Photo Correction: An earlier version of this article showed a photograph of His Royal Highness Prince Abdullah Khaled Sultan Al Saud, rather than Prince Turki bin Sultan who is the subject of this story. The mistake has since been corrected.
To be abducted and placed under house arrest by senior members of the Saudi royal family once may be a misfortune.
For it to happen twice makes the dark deed that much darker.
However, that is exactly the sorry fate that appears to have befallen Prince Sultan bin Turki, a disinherited princeling who has been engaged in a long-running campaign for Saudi political reform, and who had also started high-profile legal proceedings against the Saudi royal family.
The case had the potential to seriously embarrass the Saudi elite.
The prince has purportedly been removed from Europe and taken to Saudi Arabia against his will—for a second time.
“He was very naïve,” a source told The Daily Beast, commenting on the bizarre train of events that saw the sultan effectively disappear from international airspace this week.
He never arrived at his planned destination, Cairo, where he was due to meet his father, Prince Turki, one of six brothers of King Salman—and who is said to be furious over the way his son has been treated.
According to a report in The Guardian, Prince Sultan boarded a plane with a “Saudi flag on its tail” in Paris on his way to the Kempinski Nile Hotel in Cairo, where his father was expecting him. But he never arrived.
The purported kidnap happened despite the fact that the prince is extremely well aware of threats against him—he has had round-the-clock security in place since he was taken in 2003.
That experience was the subject of his current dispute with the House of Saud.
Last year, Prince Sultan filed a criminal complaint—unprecedented among Saudi royals—in Switzerland against his cousin, Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, claiming he was seriously injured and left in poor health as a result of a kidnapping that took place in June 2003.
The background to the allegations was remarkable.
Having announced he would hold a public seminar in Geneva to reveal the full extent of corruption at the Saudi ministry of defense, Sultan claimed he was attacked by five masked men who knocked him unconscious at a family meeting to which he had been lured.
He did not escape till 2010, he claimed, when he was moved to the U.S. for medical treatment.
The alleged kidnapping happened under the watch of King Abdullah, and there had been hope for rapprochement at the heart of the ruling family regarding the whole episode after the ascension of King Salman—as both he and Sultan’s father, Prince Turki, belong to the “Sudairi seven,” the almost-mythical seven sons of the old King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud who were full brothers (with a Sudairi—a strictly Wahhabist clan—mother).
Maybe this was why Prince Sultan felt safe boarding the Saudi aircraft for his ill-fated powwow with his father.
A friend of Prince Sultan who was waiting in Cairo for him told The Guardian: “Last call we had he was laughing and said as a joke: ‘I am supposed to come to Cairo this week by royal aircraft. If you didn’t find me they have taken me to Riyadh. Try to do something.’”
However, his friends and associates in Europe—who believe he is being held under house arrest in Riyadh—fear they are now powerless to do anything to enable the prince’s release.
It is extremely unlikely that France would raise the issue at a diplomatic level; given their current geopolitical difficulties, officials would be understandably unwilling to rattle the cage with one of their few allies in the Middle East.
Intriguingly, two other high-profile royal defectors have also disappeared from public view in recent months, leading to fears that the Saudi government is embarking on a “purge” of critics within the family.
The disappearances highlight the fact that behind the scenes, there is significant opposition to the authoritarian regime of King Salman.
Salman, who ascended to the throne in 2015 on the death of his brother, Abdullah, has maintained the same steely grip on the state that his brother exerted.
Critics have been emboldened by Saudi Arabia’s recent financial woes, but Prince Sultan—a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s first king—has previously said that his troubles began as long ago as 2002, when he first went public denouncing corruption and calling for nonviolent democratic reform in the state.
If King Salman were to be feeling a little paranoid about his nephew criticizing him, he has some justification.
Saudi Arabia has long had problems managing disaffected royal family members.
In 1975, King Faisal, who himself had deposed his half-brother, was assassinated by a disaffected nephew.
There is said to be a febrile atmosphere in Saudi Arabia of late, where a decade-long oil boom has come to a shuddering halt, with citizens being told to tighten their belts—while the elite still parade their vast petrochemical fortunes in the form of fast cars, elaborate palaces, and even the purchase of exotic big cats as pets.
It’s a world with which Prince Sultan may, reluctantly, become swiftly reacquainted.