Exclusive: In Saudi Arabia, criticism of Crown Prince grows after attack

By Reuters staff reporters

(Reuters) – Some members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and business elite have expressed frustration with the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure last month.

It has sparked concern among several prominent branches of the ruling Al Saud family, which numbers around 10,000 members, about the crown prince’s ability to defend and lead the world’s largest oil exporter, according to a senior foreign diplomat and five sources with ties to the royals and business elite. All spoke on condition of anonymity.

The attack has also fanned discontent among some in elite circles who believe the crown prince, known in the West by the initials MbS, has sought too tight a grip on power, the sources said. Some of these people said the event has also fueled criticism among those who believe he has pursued an overly aggressive stance towards Iran.

“There is a lot of resentment” about the crown prince’s leadership, said one of the sources, a member of the Saudi elite with royal connections. “How were they not able to detect the attack?”

This person added that some people in elite circles are saying they have “no confidence” in the crown prince, an assertion echoed by the four other sources and the senior diplomat.

The crown prince nonetheless has staunch supporters. A Saudi source within circles loyal to the crown prince said: “The latest events won’t affect him personally as a potential ruler because he is trying to stop the Iranian expansion in the region. This is a patriotic issue, and so he won’t be in danger, at least as long as the father lives.”

A second senior foreign diplomat said ordinary Saudis still want to unite behind MbS as a strong, decisive, dynamic leader.

The Saudi government media office did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters for this article.

The crown prince, during a television interview aired Sunday by U.S. broadcaster CBS, said that defending Saudi Arabia was difficult because of the kingdom’s large size and the scale of threats it faces. “It’s challenging to cover all of this fully,” he said. He also called for “strong and firm” global action to deter Iran but said he preferred a “peaceful solution” to a military one.

FUELING RESENTMENT

At stake is political stability in the world’s largest oil exporter, a key ally of the United States in the Middle East. The crown prince is officially next in line to the throne to his 83-year-old father, King Salman, and is de facto ruler of the country. He has vowed to transform the kingdom into a modern state.

The 34-year-old crown prince, who is popular among young Saudis, has received praise at home for easing social restrictions in the conservative Muslim kingdom, granting women more rights and pledging to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. But state control of the media and a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom make it difficult to gauge levels of genuine enthusiasm domestically.

The September 14 attack set ablaze two of state oil giant Saudi Aramco’s plants, initially knocking out half of the kingdom’s oil production — 5% of global oil output. Saudi Arabia has said Iran was responsible, an assessment that U.S. officials share. Iranian officials have denied involvement.

“The magnitude of these attacks is not lost on the population, nor is the fact that he (the crown prince) is the minister of defense and his brother is deputy defense minister, and yet arguably the country has suffered its largest attack ever and on the crown jewels,” said Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs think tank.

“There’s diminishing confidence in his ability to secure the country – and that’s a consequence of his policies,” said Quilliam, a specialist on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. MbS oversees foreign, security and defense policy.

The attack has fueled resentment that has simmered since the crown prince came to power two years ago, sweeping aside rivals to the throne and arresting hundreds of the kingdom’s most prominent figures on corruption allegations.

MbS has seen his reputation overseas suffer from a costly war in Yemen against the Iran-aligned Houthi group that has killed tens of thousands of people and triggered a humanitarian crisis. He also came under international criticism over the murder a year ago of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has said the crown prince ordered.

The crown prince, during the CBS interview, denied ordering the killing of Khashoggi but said he ultimately bears “full responsibility” as the kingdom’s de facto leader.

Khashoggi was murdered by agents of the Saudi government without authorization or permission, said Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, during a moderated discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York on September 24.

CONSOLIDATE CONTROL

Some Saudi critics say MbS’s aggressive foreign policy towards Iran and involvement in the war in Yemen exposed the kingdom to attack, according to four of the sources with ties to the royals and business elite. They also express frustration that the crown prince was unable to prevent the attacks despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars on defense, according to the five sources and one of the senior diplomats.

Jubeir, the Saudi minister, in his recent remarks in New York, said the kingdom’s air defenses have stopped hundreds of ballistic missiles and dozens of drones coming into Saudi Arabia. He added that the failure to detect the September 14 attack was “being looked at,” but that “it’s very difficult to detect small objects that fly at three hundred feet of altitude.”

