Saudi princess and daughter released but other royals still locked up

Princess Basmah Bint Saud and her daughter were detained without charge since 2019

A Saudi princess, a critic of her country’s government who was jailed nearly three years ago after publicly questioning government policy, has been released, a legal adviser to her family said on Sunday.

The princess, Basmah bint Saud, returned home on Thursday with her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif, who was imprisoned with her, according to the legal adviser, Henri Estramant. But it remained unclear whether the women would be allowed to travel abroad, a pressing issue because Princess Basmah needs medical care not available in Saudi Arabia for a heart condition, Mr Estramant said.

Princess Basmah was among a number of prominent Saudi activists, dissidents and members of the royal family either jailed or put under house arrest during the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has consolidated his grip on the kingdom since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015.

Crown Prince Mohammed is one of the most divisive rulers in Saudi history. He has earned plaudits at home and abroad for loosening social restrictions and seeking to diversify the economy away from oil. But also punctuating his rise have been a disastrous military intervention in Yemen and a disregard for human rights, including the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.


The detentions of figures like Princess Basmah have fuelled these criticisms. Among those detained were women who campaigned for the right to drive, which was granted in 2018, and members of the royal family whom Crown Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials, MBS, may have considered obstacles on his path to the throne.

Barred from travelling

Some detainees have been released, but many continue to be barred from travelling abroad, apparently because the government fears they could discuss their cases with foreign journalists or representatives of other governments.

A number of prominent people, including two sons of the previous monarch, King Abdullah, remain in detention, according to their associates, and information continues to come to light about the mistreatment of some detainees.

The most prominent is Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior minister whom Crown Prince Mohammed ousted as crown prince in 2017 to claim the title for himself. After his removal, Mohammed bin Nayef was put under house arrest until March 2020, when he was arrested and detained.

At the start of his detention, Mohammed bin Nayef was held in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep and suspended upside down by his ankles, according to two people briefed on his situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Last autumn, he was moved to a villa inside the complex surrounding the king’s Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, the capital, where he remains, the people said. Mohammed bin Nayef is kept by himself with no television or other electronic devices and receives only limited visits from his family, the people said. He appears to have sustained lasting damage to his ankles from his treatment in detention and cannot walk without a cane.

The government has not filed formal charges against him or explained why he is detained. Most Saudi experts assume that it is because Crown Prince Mohammed fears he could impede the crown prince’s quest to become the next Saudi king.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment about Princess Basmah or Mohammed bin Nayef. Princess Basmah (58) who was released with her daughter, al-Sharif, last week, never held a government position nor had any power.


The youngest daughter of King Saud, Saudi Arabia’s second king, Princess Basmah spent much of her time in London and was best known for occasionally offering opinions about Saudi Arabia to the news media, which was rare for royals, especially women.

She criticised the kingdom’s legal system, which is based on Shariah law, and called for the country to adopt a constitution that protected citizens’ rights, statements for which she faced no consequences.

But speaking to BBC Arabic in 2018, Princess Basmah accused Crown Prince Mohammed, albeit without naming him, of refusing to accept those who did not support his overhaul plans, known as Vision 2030.

“He has a vision, Vision 2030, and I see that in that vision, there is a direction toward a type of isolation of all those who do not agree with that vision,” she said.

In March 2019, police arrested Princess Basmah and al-Sharif, who is around 30, from their home in the Saudi city of Jiddah.

Mr Estramant said that the two women were accused of undefined “criminal offences” and held in Al Ha’ir Prison, near Riyadh, but were never formally charged with any crimes. Saudi officials have not commented publicly on Princess Basmah’s case, but in 2020, the Saudi mission to the United Nations in Geneva told a UN body that she had been “accused of criminal offenses involving attempting to travel outside the kingdom illegally.”

It said Princess Basmah had not stood trial.

Mr Estramant said it was unclear why the women had been released, but he praised the move. "We are pleased that the royal court and MBS acquiesced to release them both," he said. "It is a good sign as the country continues its process to develop the rule of law." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times