Saudi princes Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Mohammed bin Nayef. Illustration: Guardian Design/Getty/AP/Shutterstock
Not long ago, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, was all set to assume power. But his ambitious young cousin had a ruthless plan to seize control for himself
by Anuj Chopra
Tue 29 Nov 2022
The Saudi prince was detained all night. As daylight broke, he staggered out of the king’s palace in Mecca. His personal bodyguards, who tailed him everywhere, were missing. The prince was led to a waiting car. He was free to leave – but he would soon discover that freedom was not very different from detention.
As his car pulled out of the palace gates, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef fired off a series of panicked text messages.
“Be very careful! Don’t come back!” he wrote to his most trusted adviser, who had quietly slipped out of the kingdom just weeks earlier.
When Nayef reached his own palace in the coastal city of Jeddah a few hours later, he found new guards manning the property. It was obvious that he was being put under house arrest.
“May God help us, doctor. The important thing is that you must be careful, and under no circumstances should you come back,” he wrote to the adviser.
The previous night, 20 June 2017, Nayef, the king’s nephew, had been forced to step down as heir to the Saudi throne in an episode that one royal insider described to me as “Godfather, Saudi-style”. Nayef, who oversaw domestic security, was the CIA’s closest Saudi ally. Earlier that year, the then-CIA director Mike Pompeo had awarded him a medal in recognition of his counter-terrorism efforts that saved American lives. Two years before, after King Salman commenced his reign, Nayef had been made crown prince at the age of 55, putting him next in line to the throne. But simmering behind the scenes was a vicious rivalry between Nayef and his upstart cousin, the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, who rose from obscurity to become deputy crown prince.
Shortly before the palace coup, on 5 June 2017, tensions between the princes reached boiling point after MBS and other regional autocrats imposed a punishing blockade on neighbouring Qatar. The tiny, gas-rich emirate has long rankled its bigger Arab neighbours with its provocative moves, such as giving airtime to regional Islamists and dissidents on its influential news channel Al Jazeera. Nayef, too, had issues with Qatar, but he preferred quiet diplomacy over MBS’s combative approach. Behind his cousin’s back, Nayef opened a secret channel with Qatar’s ruler Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. “Tamim called me today, but I did not answer,” Nayef texted his adviser at the peak of the crisis. “I want to send him an encrypted phone for communication.”
On 20 June 2017, in the midst of that crisis, Nayef was called for a meeting in King Salman’s palace in Mecca – a marble-walled colossus overlooking the cube-shaped Ka’bah, the holiest shrine in Islam. According to sources close to Nayef, when he arrived, his security detail was instructed to wait outside. To prevent any leaks, all mobile phones, including those of the palace staff, were seized by guards loyal to MBS. One senior member of the royal family, who tried to enter the palace after Nayef, was turned away at the gates. The prince was allegedly ushered into a room with Turki al-Sheikh, a close MBS confidante with a gruff, intimidating manner and a predilection for expensive Richard Mille watches. (Sheikh would later be promoted to head the General Entertainment Authority – an agency that seeks to soften Saudi Arabia’s image by, among other things, hosting giant raves in the desert.)
Sheikh allegedly confined Nayef to the room for hours, pressuring him to sign a resignation letter and pledge allegiance to MBS. At first, Nayef refused. According to one source close to the prince, he was told that if he did not give up his claim to the throne, his female family members would be raped. Nayef’s medication for hypertension and diabetes was withheld, and he was told that if he did not step down willingly, his next destination would be the hospital. He was so afraid of being poisoned that night, said another royal family source, that he refused to drink even water.
Nayef was permitted to speak with two princes in the Allegiance Council, the royal body that ratifies the line of succession. He was shocked to hear that they had already submitted to MBS. By daybreak, it was all over. Anxious and exhausted, Nayef surrendered. He was made to step into an adjoining room, where MBS was waiting with television cameras and a guard carrying a gun. Footage released by Saudi broadcasters showed a brief glimpse of Sheikh hurriedly slipping a gold-trimmed robe on the back of the detained prince. As the cameras rolled, MBS crept closer to his cousin and theatrically stooped down to kiss his hand and knee.
