Saudi Arabia in royal purge over 'coup plot'

Saudi authorities have detained three princes including King Salman's brother and nephew for allegedly plotting a coup, three sources told AFP Saturday, signalling a consolidation of power by the defacto ruler.

The detentions, which cast aside the last vestiges of potential opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, come at a sensitive time as the petro-state grapples with plunging oil prices and limits access to Islam's holiest sites over fears of the new coronavirus.

Royal guards detained Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a brother of King Salman, and the monarch's nephew Prince Mohammed bin Nayef on Friday after they were accused of plotting a palace coup aimed at unseating the crown prince -- heir to the Saudi throne -- an Arab and Western official told AFP.

Prince Nayef's younger brother, Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, had also been detained, they added.

A number of military and interior ministry officials accused of supporting the coup plot had also been rounded up, the Western official said, citing Saudi government sources.

"With this purge, no rivals remain to stop the crown prince's succession to the throne," he said.

The detentions raised speculation about the health of the 84-year-old king and whether the crown prince's succession was imminent.

But another source close to the Saudi leadership told AFP the "king is healthy and fine".

The crown prince is "in control" and the purge was carried out "after an accumulation of negative behaviour by the two princes", this source added without elaborating.

The Wall Street Journal, which was first to report the detentions, said Prince Ahmed and Prince Nayef -- once potential contenders for the throne -- could face lifetime imprisonment or execution.

It was unclear where they were being held.

The detentions mark the latest crackdown by Prince Mohammed, the king's son who has consolidated his grip on power with the imprisonment of prominent clerics and activists as well as princes and businessmen.

Already viewed as the defacto ruler controlling all the major levers of government, from defence to the economy, the prince is widely seen to be stamping out traces of internal dissent before a formal transfer of power from his father King Salman.

Prince Mohammed has faced a torrent of international condemnation over the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in October 2018.