Riyadh: A senior Saudi prince who courted controversy after appearing critical of the king and crown prince has returned to the kingdom amid a crisis over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, family members said.
The return of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a brother of King Salman and uncle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, fuelled speculation of possible royal family efforts to shore up support for the monarchy after global criticism.
At least three princes tweeted confirmation of his arrival in Riyadh on Tuesday.
Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment on the reasons behind Prince Ahmed’s return after spending several months in London.
The kingdom has faced a torrent of international condemnation over the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who criticised the powerful crown prince, inside its consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the consulate and then dismembered as part of a premeditated plan, Turkey’s chief prosecutor said Wednesday, making details of the murder public for the first time.
The killing has left Prince Mohammed’s image as a reformer severely tarnished, but analysts say his position as the kingdom’s de factor ruler so far appears unshaken by the crisis.
Prince Ahmed, said to be in his 70s, returned to the kingdom after last month playing down remarks he made while telling protesters to stop chanting against the royals over Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen war.
“What does the family have to do with it? Certain individuals are responsible… the king and the crown prince,” he said, according to a widely-circulated online video of the incident in London.
The comment was seen by many on social media as rare criticism from a royal family member of the kingdom’s leadership and its role in Yemen.
But in a statement, the prince dismissed that interpretation as “inaccurate”.
Prince Ahmed “had been afraid to return”, the New York Times reported citing associates of his family, but it was unclear whether he had been assured of his safety by Saudi rulers before he flew back.
When he landed in Saudi Arabia in the early hours of Tuesday morning, “Prince Mohammed was there to welcome him warmly at the airport”, the newspaper said.
Well before the Khashoggi crisis, Prince Mohammed tightened his grip on power by cracking down on dissent with the imprisonment of prominent clerics and activists as well as princes and business elites.
But some Saudi experts dismissed widespread speculation that Prince Ahmed could pose a challenge to the authority of the crown prince, widely known as MBS.
“Ahmad is no dissident prince… He has been a central figure in the (Saudi royal family) for years,” said Michael Stephens, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute.
His return “at the most is about capacity in the royal household, not some plot. Saudi court politics is always full of intrigue but… Salman has invested too much into MBS to watch him fall.”