“When I pledged allegiance, there was a gun to my back,” Nayef later wrote in a text to his adviser.
In the days that followed, posters of Nayef were removed from public buildings. MBS was now first in line to the throne, and effectively the most powerful man in the country at the age of 31. The octogenarian king remained head of state, but MBS became the day-to-day ruler, with absolute control over all levers of Saudi security, economy and oil. Nayef, the darling of US intelligence, who had assumed he would be the next ruler of Saudi Arabia, was now a prisoner. But for him, worse was to come.
The palace coup, and the power plays that led to it, were largely obscured from public view at the time, with only scraps of information – and dollops of propaganda – leaking out to the press. International media, for example, was fed what Nayef’s associates call spurious claims that he had been pushed aside in the national interest because he was incapacitated by morphine and cocaine addiction. Getting at the truth is especially hard in a country where the surveillance state is so powerful that some Saudis place their phones in the refrigerator while discussing sensitive matters. The Saudi embassies in London and Washington did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But a detailed account of the events of 2017, and its shocking aftermath, is now possible, thanks to a drip-feed of palace secrets by a few senior royals and other well-connected sources who have been stripped of their influence and wealth in the age of MBS and, in the worst cases, imprisoned and tortured.
Key among those sources is a man named Saad Aljabri, Nayef’s closest adviser and intelligence chief. It was Aljabri whom Nayef texted immediately after he was released from the king’s palace, after the coup. Aljabri, 63, had long operated in the shadows and many who worked with him considered him the most powerful non-royal in Saudi Arabia. One former American official who worked with Aljabri for years described him to me as the “deep state liaison” between Saudi Arabia and western powers. In the years after 9/11, Aljabri had been promoted through the ranks of the interior ministry, eventually becoming head of counter-terrorism operations. Together, Aljabri and his patron, Nayef, modernised the kingdom’s security and surveillance apparatus. They have also been accused of targeting peaceful activists under the pretext of counter-terrorism and laying the foundations of the police state that MBS would later turn against them.
The text messages between Nayef and Aljabri first came to light through legal filings in North America and an Interpol ruling that rejected a Saudi request to have Aljabri arrested overseas. The messages in those documents were authenticated by a digital forensics expert hired by Norton Rose Fulbright, the international law firm representing Aljabri, which is in possession of his iPhone, according to court affidavits. Aljabri’s team separately shared with me a handful of messages that have never previously been published.
For decades, the throne had passed laterally between the sons of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, ensuring a delicate power balance between the various branches of the vast royal family. Nayef’s succession would have seen the crown passing to the generation below for the first time, but still to a different branch of the family, maintaining that delicate balance. But then came the palace coup – which not only shoved aside MBS’s main rival, but also destroyed the old succession model that prized seniority and consensus within the family, by setting up the passing of power directly from father to son within one branch of the family. It enabled MBS to amass more power than any previous ruler, even before he formally ascends the throne.
The coup was the culmination of months of animus between MBS and Nayef. One of the major points of conflict was their competition to win favour with the new administration of President Donald Trump. People close to Nayef say he was secretly listening in on MBS’s calls with aides and allies such as Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser. The snooping helped him track MBS’s manoeuvres in Washington. The transcript of one intercepted call in the spring of 2017, which Nayef showed to Aljabri, suggested that MBS had been discussing the royal succession with Kushner. In that call, MBS told Kushner that he had cultivated close relationships with all US agencies “except three”. When Aljabri saw the transcript, he took the three agencies to mean the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency – institutions that had long favoured Nayef. To him and his patron, it was clear that MBS was trying to consolidate American support for his succession.
