RIYADH (Reuters) - A senior Saudi Arabian prince who recently appeared to criticize the king and crown prince has returned to Riyadh, in what some sources close to the royal family say is a sign it wants to form a united front amid its worst political crisis in a generation.
Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a younger brother of King Salman and uncle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, arrived on Tuesday after 2-1/2 months abroad, three sources said, as the kingdom deals with the fallout from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A senior Arab diplomat said Prince Ahmed had sought reassurances for safe passage from the king before traveling, and a Saudi with royal ties said it appears they had been given.
“I think there must have been some pre-understanding. There have been messages going back and forth, and when things were sorted out he decided to come back,” said the Saudi source.
Saudi authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Prince Ahmed’s return and the reasons behind it.
Since September, Saudi watchers have wondered when or whether Prince Ahmed would return home, after online footage surfaced in which he appeared to deflect criticism of the royal family by singling out the king and crown prince.
He was one of only three people on the Allegiance Council, comprising the ruling family’s senior members, who opposed the ousting of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince in favor of Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, two Saudi sources told Reuters at the time.
The king’s apparent approval of Prince Ahmed’s return is a further sign that the 82-year-old monarch is taking a more hands-on role in Saudi policy since Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the beginning of October.
The king has delegated vast powers to his son Prince Mohammed, known in the West as MbS. The crown prince has embarked on sweeping social and economic reforms but has marginalized some senior royals and overseen a crackdown on dissent.
The sources said it was unfathomable that Prince Ahmed, a son of the kingdom’s founder, could be arrested or mistreated.
“They are mending their differences in the eye of the storm,” said a Saudi businessman who is close to royal circles.
Saudi Arabia faces intense pressure to clarify how Khashoggi was killed, with some Western allies including U.S. President Donald Trump suggesting ultimate responsibility lies with MbS as the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Riyadh at first denied any knowledge of, or role in, Khashoggi’s disappearance, but later contradicted those statements, saying his killing was premeditated.
Prince Ahmed was greeted by MbS on his arrival in Riyadh, one of the sources said, but none of the customary photographs or statements were published.
“MbS being at the airport to greet him upon his return is perhaps, Ahmed will hope, a sign that the young crown prince wants to signal that the traditional deference to senior family elders is being resumed,” said independent analyst Neil Partrick.
Since his father acceded to the throne in 2015, 33-year-old Prince Mohammed sent shockwaves through a dynasty that prizes seniority and balance, by concentrating power in one branch to an extent unprecedented since the days of his grandfather.
He had senior royals arrested last year as part of an anti-corruption campaign that overturned unspoken rules about royal privilege. Critics said the purge was a power play.
So grave is the fallout over the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and MbS critic, that King Salman has felt compelled to intervene, five sources with links to the royal family told Reuters this month.
But analysts say it is unlikely that Prince Ahmed, 76, would replace MbS.
“It is very difficult to imagine Prince Ahmed providing an alternative to the current succession strategy,” said Neil Quilliam, senior research fellow at Chatham House.
“It is much more likely that the family is closing ranks and offering senior princes such as Ahmed a pathway back and, at the same time, a means to inform policy.”
Prince Ahmed’s return could play well in Western capitals that want to see accountability for Khashoggi’s murder but also stability for continued investments worth billions of dollars.
“Ahmed’s return looks like a potentially useful message to be sending the U.S. and other Saudi allies at what is still a fraught and sensitive time,” said Partrick, lead contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy.
Prince Ahmed was deputy interior minister for nearly 40 years, but served as minister for less than five months before being replaced in 2012. He has not held an official post since then and is not thought to command much loyalty among internal security services.
Recent attention on his relationship with the king and crown prince stems from a video that appeared on social media showing Prince Ahmed responding to protesters outside a London residence chanting for the downfall of the Al Saud dynasty.
The crowd condemned Riyadh’s war in Yemen and its support for Bahrain’s crackdown on Shi’ite opposition.
“Why all Al Saud? There are specific individuals who could be responsible,” he can be heard saying, in comments interpreted by detractors of MbS as criticism of the king and crown prince.
State news agency SPA then issued a statement quoting Prince Ahmed saying: “I made it clear that the king and the crown prince are responsible for the state and its decisions, and this is true for the security and stability of the country and its people. What was mentioned cannot be read in any other way.”
Another Saudi source at the time downplayed the video’s importance, saying Prince Ahmed posed no real threat to MbS.
“It was a moment of unguarded honesty, but the family will not have a fight in public, it’s just not their way.”
Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Mike Collett-White