BEIRUT, Lebanon — For years, she was a rare princess from Saudi Arabia who spoke her mind to the world, criticizing the kingdom’s treatment of women, calling its religious teachings “extremely dangerous” and voicing support for a constitutional monarchy.
And she got away with it — until she disappeared last March.
This week, the princess, Basmah bint Saud, a daughter of Saudi Arabia’s second king, confirmed what had long been suspected: A statement on her Twitter feed said that she was being held in a notorious prison in Saudi Arabia without charge, and that she was in urgent need of medical care.
“I was abducted without explanation together with one of my daughters and thrown into prison,” she wrote. She begged Saudi Arabia’s king and the crown prince “to release me as I have done no wrong.”
By Friday, that plea had been deleted.
The reason for her arrest was not clear, but it appeared to fit a pattern of Saudi Arabia’s government punishing prominent citizens who had publicly deviated from the government’s line.
Her detention was one of two new cases of Saudi royals locked up during the rise of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Last month, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, also a child of a Saudi king, was detained, leaving his family with no idea why he was taken or where he is being held, according to three associates of his family.
Since his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015, Prince Mohammed has repeatedly locked up members of the royal family while consolidating his position as the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
He has also gone after prominent critics. Among them are activists who were imprisoned after campaigning for women to have the right to drive, and the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018 after publishing columns critical of the crown prince in The Washington Post.
But the detentions of less prominent figures like Princess Basmah baffled some Saudi experts.
“Why are they being arrested?” asked Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics who studies Saudi Arabia. “Someone like Basmah, what kind of challenge does she represent to Mohammed bin Salman? I have no idea.”
Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
At least 11 princes were locked in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in 2017 and accused of corruption. At least one, Turki bin Abdullah, is still detained. The former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, a cousin whom Prince Mohammed elbowed aside to become crown prince himself, was placed under house arrest before being detained last month, along with one of Mohammed bin Salman’s uncles.
Many of these princes had held powerful positions as the heads of security bodies or as provincial governors, leading analysts to conclude that the crown prince had detained them to neutralize potential threats to his standing.
But Princess Basmah and Prince Faisal, the two newest cases, had never held significant power or influence. And two associates of Princess Basmah said she was being held with her daughter in Al Ha’ir Prison, a notorious lockup for criminals and jihadists near the capital, Riyadh, a move that appeared to have no precedent, said Dr. al-Rasheed, the Saudi scholar.
“Historically, they just put them in their villas and didn’t let them out,” she said of previous detentions of female royals. “To put her in Al Ha’ir Prison is really extreme.”
Princess Basmah, 57, is the youngest daughter of King Saud, Saudi Arabia’s second king. He fathered 53 sons and 57 daughters with numerous wives and concubines, and was forced to abdicate the throne in 1964 by other members of his family.
For many years, Princess Basmah lived in London, where she was involved in business and spoke about human rights and the need for change in Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with the BBC in 2012, she called for a constitution in Saudi Arabia “that treats all men and women on an equal footing” and that would protect citizens in court from “the whims of individual judges.”
She criticized the kingdom’s divorce laws for not protecting women’s rights and said the Saudi education system “has left our youth vulnerable to fundamentalist ideologies that have led to terrorism.”
While such criticisms were common among Saudi dissidents and rights activists, Princess Basmah stood out as a rare royal to voice such ideas publicly.
But she faced no immediate consequences, and returned to Saudi Arabia after Salman became king. In 2017, she praised him in an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle, saying she expected him to improve the kingdom’s human rights record.
“There is a progress in Saudi Arabia and in the human rights issue in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “It is being looked at more seriously than it was before.”
But speaking to BBC Arabic the next year, she offered a veiled criticism of Prince Mohammed, who had begun a sweeping plan called Vision 2030 that sought to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil and open up Saudi society.
“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.
One of Princess Basmah’s associates said officials from the royal court told her she could face trouble if she did not praise Prince Mohammed in such interviews.
Princess Basmah suffers from health problems including heart trouble and osteoporosis, and in early 2019 she was planning to seek medical care in Switzerland. But on March 1, before she left, security officers arrested her from her home in Jeddah on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast with her daughter, Suhoud, 27, the two associates said.
The two women have not publicly been charged with any crimes.
As her detention has dragged on, her health has deteriorated and she now struggles to get out of bed, her two associates said. This week, out of desperation, she got word to her staff to post the appeal on her Twitter account.
Appealing to King Salman and Prince Mohammed, she described her health status as “VERY critical” and said she had received no medical care.
On Friday, her two associates said they did not know how the messages had been deleted.
Prince Faisal, now in his mid-40s, was the head of the Saudi Red Crescent during the reign of his father, King Abdullah, who died in 2015, but has otherwise done little to gain public notice.
He was briefly detained in the Ritz-Carlton in 2017 and surrendered some of his assets to the government, one of his associates said. He had been living quietly off his remaining wealth since.
On March 27, security officers came to his home near Riyadh and accused him of having Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, two of his associates said. Prince Faisal denied that he had the disease and said he was living in isolation anyway.
He was arrested nonetheless. His family has not heard from him since and do not know why he was taken or where he is being held, his three associates said.