In May 2017, Nayef attempted to make his own inroads into the Trump White House. He hired the Sonoran Policy Group, a lobbying firm in Washington with close ties to Trump’s team. Sonoran – which has since been renamed Stryk Global Diplomacy after its chairman, the lobbyist Robert Stryk – was hired to provide Nayef’s interior ministry “broad advisory services” in Washington. Nayef, people close to him said, understood that his past record did not count for much with a brash, unconventional president who would go on to have a strained relationship with the US intelligence community. Nayef wanted to impress on the new president that he was not just a longstanding partner, but a more valuable one than his cousin. Aljabri was directly involved in negotiating the $5.4m lobbying contract on behalf of the ministry.
As news of the contract spread, Aljabri feared being caught between the warring princes. In May 2017, he quietly slipped away to Turkey, just days before Trump was due to visit Riyadh. Aljabri’s fears were well founded. Soon after he left, Aljabri said he got word that the main signatory of the contract – a secret service officer under Nayef – was detained by MBS loyalists and interrogated about the lobbying effort. On 4 June 2017, Aljabri texted Abdulaziz Howairini, a veteran security official, to ask whether he should continue “fasting in the cold”, a coded reference to remaining in Turkey. Howairini, who now reports to MBS, replied that he should. On 17 June, Howairini sent another text to Aljabri, warning him that the MBS loyalists were “very eager” to detain him as well. Meanwhile, furious pushback from MBS compelled Nayef to cancel the Stryk contract. According to Aljabri, Nayef warned him that MBS had seen the contract as a plot to torpedo his relationship with the Trump family and was out for blood.
On 18 June, Aljabri received an abrupt text from MBS, asking him to return to Saudi Arabia to help resolve unspecified “conflicts” with Nayef. “I don’t think there’s anyone who understands [Nayef] better than you,” MBS wrote, his tone unusually conciliatory. There had been bad blood between MBS and Aljabri since 2015, when King Salman, apparently at the prince’s urging, fired Aljabri from his position for secretly meeting the then-CIA director John Brennan and then-British foreign secretary Philip Hammond without reporting the meetings to the monarch. However, Aljabri had continued working with Nayef informally, viewing his dismissal as one of MBS’s numerous attempts to weaken his patron. “Let us forget about the past,” MBS now insisted. “Are we children today? Forgive me and exonerate me before God. When are you coming back?” Aljabri replied that he needed to be away for medical treatment.
Two days later, MBS launched the coup.
In the months after the coup, Aljabri continued to hunker down in Turkey. His immediate family was with him, except for two of his children who, on the day of the coup, had been prevented from boarding a flight in Riyadh. He secretly kept in contact with Nayef, whose movements were constrained. Meanwhile, MBS moved swiftly to tighten his grip on the security services, including the interior ministry, which was stripped of Nayef loyalists and key functions such as counter-terrorism. MBS came down heavily on any hint of public dissent. In his first major clampdown after the coup, influential clerics and intellectuals with huge social media followings were arrested in September 2017.
That same month, Aljabri pleaded with MBS to allow his children to leave Saudi Arabia. But MBS insisted that Aljabri first return to discuss a “very sensitive file” related to Nayef. “Doctor, where should we dispatch the airplane to fetch you?” asked MBS in a text message. Aljabri had no intention of returning, but also sought to convince MBS that he posed no threat. In messages filled with obsequious platitudes, Aljabri pledged loyalty to MBS.
“I possess lots of sensitive state information, but despite that I have never leaked anything to anyone,” Aljabri wrote. Rattling off examples of his loyalty, he wrote that he had publicly refuted the claims of “Mujtahid” – an anonymous royal whistleblower on Twitter who has long been a thorn in the side of the Saudi royal family. “What destiny awaits me were I to return [to Saudi]? Isn’t it better for me to remain outside the kingdom, where I remain faithful to your rule, refuse to say anything that would be harmful … and cooperate with Your Highness in everything that serves a common good?”
