The Saudi crown prince’s demise entered suddenly into plain view and in rare form in mid-April when the youngest daughter of the former Saudi king posted an emotional and very public cry for help on Twitter. The princess — known formally as Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud — publicly pleaded that she had been kidnapped along with her daughter. She stated that she had been imprisoned without cause or access to medical care for the past year in an infamous prison for jihadists outside Riyadh. Posts on her no-frills personal website echoed her Twitter claims.
This revelation shocked some and vindicated others, following speculation in early 2019 regarding the princess’s whereabouts after her unexplained disappearance just before her 55th birthday on 28 February. Activity — or the lack thereof — from the princess and her daughter’s Twitter accounts eerily mirrors this disappearance.
Referred affectionately to as Saudi Arabia’s Oprah, the princess is considered moderate, modern, and a women’s rights advocate. She was an avid Twitter user and embraced her hundreds of thousands of followers with messages of equality, human rights, and a better future for underserved populations.
Immediately after her tweets went public and raised enough alarm to attract the attention of the New York Times’ bureau chief in Beirut, they were inexplicably deleted. This raised even more questions regarding the princess’s condition, who had imprisoned her, and to what extent members of the regime — her cousin and uncle included — knew of her plight.
The aftermath of this unexpected and rare public outburst offers outsiders a unique opportunity to gain valuable insight into the kingdom of deceit the present Saudi regime has fostered, and the Machiavellian extent its crown prince has gone to manipulate it. It also serves as a message of hope for all that Princess Basmah represents: the fostering of international relationships between Arab and Western nations; modernization and liberalization of Saudi society regarding women’s rights; and a forthright perspective towards the slew of injustices perpetrated by past and present regimes.
Ha’ir prison, where the princess remains detained, is a far cry from the typical locations used to detain wealthy members of the Saudi elite that were brave or powerful enough to threaten Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) rapid ascension to power.
MbS gained notoriety in 2017 for a bloodless coup that saw the detention and coercion of several members of the royal family that threatened his ascendancy. The crown prince has since made headlines for several aggressive power plays — among them, the targeted killing of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi; the use of Israeli-made spyware to target journalists and activists who spoke honestly of human rights abuses by the regime; the phone hack of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; and continued Saudi military operations contributing to war-induced famine in Yemen.
While shoring up domestic support through coercive and dastardly means, MbS simultaneously launched an effective public relations campaign to ensure consistent international support from key oil importers such as the United States. Branding himself as a modern and young face of the House of Saud, MbS quickly earned a reputation for his lavish spending, and for not being shy to flaunt his multi-billion dollar net worth. Examples of that include the bid to purchase U.K.’s Newcastle United football club; the world’s most expensive private home purchase (located just outside Paris); ambitious plans for a tech megacity in the Saudi Arabian desert; and the purchase of several massive yachts.
It was against such a backdrop that Princess Basmah used her position as a member of the royal family to advocate for women’s equality, human rights, and the modernization of Saudi society. No stranger to staunch opposition to reform, Princess Basmah was reportedly the victim of a 2018 blackmail attempt after a discreet video showing her blowing a kiss and smoking without covering her head surfaced.
On the night of 28 February 2019, eight armed men arrived at the princess’ flat and under false pretense whisked her and her daughter, Souhoud Al-Sharif, to Ha’ir prison. Then for over a year, her whereabouts were publicly unknown and she and her daughter remained in detention without any ongoing investigation or charges levied against them — hidden until her public cry for help.
The veil of mystery surrounding her detention grew as speculation of royal family politics, domestic power struggles, and differing views on Saudi reform and modernization entered the fray.
In her cries for help, the princess was quick to appeal to her uncle and cousin for assistance — implying some measure of their unawareness of her plight. It is possible that she was imprisoned without their knowledge but by a regime official with enough power to have a member of the royal family detained without cause. Public knowledge of her circumstances now places ownership for the outcome of her detention on the ruling elite, which can ill-afford such poor treatment of a member of the royal family.
It remains to be seen what will become of Princess Basmah and her daughter. It is possible MbS was initially unaware of her detention, or that the princess was being imprisoned by a rival member of the Saudi royal family. As the video summarizing Princess Basmah’s circumstances identifies, she has also had issues accessing a large inheritance left to her by her late father, the former Saudi king.
It also appears the princess was grooming her daughter Souhoud for further advancement within the royal family. This is evidenced by publicly accessible legal documents revealing that Princess Basmah transferred majority control over her known companies to her daughter a mere five months before their arrest, the majority of which have since gone dormant following their imprisonment. Additional public interactions between mother and daughter suggest a close relationship. Public social media posts also saw Souhoud refer to Princess Basmah as “Queen” — implying a possible hope for a change in circumstances and ascendancy from her previous position.
Despite inferences suggesting the possibility of an internal family feud, and regardless of the original impetus for Basmah’s arrest, the crown prince will soon have no choice except to involve himself in this matter. This is especially true if news reports of the princess’s declining health are accurate.
Personal indifference or ignorance of the matter will not prove a good defense for MbS, who must manage his ambitions in relation to those of the elites from whom he requires allegiance and submission to maintain power. It is unlikely at this stage that Princess Basmah poses any measure of a threat to MbS’ claim to the kingdom. But he stands to lose more than he gains by allowing her unlawful imprisonment to continue.
Thanks for listening.