LONDON — Amid international uproar over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some members of Saudi Arabia's ruling family are agitating to prevent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from becoming king, three sources close to the royal court said.
Dozens of princes and cousins from powerful branches of the Al Saud family want to see a change in the line of succession but would not act while King Salman — the crown prince’s 82-year-old father — is still alive, the sources said. They recognize that the king is unlikely to turn against his favorite son, known in the West as MBS.
Rather, they are discussing the possibility with other family members that after the king's death, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, 76, a younger full brother of King Salman and uncle of the crown prince, could take the throne, according to the sources.
Prince Ahmed, King Salman’s only surviving full brother, would have the support of family members, the security apparatus and some Western powers, one of the Saudi sources said.
Prince Ahmed returned to Riyadh in October after 2-1/2 months abroad. During the trip, he appeared to criticize the Saudi leadership while responding to protesters outside a London residence chanting for the downfall of the Al Saud dynasty. He was one of only three people on the Allegiance Council, made up of the ruling family's senior members, who opposed MBS becoming crown prince in 2017, two Saudi sources said at the time.
Neither Prince Ahmed nor his representatives could be reached for comment. Officials in Riyadh did not immediately respond to requests from Reuters for comment on succession issues.
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The House of Saud is made up of hundreds of princes. Unlike typical European monarchies, there is no automatic succession from father to eldest son. Instead the kingdom’s tribal traditions dictate that the king and senior family members from each branch select the heir they consider fittest to lead.
Senior U.S. officials have indicated to Saudi advisers in recent weeks that they would support Prince Ahmed, who was deputy interior minister for nearly 40 years, as a potential successor, according to Saudi sources with direct knowledge of the consultations.
These Saudi sources said they were confident that Prince Ahmed would not change or reverse any of the social or economic reforms enacted by MBS, would honor existing military procurement contracts and would restore the unity of the family.
One senior U.S. official said the White House is in no hurry to distance itself from the crown prince despite pressure from lawmakers and the CIA’s assessment that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder, though that could change once Trump gets a definitive report on the killing from the intelligence community.
The official also said the White House saw it as noteworthy that King Salman seemed to stand by his son in a speech in Riyadh on Monday and made no direct reference to Khashoggi’s killing, except to praise the Saudi public prosecutor.
President Donald Trump on Saturday called the CIA assessment that MBS ordered Khashoggi's killing "very premature" but "possible", and said he would receive a complete report on the case on Tuesday. A White House official referred Reuters to those comments and had "nothing else to add at this time."
The brutal killing of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the crown prince, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last month has drawn global condemnation, including from many politicians and officials in the United States, a key Saudi ally.
Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor has said the crown prince knew nothing of the killing.
The international uproar has piled pressure on a royal court already divided over 33-year-old Prince Mohammed's rapid rise to power. Since his ascension, the prince has gained popular support with high-profile social and economic reforms including ending a ban on women driving and opening cinemas in the conservative kingdom.
His reforms have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, a purge of top royals and businessmen on corruption charges, and a costly war in Yemen.
He has also marginalized senior members of the royal family and consolidated control over Saudi’s security and intelligence agencies.
Officials in Riyadh did not respond to a request for comment.
When the king dies or is no longer be able to rule, the 34-member Allegiance Council, a body representing each line of the ruling family to lend legitimacy to succession decisions, would not automatically declare MBS the new king.
Even as crown prince, MBS would still need the council to ratify his ascension, one of the three Saudi sources said. While the council accepted King Salman's wish to make MBS crown prince, it would not necessarily accept MBS becoming king when his father dies, especially given that he sought to marginalize council members.