MBS was unmoved. He texted Aljabri that he would pursue him “using all available means”. The threat prompted Aljabri to flee from Turkey to Canada later that month. In late 2017, Saudi Arabia tried to have Aljabri arrested through Interpol, alleging that he had stolen state funds worth billions, and pressed Canada to hand him over. Both efforts failed. Then, in October 2018, according to Aljabri, he received a warning from spies in a Middle Eastern country, who told him that he was an assassination target and urged him to stay away from Saudi embassies and consulates. (Aljabri requested the country’s name be withheld for fear of Saudi retribution.) That same month, Canadian border agents are thought to have intercepted and deported members of the Tiger Squad, a team of Saudi-sponsored hitmen, as they tried to enter the country on tourist visas. Riyadh denied any involvement but the alleged plot, implicitly acknowledged by Canadian authorities, bore chilling similarities to the way the Tiger Squad murdered the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the same month inside a Saudi diplomatic mission in Turkey.
To the Americans who had worked with Aljabri, it was obvious that MBS saw him as a threat. Aljabri fleeing the kingdom was “like J Edgar Hoover’s deputy leaving DC and showing up in Moscow”, said the former US official who had worked with him. “Here’s a man liked by deep state organisations around the planet. He knows every foible, every misstep that Saudi royals have made.”
On a crisp winter morning last year, I was invited to a five-star hotel in Washington DC to meet Aljabri. He had travelled from Toronto to visit his son Khalid, a cardiologist and an informal spokesman for his reclusive father. When I arrived in the hotel lobby, my phone jangled with an unexpected message: “Let’s meet outside of the hotel.” Minutes later, a man appeared and whisked me to another high-rise in the area. Parked outside the residential tower, home to some of DC’s political elite, was an SUV marked “US Secret Service”.
In an enclosed patio on the rooftop was Aljabri, dressed in a dark suit and wire-rimmed glasses. He was sitting on a couch, gazing at the view of downtown Washington. A wall-mounted fireplace radiated warmth and in the background, the faint warble of a grand piano could be heard. As I arrived, Aljabri stood up, Starbucks coffee in hand, and began by pointing out the landmarks: the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the White House.
During the Trump presidency, Aljabri had avoided Washington DC, he said. He has plenty of influential friends here, including senators on both sides of the aisle and security officials. Even so, he was wary of the long arm of the Saudi state, and Trump’s warm relationship with MBS had made him even more wary.
As we spoke, Aljabri, who holds a doctorate in artificial intelligence from the University of Edinburgh, mused about how different his life’s trajectory might have been had he not met Nayef. Aljabri began his career at the interior ministry in the 1990s. He once tried quitting for a job at Aramco, the state oil giant that is the biggest cash cow for the kingdom. Nayef stopped him. Now their destinies seem braided together.
Since the coup, about 40 of Aljabri’s family members and close associates have been detained in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to coerce him into returning. His voice cracked as he pulled up photos on his phone of his incarcerated children, Sarah and Omar, now 22 and 24 respectively. They were arrested in March 2020, and convicted, in a closed trial, of money laundering and attempting to escape Saudi Arabia unlawfully. Aljabri’s son-in-law is also in detention. Aljabri said that if there were ever a chance for an exchange on a bridge – MBS on one end with his family, Aljabri on the other – he would do the trade in a heartbeat. “Take your ransom, release the hostages,” he said, imagining the scene. But he knows that is wishful thinking.
In August 2020, after his children were jailed, Aljabri filed an explosive lawsuit in Washington, going public with his claim that MBS sent a death squad after him. (The judge would later remark that the lawsuit read like “the stuff of a Tom Clancy novel”.) Aljabri knows he cannot win against a powerful dictator, but the action could at the very least be what one of his associates described as a “pebble in MBS’s shoe”. In early 2021, the lawsuit triggered what Aljabri saw as retaliatory lawsuits in Boston and Ontario, filed by 10 Saudi state-linked firms initially established by Nayef to provide cover for US-Saudi operations and now controlled by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, of which MBS is the chairman. These companies accused Aljabri and his associates of defrauding them of $3.5bn. Aljabri denied any wrongdoing and said defending himself would require revealing the operations and finances of the companies, which were murky by design to support covert activities.
