Funeral for Saudi prince provides peek into royal tensions

A royal funeral took place in Riyadh last Sunday that matched all the photographic intrigue of the gathering of British royals on Christmas Day.  

At the latter, tabloid reporters hunted for any signs of hostility between the “warring wives of Windsor” — Kate and Meghan, the spouses of Princes William and Harry, who are reported not to get on.  

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The Saudi version, however, is politically far more substantial and will feed speculation about when and how a leadership change may take place in the kingdom. 

In Riyadh, King Salman, accompanied by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS, attended the funeral of Prince Talal, an older half-brother of the king and father of Prince al-Waleed, who at this time last year was detained in the city’s Ritz-Carlton hotel along with more than 200 other princes and businessmen accused of corruption. Two other sons of Talal also have been in detention. All three attended the funeral. 

Unlike other cases, there is no evidence that Prince al-Waleed had to transfer ownership of any assets to secure his subsequent release. He later told Reuters the whole affair was a “misunderstanding.” Al-Waleed led the shoulder bearers of the stretcher carrying the body at the funeral. MbS is in the same shot but off to one side. Another photo, a close-up of the two men apparently speaking to each other, suggests no particular deference by Waleed toward the 33-year-old crown prince, a much younger cousin but his effective jailer in the Ritz-Carlton.

The most notable pictures were those of the king, who looked devastated by his half-brother’s passing. The two men were known to be close. The 82-year-old monarch sat in a chair as other mourners stood to recite funeral prayers. 

Prince Talal had been a controversial figure in the House of Saud, serving as a government minister in the 1950s and 1960s but then leading a group of royals, known as the Free Princes Movement, advocating a constitutional monarchy. His assets were confiscated and he lived in exile in Beirut and Cairo for a time before returning home and into political oblivion. Diplomats regarded him as smart and engaging, although eccentric.

His mother was from Armenia, a non-Arab pedigree that usually means he would have been sidelined from the prospect of ever being king. Yet, when I wrote this in an analysis several years ago, an aide emailed and telephoned me to say that King Abdullah, Salman’s predecessor, had once asked Talal to be his crown prince. (I subsequently judged that this had happened and it was not just a case of Abdullah being polite before offering the role to a younger, perhaps better qualified, brother when Talal declined.)

Other attendees at the funeral included Salman’s sole surviving full brother, Ahmed, who returned from effective exile in London last month to be at Talal’s bedside in his final weeks. He was quoted earlier in the year as making a comment deemed to be critical of MbS. (Even so, the Saudi Press Agency photographer caught a moment of interaction between the two men.) Also there was Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, the Saudi ambassador in London, who was dismissed Thursday in a government reshuffle. 

Yet another attendee was another half-brother of the king, Muqrin, who was briefly crown prince in 2015 until being pushed aside. He, too, was a pallbearer.  

Funerals can be theater, and often can be predictive. That of Prince Talal, a marginalized prince, could well be the first act of the 2019 production of the Saudis’ own version of “Game of Thrones.”

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.