he was arrested Friday, depending on the person close to the family.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince, had previously been seen as the most important rival of the current crown prince on his path to power. As Minister of the Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef controlled one of the country's three armed forces, as well as the army and the National Guard, giving him significant leverage in any power struggle. .
His proximity to Washington was also seen as an asset within the royal family.
But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman not only ousted but also humiliated his predecessor in 2017. Aids to the current crown prince physically forced his predecessor to step down, detaining him for an extended period and depriving him of the necessary medicines.
Then, Crown Prince Mohammed's aides froze Prince Mohammed bin Nayef's assets, banned him from traveling and launched a social media campaign accusing him of becoming addicted to pain relievers and other drugs.
Stripped of his power and freedom of movement, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef also seems to have largely acquiesced in his successor's hold on the kingdom.
A person close to his arrest said that on Friday morning gunmen in black uniforms and masks appeared at Prince Mohammed bin Nayef's desert camp outside Riyadh, a place he often met visiting US officials. . They took the prince and his younger brother away, searched the property and cut off all telephone calls to the camp.
The charge against him was treason, according to the person with knowledge of the arrest.
The detention of family members suspected of disloyalty has become a trademark of Crown Prince Mohammed. His detention of hundreds of powerful businessmen and royals in 2017 at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh has been described as a crackdown on corruption. Critics have called it a consolidation of power and a shakedown.
Associates of many detainees said they were subjected to torture and physical ill-treatment and then coerced returning billions of dollars in private wealth in exchange for their release.
Since the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, however, many supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed have argued that the debacle had taught him to curb his aggressive drives.
Saudis who knew of the arrests said Friday it was not clear where the new detainees were being held, whether they faced criminal prosecution or whether they could be released soon.
Eric Schmitt contributed to the report.
This article appeared first (in English) on NEW YORK TIMES