Court documents filed in Boston by the US Justice Department suggest US officials were keen for an out-of-court settlement between Aljabri and MBS, apparently to prevent any public revelations about undercover American operations. But those efforts went nowhere. One US official, previously posted in the American mission in Riyadh, told me that the Saudis were not interested in settling because they are “not convinced Aljabri will remain silent”. In February this year, Aljabri made a new offer to MBS. In a letter to a senior royal court adviser, Aljabri offered a “financial and legal resolution”. (Aljabri’s team refused to discuss the specifics of the offer with me.) They sent the White House a memo requesting US officials to “urge the Saudi leadership to accept the restitution offer”. It was met with silence from MBS.
MBS’s supporters say Aljabri’s eagerness for a financial settlement is tacit admission of his guilt. Aljabri’s team say that MBS’s unwillingness to settle proves that corruption is just a pretext to pursue a political opponent. Meanwhile, the legal battle drags on. In September, the Washington court dismissed Aljabri’s lawsuit against MBS, citing lack of personal jurisdiction. (Aljabri’s team are appealing against the decision.) Late last year, the Boston court threw out the lawsuit against Aljabri after the US government invoked the “state secrets privilege” to halt the disclosure of classified national security information. (The companies are fighting back.) But those secrets are still at risk of exposure in an Ontario court. Court filings from earlier this year show lawyers for the US government are working with their Canadian counterparts to prevent that outcome.
But even if the lawsuits against Aljabri proceed, it could prove tricky to prove the corruption allegations conclusively. That’s because a key witness, the man who oversaw counter-terrorism spending, has disappeared: Nayef.
In late 2017, the conditions of Nayef’s house arrest were relaxed, but he was still barred from travelling outside the kingdom. Aljabri told me that Nayef had initially believed the worst that would happen to him was losing his official titles and receiving a handsome financial compensation in return. He expected to be treated the same way as his predecessor Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, a former head of intelligence who was dismissed as crown prince in 2015. After King Salman fired him, according to a well-placed source, Prince Muqrin was lavished with farewell gifts, including a royal payout of about $800m, and the luxury yacht Solandge.
By contrast, a large chunk of Nayef’s wealth was seized. On 10 December 2017, Nayef sent a letter to HSBC in Geneva asking that his “EUR, GBP, and USD balances” be transferred to a Saudi bank account. A source with knowledge of Nayef’s assets said his bankers and lawyers in Geneva ignored such requests, suspecting that the prince was acting under duress. (HSBC declined to comment when asked how it responded to the letter. The bank requested withholding the name of the official addressed in the letter, citing safety concerns.)
The total value of Nayef’s overseas holdings is unclear. The prince’s associates say he owns prime real estate worth billions in Europe and the US. Nonetheless, what is certain is that Nayef had to surrender a substantial part of his domestic assets. The source with knowledge of these, who is based in Europe, provided a table with a breakdown of his “confiscated” companies and bank accounts – the total amount was $5.22bn. A separate source close to the prince shared what appeared to be a slightly less up-to-date spreadsheet with a similar breakdown. The “total value” confiscated, it said, was 17.8bn riyals, or $4.75bn.
In 2018 and 2019, Nayef enjoyed relative freedom, even though he wasn’t allowed to leave the kingdom. His favourite activity, falconry in Algeria’s deserts, was out of the question, but he was allowed to go hunting inside Saudi Arabia. He showed up at royal weddings and funerals. One video that surfaced in late 2019 showed a group of supporters taking selfies with the prince and kissing his hand.
Then, in March 2020, suddenly things got decidedly worse for Nayef. The government raided his desert retreat on the outskirts of Riyadh, and he was taken into detention. Several staff were also detained, the Europe-based source said. Nayef was kept in solitary confinement for more than six months. During that time, “he was seriously mistreated”, the source said. He alleged that Nayef was strung up his ankles and tortured. “As a consequence, he now has long-lasting damage to his lower legs and ankles, making walking painful. He lost a significant amount of weight.”
