A US $ 2 million lobbying effort and petitions from European legislators are pressuring Saudi Arabia to release a two-year imprisoned philanthropist prince without charge amid intensified royal repression.
The detention of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz and his father since January 2018 is part of a crackdown by the de facto crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has trapped not only potential rivals, but also figures posing no visible challenge to its hold on power.
The dangerous power plays also swept through the family of Saad Aljabri, a former assistant to another detained prince and a senior intelligence official, who has fled to Canada and holds key state secrets.
The most unlikely target is Prince Salman, a 37-year-old multilingual man trained at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, who apparently has no political ambition and has acquired the reputation of being a “blank check” to finance development projects in poor countries.
“This is not just an illegal arrest,” a prince’s associate told AFP. “This is a day kidnapping. It is an enforced disappearance. “
After being detained for about a year in Al-Ha’ir High Security Prison near Riyadh and later in a private villa with his father Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the prince was transferred to a place of detention secret in March, multiple sources told AFP. .
He mysteriously returned to the villa last week to find his father, three of the sources said.
It remains unclear why he was transferred to the secret site. His phone calls to his family are being monitored by Saudi intelligence, the sources said.
But his return could be a temporary sign that international pressure for his release is working. Saudi authorities have not responded to a request for comment on the case.
– Pressure campaign –
A delegation from the European Parliament implored the Saudi authorities to release the detained members of the royal family, including Prince Salman during a visit to Riyadh in February, according to a source and an internal report of the tour seen by the AFP.
“The European Parliament has already asked for information on this case in a letter addressed … to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who (remains) unanswered”, Marc Tarabella, vice-president of the Parliament’s delegation for relations with the peninsula Arab, wrote to the European Commission.
“I would like to ask you to raise this matter … with the highest competent authorities in Saudi Arabia calling for the release of Prince Salman.
“I remain convinced that this publication will have a positive impact on the European Parliament’s relations with Saudi Arabia,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Sonoran Policy Group, Washington’s main lobbyist Robert Stryk signed a $ 2 million contract in May to advocate for the prince’s release “with the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, the France and the European Union, “according to a file from the United States Department of Justice. seen by AFP.
Stryk, who is known to have close ties to the administration of US President Donald Trump – an ally of Prince Mohammed – was recruited by Hashim Mughal, a Paris-based confidant of Prince Salman, the file said.
A source described Mughal, a Pakistani national, as the prince’s former financial advisor who raised $ 2 million from his personal fortune and tapped on friends of the royal influent.
The international effort is a gamble that could backfire on a kingdom whose authoritarian leaders are strongly opposed to public criticism.
But while private appeals to leaders are not heeded, the campaign may be the only hope at a time when the kingdom is grappling with an economic crisis caused by a coronavirus and amid discomfort in Washington with the prince’s aggressive policy Mohammed.
– ‘The iron Throne’ –
Prince Salman is part of a wave of royal family members arrested as Prince Mohammed, known as MBS, eliminates potential rivals to amass the invisible power of previous leaders.
In March, authorities arrested the brother of the King of Saudi Arabia, Prince Ahmed, and the nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was eliminated as heir to the throne by MBS in 2017.
Two adult children and a brother of Saad Aljabri, a former senior aide to Prince Nayef, were also arrested in March, with a source close to the family calling them “victims of a Saudi game of thrones”.
Aljabri, exiled in Canada, had previously attempted to remove his children from Saudi Arabia, but authorities had placed them under a travel ban, the source told AFP.
Princess Basmah bint Saud, another royal believed to be close to Prince Nayef, was imprisoned in Al-Ha’ir for a year without charge with her daughter.
Her family lost contact with the princess after posting a desperate Twitter call for her release in April, an AFP source said.
More baffling is the detention of Prince Salman, whose apolitical philanthropic work makes him an unlikely rival to MBS.
What may have muddled the royal court was the prince’s meeting with MP Adam Schiff, a Democrat critic and Trump, just before the 2016 U.S. election.
His associates say “nothing political” has been discussed.
Schiff’s office told AFP that it did not remember the details of the discussion, but they may have spoken of “Saudi Arabia in general”.
“Those who pushed for this arrest have seriously misinterpreted American policy,” Kirsten Fontenrose, former policy official for Saudi Arabia and now the Council of the Atlantic, told AFP.
“Imprisoning someone for meeting a loud Democrat will only make it more difficult for Trump to maintain close ties to the Saudi ruling family before the US election.
“And he will certainly come back to bite the kingdom if the next administration is run by Democrats.” “
© 2020 AFP