Saudi prince who criticized arrest of relatives is sacked

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Saudi prince who purportedly made an audio recording criticizing the government has been sacked as head of the kingdom's Maritime Sports Federation and replaced by a military officer, according to local press reports.

In the nearly six-minute-long audio that was posted online and published on Arabic media websites this week, Prince Abdullah bin Saud bin Mohammed said the government's publicly stated reasons for arresting 11 princes are "false" and "illogical."

The Associated Press could not independently verify the recording's authenticity. Bloomberg, which obtained the recording and first reported on it, said the voice message had been circulated on Whatsapp. It also reported that among those detained are the sons of the billionaire prince and chairman of Saudi Arabia's largest dairy company, Almarai Co.

Saudi royals rarely speak out against the government or counter official narratives, preferring to handle their disagreements in private for fear of showing cracks within the ruling family. The audio reveals tensions within the ruling Al Saud nearly seven months after the king's 32-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sidelined a rival cousin to become heir and just two months after he oversaw the arrests of top princes in a purported anti-graft sweep.

In the audio, Prince Abdullah identifies himself by name and addresses royal family members and the Saudi public, saying that none of the princes detained would ever "turn on or disobey" King Salman. He repeatedly acknowledged the role and position of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the throne.

Saudi Arabia's attorney general on Sunday said the 11 princes were arrested for staging a sit-in outside a palace and protesting a royal order to halt utility payments for royals. Attorney general Saud al-Mojeb said the princes were also seeking compensation for the 2016 execution of one of their cousins, who was convicted of killing another man.

Prince Abdullah says the princes have lived comfortably and calls the accusations against them "false" and "illogical."

He says the princes were accompanying a relative who had been summoned for questioning about a previous job he'd held. When they reached the palace, they were stopped by guards and dealt with "in a provocative manner" that is unacceptable to any citizen, he says in the recording. A fistfight between the princes and guards then broke out, he said.

The attorney general said the 11 princes recently arrested were informed that their demands were unlawful, but they "refused to leave the area, disrupting public peace and order." He said the princes were then arrested and sent to al-Ha'ir prison pending trial.

The large, maximum security facility south of Riyadh is run by Saudi intelligence services and is where criminals, militants and al-Qaida terrorists are held. State-linked media reported the princes were detained by an elite force from the Saudi Royal Guard called the Al Ajrab Sword Brigade that was created by King Salman after he ascended to power in January 2015.

The arrests come amid heightened tensions in Saudi Arabia after an unprecedented wave of arrests of top princes, government officials, businessmen and military officers. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversaw the arrests as part of a purported anti-corruption sweep that began in November. Critics say the purge was an attempt by the prince to further consolidate power and undermine influential princes as he prepares to the inherit the throne.

After the audio was made public, state-linked Saudi news websites Sabq and Okaz reported Tuesday that Prince Abdullah had been fired from his post and replaced by Maj. Gen. Hamad bin Me'id al-Ja'id, who previously was a member of the federation's board. The reports did not offer details on why he was sacked or mention the audio recording.

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