Saudi Prince Addresses Questions of Loyalty After London Video

(Bloomberg) -- A rare video of a senior Saudi royal speaking to protesters in London stirred controversy about potential discord in the ruling family ranks, forcing the prince to issue a clarifying statement.

In the nearly two-minute clip, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud seems to ask the protesters why they’re complaining to him and other family members rather than his brother and nephew -- the king and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He later says he hopes wars in "Yemen and elsewhere" will "stop as soon as possible."

Some Saudis have interpreted the comments as an attempt to distance himself from the leadership, while others see it as a show of support.

The ambiguous remarks are striking for a Saudi royal and come at a delicate time for the young crown prince. At home, the government this summer put on hold a plan to sell shares in the state oil giant Aramco, a key pillar of the crown prince’s blueprint to transform the kingdom’s economy. Elsewhere, the imprisonment of several prominent women’s rights activists has undercut his reputation abroad as a reformer and the war in Yemen waged since 2015 is showing no signs of abating.

The royal family keeps internal affairs private, and it is extremely rare for any disagreements to be publicly aired.

Late Tuesday night, Prince Ahmed issued a brief, official statement, saying that he was merely clarifying that "the king and the crown prince are responsible for the state and its decisions."

The statement was published on the front page of several Saudi newspapers on Wednesday. "It is not possible to interpret what I said in any other way," he said.

Opponents of the government saw his words differently. London-based dissident Saad Al-Faqih -- long a thorn in the monarchy’s side -- hopped on television to interpret the video as criticism of the king and crown prince coming from "one of the most respected people in the family." Anonymous Twitter accounts began spreading a hashtag pledging allegiance to Prince Ahmed as king.

Prince Ahmed is one of the only surviving sons of the kingdom’s founder and was once viewed as a potential candidate for the throne. As a full brother of King Salman, he’s also one of the "Sudairi Seven," a powerful faction within the family.

Some have speculated privately that Prince Ahmed was one of only three out of 34 allegiance council members who didn’t vote for the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to crown prince. The government hasn’t identified individual votes.

The edited clip, shot at night in London, shows Prince Ahmed addressing a small group of protesters who had been chanting "down, down Al Saud" and "criminal family Al Saud."

"What do all of Al Saud have to do with this?" the prince says, accompanied by the Saudi ambassador to the U.K. "Certain individuals, maybe they’re responsible. What’s the family got to do with it?"

When a protester asks who’s responsible, Prince Ahmed says the king and the crown prince.

Some of the words on the video aren’t audible, and sections are missing. Clips are edited together.

At one point, somebody asks the prince, a former Saudi interior minister, about Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition has been waging war against the Houthi rebels there for more than three years.

Prince Ahmed’s choice to engage the protesters in dialogue was "proof of his morals and humility," Prince Sattam bin Khalid wrote on Twitter. "This video clip counts for us, not against us," he said. "Everything that he said represents us."

A graphic that made the rounds on Twitter on Wednesday showed Prince Ahmed kissing the hand of King Salman. "Ahmed bin Abdulaziz exposes the mercenaries’ interpretation," it declared. "Our security and stability are the decision of our leaders."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.