King Salman's (C) son (L) is in power. His nephew (R) is reportedly in custody. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

Two of Saudi Arabia's most prominent royals were suddenly detained on Friday morning by masked royal guards and face up to a lifetime in prison for alleged treason, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: Even by the standards of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), this would be an audacious move. The two men reportedly detained were both once heirs to the throne, and are close relatives of the crown prince and his father, King Salman.

The men arrested are:

  • Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the king's brother.
  • Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al Saud (MBN), the king's nephew.
  • Both served as interior minister, overseeing Saudi Arabia's military and intelligence services.
  • The NY Times reports that Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, a brother of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was also arrested.
  • There has been no public explanation as to what they are accused of.

Between the lines: "The arrests cast aside two men who could have been rivals to MBS’s claim to the throne if 84-year-old King Salman died or decided to abdicate. MBN had been first in line for the throne as Salman’s crown prince until 2017, when MBS was elevated over him," the WSJ reports.

  • According to WSJ, "guards from the royal court wearing masks and dressed in black... took them into custody and searched their homes."

Flashback: While this is shocking news, there is some precedent.

  • MBS detained some of the kingdom's wealthiest and most powerful people, including numerous royals, in the Ritz Carlton in 2017. That was described as an anti-corruption drive, but it was also a clear consolidation of power.

The big picture: MBS' international standing fell dramatically after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and there was speculation his position could be weakened at home as well. But for now, the 34-year-old appears firmly in control.

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