Some Saudi elite say the crown prince’s efforts to consolidate control have hurt the kingdom. One source close to government circles said MbS has installed officials who were generally less experienced than previously.

MbS ousted Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and interior minister two years ago. The former crown prince had nearly two decades of experience in senior roles in the ministry, which was responsible for domestic policing and intelligence. MbS named a 33-year-old cousin as a replacement, after placing key areas of intelligence and counter-terrorism under the royal court’s purview.

The crown prince also removed Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who had overseen or effectively commanded the kingdom’s elite internal security force, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, since 1996. The prince was ultimately replaced at the end of last year by then-32-year-old Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, who had been deputy governor of Mecca for less than two years and before that in private business.

The Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment addressed to Prince Abdullah.

FAVORITE SON

Saudi insiders and Western diplomats say the family is unlikely to oppose MbS while the king remains alive, recognizing that the king is unlikely to turn against his favorite son. The monarch has delegated most responsibilities of rule to his son but still presides over weekly cabinet meetings and receives foreign dignitaries.

Regardless of the king’s future, the insiders and diplomats say, a challenge to MbS’s authority could be difficult given his hold on the internal security structure.

Some royals view 77-year-old Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s only surviving full brother, as a possible alternative who would have support of family members, the security apparatus and some Western powers, said two of the five sources with ties to Saudi elite.

“They are all looking at Ahmed to see what he does. The family continues to think he is the only one who can save them,” said one prominent businessman.

There is no evidence Prince Ahmed is willing to play that role, according to Saudi watchers. Prince Ahmed has largely kept a low profile since returning to Riyadh in October 2018 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.

Prince Ahmed 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.

Prince Ahmed couldn’t be reached for comment. One of the five sources with ties to Saudi elite said that Prince Ahmed’s position on whether he will challenge MbS is that he “will cross that bridge when we come to it.”

(Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low)

Inside Saudi Arabia’s response to a raid on the heart of the oil kingdom

By Rania El Gamal, Stephen Kalin and Marwa Rashad

KHURAIS, Saudi Arabia(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed energy minister was in London when he learned in the middle of the night of the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, a veteran oil official and senior member of the Al Saud ruling family, hurried back to the kingdom, flying by private jet to Aramco’s headquarters in Dhahran to assess the damage and manage the fallout from the attack on the world’s largest oil exporter, three sources close to the matter said. Officials at state-run oil company Saudi Aramco, meanwhile, gathered in what was referred to internally as the “emergency management room” at the company’s headquarters.

Interviews with at least a dozen Gulf and Western officials provide the most detailed account to date of the response by Saudi officials and state oil company Aramco to the most destructive strike on Saudi Arabia since it opened an offensive in Yemen more than four years ago. The attack knocked out more than half the kingdom’s oil production, or almost 6 percent of global oil output.

Saudi Arabia has said Iran was responsible, an assessment that U.S. officials share.

Iranian officials were unavailable to comment but Iran has denied involvement.

Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition has claimed responsibility. But Gulf diplomats and regional officials say they are skeptical of the claim given the sophistication of the attacks.

The Saudi energy ministry declined to comment on its response to the attacks. The government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The attacks place pressure on both U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have worked closely together to contain Iran’s growing regional influence. Both nations have stressed the need for caution.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the attacks as “an act of war” against Saudi Arabia, though Trump says there are options short of war. Iran has warned that any U.S. or Saudi military strike against the country would bring “all-out war.”

(Graphics on ‘Strikes on Saudi oil disrupt global supply’ – https://tmsnrt.rs/302z0Hm)

MISSILES AND DRONES

Shortly after 3:30 a.m. local time on Saturday, 25 drones and low-flying missiles struck two of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities located in the east of the kingdom, according to Saudi officials.

Amin Nasser, the chief executive of state-run Saudi Aramco, which owns the two plants, rushed to Aramco’s emergency-response room at the company’s headquarters in the oil-producing Eastern Province, where he was joined by other senior managers, according to several people briefed on the matter. There was a sense of shock at the scale of the damage, some of the people said.

By the time Aramco’s team was dealing with the fires at the first site in Khurais, where more than 200 people were at the time, strikes were still hitting the facility, according to the company. More than a hundred contractors were immediately evacuated.

