A Saudi magazine said on Tuesday police arrested its editor few days after he warned of a possible power struggle within the royal family because of the poor health of the king and crown prince.
The arrest reflects the Saudi ruling family’s deep sensitivity over any public speculation over succession, splits or instability in its leadership.
King Abdullah, 86, is currently in New York recuperating after two back surgeries, while the next in line for the throne, his 85-year-old half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, is also ailing, though nominally in charge in Saudi Arabia after spending more than a year recovering from his own medical treatment, reportedly for cancer.
Succession in the world’s largest oil producer is from brother to brother, and with much of the current generation of the royal family in its 80s, there are concerns about the future stability of this key U.S. ally.
The Omma Conference magazine said in a statement posted on its website that police arrested its editor Mohammed Al-Abdul Karim at his home and took him to Hayer prison outside the capital Riyadh, but charges have yet been filed.
In an article last week, Al-Abdul Karim predicted that Abdullah’s death might cause the oil-rich kingdom to fall apart.
“What if the family collapses by internal conflict, struggle within, or through foreign factors? Shall the (kingdom’s) unity and the destiny of the people remain tied to whether royal family stays or goes?” he wrote in the article entitled “Searching for the Saudi People Destiny.”
“Some of the statesmen are after a regime that only preserves their own interests which they find through autocracy, hegemony, greed, manipulation and bribes,” he wrote.
Saudi officials could not be reached for comment.
The ailing king, who underwent a second operation to repair damaged vertebrae on Friday, has curtailed his activities since June, and has missed recent cabinet meetings.
Attention now is focussed on the likely second-in-line for the throne, the powerful interior minister and deputy prime minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz. The 76-year-old Nayef, another half-brother of the king, chaired Cabinet meetings in the king’s absence last month and is representing the kingdom at a crucial Gulf summit in neighbouring United Arab Emirates. But he too has received unspecified medical treatment.
Many Saudis have been expressing concern about the possibility of a fierce power struggle as the current generation of princes, all sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, age.
Middle East diplomats say the Saudi royal family has been divided into factions vying for power and expect the struggle to intensify with the deterioration of the king’s and the crown prince’s health.
Such a conflict could come at a crucial time for the main U.S. Gulf ally as the region faces up to challenges by Iran over its nuclear programme and regional influence.
Abdullah rose to the throne in 2005 after the death of King Fahd, though he had already been a de-facto ruler for half a decade.
In an attempt to formalize the succession system, Abdullah in 2006 set up the Allegiance Council, a body that is composed of Abdul-Aziz’s sons and grandsons, who will vote by a secret ballot to choose future kings and crown princes.
The council’s mandate will not start until after the reigns of Abdullah and Sultan are over. That means it could weigh in on whether Nayef can step in.
The bigger question is what happens when the generation of Abdul-Aziz’s sons runs out. The youngest of the seven or eight sons often cited as having the stature and experience to rule are in their mid-60s, suggesting the generation still has some time left in power.
But sooner or later, the throne will have to move on to the next generation, raising the potentially deeply divisive question of which Abdul-Aziz son will pass power to his own son. Abdullah’s creation of the council aimed in part to provide a system for that transfer.
Each brother has sought to set up his sons in positions of power, in part to guarantee their line’s position. Nayef’s son Mohammed, for example, is chief of the powerful counter-terrorism forces that took the lead in the fight against al-Qaiea the past.
Before leaving the kingdom Abdullah handed his son Prince Miteb bin Abdullah the leadership of the elite quarter million-strong national guard.