Towards the end of 2020, according to the Europe-based source, Nayef was moved to a compound in the Yamamah palace complex in Riyadh, the king’s official residence and main seat of the Saudi government. He is not allowed outside his small unit and he is filmed and recorded at all times, the source said. He is not allowed visitors, except certain family members on rare occasions, nor can he see his personal doctor or legal representatives. He has been made to sign documents without reading them.
In the spring of 2021, Nayef’s bankers and lawyers in Europe received new wealth transfer requests. They included a phone call from Nayef to his lawyer in Switzerland, according to a source privy to the discussion. The lawyer, to whom Nayef had previously granted power of attorney, refused, as he believed his client was under duress. The prince invited the lawyer to visit Saudi Arabia and verify for himself. Nayef “kept saying ‘I’m free, we’ll go out for dinner when you come to Riyadh’”, the source said. The lawyer insisted that Nayef needed to travel to Switzerland with his family to authorise the transfer in person.
When reached by telephone, the lawyer told me that he could neither deny nor confirm the conversation, expressing concern about the potential repercussions of media engagement for his client. “The main reason that Nayef is being held is that the crown prince wrongly believes that he is a threat to the succession,” the Europe-based source said. “In also going after his money, MBS is attempting to humiliate Nayef so there is absolutely no threat of anyone seeing the former crown prince as a viable alternative.”
In a marble-bedecked luxury hotel in the heart of Riyadh, I met one of MBS’s most prominent spin doctors. Sitting next to him in the cafe was a senior royal court official, who stayed for part of the meeting. From our previous encounters, it was clear the spin doctor was part of a state-sponsored campaign to project MBS in the west as a visionary, boldly pushing through social reforms. He had wanted to talk about how the prince had lifted decades-old bans on women drivers and cinemas, allowed once-forbidden music concerts and curbed the power of the religious police who staunchly opposed mixing of the sexes. “MBS has balls,” he once told me.
This time, an evening in March 2020, the spin doctor, hunched over a cup of coffee and a plate of crepes slathered with Nutella, wanted to set the record straight on Nayef’s recent disappearance. The Saudi government had offered no comment on why Nayef had been detained, along with another senior royal seen as a rival to MBS, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz. This meeting was the closest I would get to an official explanation.
The spin doctor sought to dismiss a narrative playing out in the foreign media that the princes had been detained because the authorities believed they were plotting to unseat MBS and his father. MBS, he said, remained “in control” and the detentions were carried out “after an accumulation of negative behaviour by the two princes”. The sudden purge was meant to enforce “discipline” within the royal family. He did not elaborate on the nature of the “negative behaviour”, but said that the princes could be released soon.
Nearly three years later, the princes are still in detention. “Both the Biden and the Trump administrations called for release of Mohammed bin Nayef … at the top of their talking points when engaging privately with Saudi leadership,” Kirsten Fontenrose, who briefly oversaw Gulf policy for the Trump administration, told the US House foreign affairs committee last year. “Mohammed bin Salman has been unmoved.”
There are now no visible rivals left to the throne. MBS’s power appears absolute. On his current trajectory, there is nothing to stop him from succeeding his father as king. The global outcry over Khashoggi’s murder, the ruinous Saudi-led war in Yemen and growing repression at home – nothing seems to have shaken his hold on the country. Despite the reputational risks of doing business with a dictator, Wall Street executives are eager to strike deals with the rich petro-state. Activists fear a recent US decision to grant him sovereign immunity in a case concerning Khashoggi’s murder could further embolden him to go after critics.
A royal family source, who privately denounced Nayef’s treatment but has remained silent in public to avoid retribution, told me that he would not be surprised if Nayef were to suddenly make an appearance in public someday alongside MBS, giving his blessing to the man who crushed him. Similar to the staged video after the 2017 coup, that would be another defining image of the age of MBS – and his violent rise to power.