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Senior Saudi Prince Returns to Kingdom as Royals Confront Khashoggi Crisis

LONDON — A senior member of the Saudi royal family, who had feared returning to the kingdom, flew back to Riyadh from London on Tuesday in the most significant move in the royal family since the killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

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David D. Kirkpatrick
Ben Hubbard, New York Times

LONDON — A senior member of the Saudi royal family, who had feared returning to the kingdom, flew back to Riyadh from London on Tuesday in the most significant move in the royal family since the killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

The return of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, which was confirmed by three Saudis close to him, comes amid an international backlash against the kingdom after the brutal death of Khashoggi.

Prince Ahmed, the younger brother of King Salman, had been afraid to return, associates of his family said, since he had made public comments last month that appeared to criticize Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 33, the king’s favorite son and the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

As one of the most senior figures in the royal family, Prince Ahmed, in his 70s, could help bestow legitimacy on any family response to the furor over Khashoggi’s killing — whether that response might be some effort to limit the crown prince’s unrivaled power or instead to reinforce his grip on the kingdom.

“His return is a significant indication of maneuvering within the royal family,” said Gregory Gause, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “Something is up.”

The Oct. 2 killing of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist, has mired the rulers of the kingdom in their most significant international crisis since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when a majority of the attackers were Saudis. It took the rulers of the kingdom more than two weeks after Khashoggi vanished inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to acknowledge that he was assassinated there by a team of Saudi agents.

Turkish officials have said they have audio recordings and other evidence showing that the agents quickly dismembered him with a bone saw to dispose of the body, an operation they say could only have been carried out with authorization from the highest levels of the royal court.

Saudi officials have portrayed the killing as a rogue act, insisting that Crown Prince Mohammed did not order or condone it. Many current and former Western officials with experience in the kingdom have questioned the plausibility of that assertion, given the prince’s tight control over the kingdom’s intelligence and security services.

With a cloud now hanging over the crown prince, outside observers have speculated that the royal family might respond by circling its wagons around him, or alternatively by seeking to impose some checks on his power. The family might seek to add a strong foreign minister, for example, to dilute the role of the crown prince in matters of foreign policy or relations with the West.

How badly tarnished Prince Mohammed will emerge from the scandal is of keen interest in Washington, in part because the Trump administration has embraced him as its most important Arab ally, central to its plans to limit Iranian influence and force the Palestinians into a peace agreement with Israel. Prince Ahmed is widely seen as a figure of special gravitas in the family because he is the king’s only surviving full brother. He and the king are the last of the Sudairi 7: the seven sons of the modern kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, by his favorite wife, Hussa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi. The brothers formed a powerful bloc among the king’s dozens of progeny, passing the throne from brother to brother and divvying up key ministries among themselves.

Older half brothers of King Salman also survive, though few ever rose to significant power inside the kingdom.

Prince Ahmed did, as deputy interior minister for decades and then as interior minister for a brief period in 2012.

He was not, however, regarded as a success in that role. He spent the past six years in retirement, often in London.

Despite his seniority, Prince Ahmed had repeatedly postponed his return for fear that he may be placed under house arrest by Prince Mohammed, people close to him said. Several other royals who were perceived as rivals to the throne have been subjected to such treatment.

The prince’s worries began last month, when he was accosted in London by protesters. They were chanting against the royal family because of Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the 3-year-old civil war in Yemen, which has led to a military stalemate and a humanitarian disaster.

“What does this have to do with the Al Saud?” Prince Ahmed said in comments caught on video, referring to the wider royal family of thousands of princes and princesses. “Those responsible are the king and his crown prince.”

“I hope the situation ends,” he added, “whether in Yemen or elsewhere, today before tomorrow.”

Prince Ahmed became an instant hero to Arab critics of the crown prince around the region. Many posted oaths of loyalty to him on the internet, as if Prince Ahmed were king.

But he quickly made clear he had no intention to turn on the crown prince, issuing a statement saying his comments had been misinterpreted.

Until Tuesday, Prince Ahmed had remained in London while seeking reassurances that he would face no repercussions from his powerful nephew if he returned to Riyadh.

It was unclear whether he now felt safe to return only because he was needed to help bolster the crown prince against his Western critics. People familiar with his travels said Prince Ahmed landed in Saudi Arabia at around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday; Crown Prince Mohammed was there to welcome him warmly at the airport.

Since his father, King Salman, 82, ascended to the throne in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed has established control of the crucial oil ministry as well as the main security forces. He has also systematically torn down his potential rivals in the family, leaving almost no one in position to challenge him. Diplomats who have met with the king say old age may have diminished his mental capacity to restrain his son.

Saudi media did not cover Prince Ahmed’s return, suggesting he may not have come home at the crown prince’s behest. Critics of the crown prince have pinned their hopes on other senior royals only to be disappointed.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington and London and also a former intelligence chief, was Khashoggi’s chief patron for decades when they worked together in the Saudi establishment. In the weeks after Khashoggi’s killing, the prince also happened to be in Washington.

But instead of lobbying for change in Riyadh, Prince Turki publicly backed Crown Prince Mohammed. “The more criticism there is of the crown prince, the more popular he is in the kingdom,” Prince Turki said in an interview with a columnist for The Washington Post. “The people of Saudi Arabia are happy with the leadership.”

As Prince Ahmed returned, the rulers of Saudi Arabia were confronting an escalating standoff with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a friend of Khashoggi’s, who has demanded they reveal the whereabouts of the remains. Saudi officials have said the killers gave Khashoggi’s body to a “local collaborator” but have declined to identify that person.

The Saudi rulers, Erdogan suggested to reporters on Tuesday, were attempting a cover-up. “Underneath,” he said, “there is a game to save somebody.”

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