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EXCLUSIVE: Senior Saudi royal on hunger strike over purge

Father of Alwaleed bin Talal has been on hunger strike since 10 November to protest Mohammed bin Salman's arrest campaign
Prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz at an IMF-World Bank meeting back in 2003 (AFP)

Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, the father of Alwaleed bin Talal and first progressive reformer in the House of Saud, has gone on a hunger strike in protest at the purge being carried out by his nephew Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the detention of three of his own sons.

The 86-year-old prince, who is the half brother of King Salman, stopped eating on 10 November, shortly after his first son, Alwaleed, was arrested on 4 November, and has lost 10 kilos in one month.

Last week, a feeding tube was inserted into him, but his condition at the King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh remains weak, according to several people who have visited him.

'We know him too well and why he is doing this. There is no medical reason why he has 'no appetite''

- One of Prince Talal's visitors

Many royal visitors and members of the business community have paid their respects to the frail prince. One of them spoke about the prince’s actions to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity.

He said the prince had made no public statement about his refusal to eat. When his half brother King Salman visited him in late November to express his condolences about the death of their sister, Madawi, the king was pictured kissing the hand of Talal, who was then in a wheelchair.

The visitor said that the prince did not raise the issue of the arrest of his three sons with the king on that occasion because Talal did not want to use his access to the king to press for the release of his sons, while others remained in prison.

Photo of King Salman kissing the hand of Prince Talal published in late November (Sabq)
However, he said there was no doubt as to why Talal had stopped eating: “We know him too well and why he is doing this. There is no medical reason why he has 'no appetite'."

A month before his action, Talal told friends it was right to protest “civilly” to draw attention to the tyranny which his young nephew bin Salman is establishing under the cover of an anti-corruption purge.

Talal’s presence at the hospital has become a meeting point for many of the Al-Saud family, and a way for them to witness what is happening, the visitor said.

'The Red Prince'

Prince Talal is known as a liberal. A former finance minister in the government of King Saud (1953-64), he became known as the Red Prince in the 1960s for leading the Free Princes Movement which called for an end to the absolute monarchy.

But the royal family rejected the movement and Talal was forced into exile in Cairo before his mother was able to engineer a reconciliation with the family.

Talal campaigned for women’s rights long before the decision in September to allow Saudi women to drive. The prince said in one interview: “Saudi women will take their rights eventually... the march towards that should not stop and we have to accelerate this a bit."

The prince has continued to campaign for a constitutional monarchy and the instigation of the separation of powers, which he claims is enshrined in the constitution.

In an interview with Egyptian Al Mihwar TV in 2007, Prince Talal said: “I have always believed in the separation of powers, the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities.

"King Fahd, may he rest in peace, implemented this in 1992, when he adopted the Saudi constitution which is the basic law of government. In it, the separation of authorities was mentioned explicitly. What we are demanding now is for the authorities to become independent.”

Three sons in custody

Three of Talal’s sons have been arrested. Alwaleed bin Talal, the chairman of Kingdom Holding Company, and one of the world’s richest men with assets valued by Bloomberg at $19bn, has been in prison since the first day of the purge.

According to informed sources, MbS is demanding that Alwaleed sign over ownership of the entire Kingdom Holding Company. He is refusing to do this. If a settlement is not reached, Alwaleed will demand a trial.

Khalid, his full brother, lobbied for his brother’s release. Sources say that he got into an argument over his brother with a government official, and was subsequently arrested. Another younger brother was charged with affray.

Alwaleed bin Talal, eldest son of Prince Talal (Reuters)
The visitor to Prince Talal said no one was in any doubt about the motivation for bin Salman’s purge of the royal family and business leaders.

He noted that while some branches of the family were known to be corrupt, they were left untouched, while arrests were mostly directed at the bin Abdullahs and the bin Talals. 

“Other branches of the family have been known for decades for their corruption, Prince Bandar said it in his own words on TV. Where is Khalid bin Sultan? Mohammed bin Fahd?  Why aren't they part of this investigation? Tell me it's justice to catch some and leave out others well known in their corruption," the source said.

Dismay and fury

In addition to Alwaleed and his brothers, other princes are still in detention. They include Turki bin Nasser, Turki bin Abdullah, and Fahd bin Abdullah bin Abdulrahman.

There is no definitive word of the fate of Abdulaziz bin Fahd. There are persistent accounts that he resisted arrest, and during the fight that ensued, he suffered a stroke or a heart attack. He is believed still to be alive, but in a vegetative state, according to several sources.

Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince, ousted in a palace coup conducted before the November purge, and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was arrested as part of the purge, have reportedly been released.

Officials close to MbS have staged public appearances for Miteb, including an encounter in which bin Salman publicly kissed the man he imprisoned and had mistreated physically. This piece of theatre was staged at an annual horse race for locally bred and imported horses in Janadriyah.

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Miteb was also allowed to visit the National Guard hospital in Riyadh and to present gifts to members of the military service that he once commanded.

In reality, both bin Nayef and Miteb are kept on a short leash. Each has to ask permission to leave their palaces and they are accompanied by royal guards who report directly back to bin Salman. Both are forbidden to travel, according to another source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The visitor said there was dismay and fury among senior members of the Al-Saud royal family at what bin Salman had done, and the absolute control he was attempting to impose on the country. At the same time, there was much sympathy for bin Nayef, known as MbN.

He said: “What happened to MbN shows that you can never think you are close to MbS, and you can never trust him.”

Members of the Talal family were not available for comment.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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