A Saudi Aramco spokesman declined to comment on questions from Reuters about the company and the CEO’s response to the attacks.

Saudi officials believed Iran was responsible because the intensity of the attack was beyond the capability of the Houthi, but they wanted to gather evidence before going public with the claims, according to Gulf diplomats and regional officials.

Saudi officials also spoke to their allies, in some instances requesting assistance with experts to help with the investigation and help in strengthening air defenses. On Saturday, Prince Mohammed provided Trump an update by phone, according to a U.S. official. Trump offered “his support for Saudi Arabia’s self-defense,” according to the White House readout of the call.

U.S. officials also quickly came to believe that the attack did not come from Yemen and that Iran was responsible, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters. The Houthi had not struck that distance before or in such a “precise and coordinated fashion,” said a senior administration official.

(Graphics on ‘Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a battle for regional supremacy, fighting proxy wars’ – https://tmsnrt.rs/31rShzd)

“PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES”

By midday Saturday in Saudi Arabia, Nasser and other senior company Aramco executives were headed to the damaged plants, first to Khurais and then to Abqaiq, one of the sources briefed on the matter said.

That night, Nasser was joined at Abqaiq, the world’s biggest oil processing facility, by Prince Abdulaziz and Aramco’s new chairman Yassir al-Rumayyan, according to sources and pictures released by the state news agency.

Aramco, which runs a variety of large projects in the kingdom, deployed more than 5,000 contractors and pulled employees from other projects to work around the clock to bring production back, according to Nasser’s public comments and one of the sources briefed on the matter.

Initial assessments were that the damage was significant and that bringing full production back online could take weeks or even months, said Saudi officials and industry sources who visited the sites or were briefed on the attacks.

Saudi oil officials were scrambling to produce a report on the extent damage for the kingdom’s top leadership, including King Salman, the energy minister’s father, according two of the sources briefed on the matter. But engineers needed 48 more hours for a final assessment, the people said.

Crude markets would begin trading again in two days and Saudi Arabia was under pressure to reassure buyers that oil supplies will not be disrupted.

“Imagine if this (production) didn’t come back on time the whole global security of supply is going to be impacted,” Nasser told reporters earlier this week. “We have a lot of projects in the kingdom… so we have all of the workforce that’s needed to rebuild, reconstruct and put it back,” he said.

By Tuesday, the kingdom had managed to restore full supplies to customers by drawing oil from their massive oil inventories. The company also announced production would return sooner than expected – by the end of the month. Aramco had emerged “like a phoenix from the ashes,” said Prince Abdulaziz in remarks to news media that night in Red Sea city of Jeddah.

The news restored some confidence, prompting a fall in oil prices that had jumped on Monday.

ATTACK EVIDENCE

The Saudis continued to analyze the attack debris. That included aerial weaponry that missed their targets and was recovered just to the north, according to U.S. officials.

The United States dispatched to Saudi Arabia forensic specialists to assist in the effort; France said it was also sending investigative experts.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabian officials publicly accused Iran of involvement. At a news conference, a defense ministry official displayed drone and missile debris it said was undeniable evidence of Iranian aggression and identified the drones as Iranian Delta Wing unmanned aerial vehicles.

“The attack was launched from the north and unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” said the official, Colonel Turki al-Malki.

U.S. officials fingered southwest Iran as the staging ground, an assessment based at least in part on still-classified imagery showing Iran appearing to prepare an aerial strike, according to two U.S. officials.

On Thursday, the United States was considering sending anti-missile batteries, drones and more fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials said.

“Frankly there’s just not enough defense capability in the country, if you could be hit from multiple directions,” one U.S. official told Reuters.

It is possible the attacks were launched from more than one location, a Western security source said. “The exact launch location is important as it determines the response and there does have to be a response,” the person said.

On Friday, repair work to the oil plants was ongoing. At the Khurais facility, parts of the facility were visibly burnt and pipes melted. During a tour of the site organized by the company, Fahad Abdulkarim, general manager for Aramco’s southern area oil operations, told reporters that the company is shipping equipment from the United States and Europe to help repair the damage.

(Marwa Washad reporting from Jeddah. Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Guy Faulconbridge in London, and Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland and Phil Stewart in Washington.; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low and Jason Szep)