DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The arrest in Saudi Arabia this week of more than two dozen opponents of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has prompted speculation that King Salman bin Abdulaziz is accelerating the drive to put his favored son on the throne in Riyadh.
For months, there have been rumors that the 81-year-old king may be preparing to abdicate to his favored son, who’s taken on prominent roles overhauling Saudi economic and security policy over the past two years and made high-level visits to Washington, including one in May to meet with President Trump.
But some saw the crackdown against Crown Prince Mohammed’s perceived opponents, including the arrest of some prominent Islamic clerics, as a way to shore up the crown prince’s power base and pave the way for a speedy ascendancy.
A former high-level U.S. official in the region told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity that “speculation is now rampant” among Western officials that the 32-year-old crown prince could be made king within the coming weeks.
But a high-level official from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close Saudi ally, sought to downplay the speculation, suggesting it’s driven by media hype around the young prince, who’s made global headlines by calling for aggressive reforms in Saudi Arabia to promote more cultural openness in the nation’s notoriously conservative society.
“I don’t think it is going to happen suddenly,” said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that it would be surprising if the passing of the throne were to occur during the coming year.
The official pointed to King Salman’s expected trip to Washington early next year, as well as reports that the king is slated to visit Moscow this fall. He suggested the king wouldn’t have scheduled such high-level future foreign trips if abdication was imminent.
Saudi officials have also downplayed claims in the world’s media that King Salman may soon pass the throne, according to the Reuters news agency.
But the crown prince has already played a central role behind the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen, as well as the push to isolate neighboring Qatar, whom Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies — including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — accuse of sponsoring terrorism and meddlesome activity in the region.
Qatar, home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, has firmly denied the allegations from Riyadh, whose boycott has so far failed to gain major support of the wider international community. The recent Saudi arrests may be related to the bitter Gulf feud, the Associated Press reported.
Among those detained was cleric Salman al-Ouda, one of Saudi Arabia’s most well-known clerics. He has a following of some 14 million on Twitter and has called for reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha.
Mr. al-Ouda had spoken out on Twitter following recent news of a possible breakthrough in an the diplomatic diplomatic stand off between the two sides. “May God bring their hearts together for the good of their people,” he wrote, garnering 15,000 likes, 13,000 retweets and nearly 2,000 responses.
Within hours of his post, according to The Associated Press, the cleric was detained by Saudi authorities, sparking a crackdown that subsequently saw least 30 people rounded up.
In addition to Mr. al-Ouda, Reuters reported that clerics Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omary were detained. All three are outside the state-backed clerical establishment but have large online followings. They each have a history of criticizing the government but more recently kept silent or failed to publicly back Saudi policies — including the rift with Qatar over supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s potential ascension to the throne got a boost in June, when King Salman promoted his son in the succession order over older cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, who had briefly been considered as heir.
Crown Prince Mohammad had begun drawing major international attention a year earlier with the launch of “Saudi Vision 2030” — a long-term blueprint designed to steer the kingdom’s economy in the face falling global oil prices and rising competition. He also played a major role in the drive to privatize state assets and in the Yemen campaign.
“Mohammed bin Salman is the guy,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, an analyst on Saudi politics at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, told The Washington Times at the time. “In Saudi Arabia the king is basically equivalent to God, and so the absolute power that the king has is either being usurped right now or given to his favored son.”
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