- Since becoming Saudi Crown Prince in June 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has moved to eliminate threats to his reputation and rule from activists, journalists, and royals alike.
- Now he is trying to bury the remaining threats posed by the man he usurped, Mohammed bin Nayef, by accusing him of corruption and treason.
- Bin Nayef, who worked with US intelligence against al-Qaeda, is a darling of the US, and lawmakers are calling on the Trump administration to help release him.
- Another member of the old guard with strong ties to the US is suing MBS. Saad al-Jabri accused him of sending a hit squad to kill him in Canada.
- The backlash from the corruption charges, the attempt on al-Jabri’s life, and the lawsuit are weighing heavily on MBS.
- But if the threats can be silenced, MBS will have banished the most vocal threats to his legitimacy to date.
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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, has been Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler for just over three years. In that time he has fast-tracked a string of domestic reforms that have made the country almost unrecognizable.
Those developments, however, have been undermined and overshadowed on the world stage by his relentless appetite for crushing threats to his legitimacy.
After each strike, the international community has, by and large, condemned MBS. But each time the headlines disappeared, business returned to normal.
Now, MBS is attempting once again to silence dangerous threats to his rule, and this time the fallout could be far more severe.
MBS’s ascent to power was not routine. Over the years his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, gave MBS more responsibility, and in June 2017, eventually agreed to cast then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef aside in favour of him.
Many welcomed the self-branded reformer prince, but were concerned nonetheless by the clinical nature of his rise.
Now MBS wants to tie up the loose ends and protect his reputation.
Silencing people who know too much
The first and biggest threat to MBS’s rule is bin Nayef himself, a favourite of the US and the sole rallying point for opposition to MBS’s claim on the throne. Bin Nayef is the nephew of King Salman, and cousin to MBS.
The second is bin Nayef’s top associate, the former Saudi intelligence chief Saad al-Jabri. He has been living in exile in Canada since MBS became crown prince in June 2017.
Both of these men have strong followings in the US, and have enough information about the Saudi regime to damage MBS’s standing, perhaps irretrievably. Al-Jabri worked in Saudi intelligence for 40 years before he fled.
Bin Nayef has been effectively under house arrest since he was ousted as crown prince in June 2017, according to The New York Times, and is now monitored by guards loyal to MBS, according to The Wall Street Journal.
On March 6, 2020, MBS had bin Nayef formally arrested and accused of plotting to seize the Saudi throne from King Salman and MBS, The Journal reported.
Saudi investigators have also accused bin Nayef of embezzling $US15 billion through shell companies he had managed to fund counterterrorism operations between Saudi and US intelligence agencies, though it’s not clear how they got this figure,The Washington Post reported.
His $US5.6 billion family fortune has also been frozen.
MBS’s ‘Tiger Squad’
Earlier this month, al-Jabri sued MBS in a US federal court in Washington, DC. In a shocking lawsuit, the former intelligence officer claimed that MBS had sent a hit squad – known as the “Tiger Squad” – to assassinate him in Canada in 2018.
Since al-Jabri fled Saudi Arabia in 2017, MBS has made fruitless, sustained attempts to bring him home to give evidence about bin Nayef’s dealings, lawyers for al-Jabri wrote in the claim.
On September 10, 2017, MBS texted al-Jabri to say he would enforce measures that “would be harmful to you” if he didn’t come home, according to the lawsuit.
As a close associate and former colleague of bin Nayef, al-Jabri would likely be incriminated, and jailed alongside the ex-crown prince in the corruption case.
But al-Jabri may not even make it to court. A Canadian intelligence source told the Globe and Mail last week that Saudi agents had made an attempt on al-Jabri’s life in the wake of the court filing.
A corruption charge ‘plays well with Saudi audiences’
Whether or not the corruption allegations are true, bin Nayef and his circle are already inflicting substantial damage to MBS’s reputation on the world stage, and MBS is scrambling to silence them.
“What this campaign will achieve is to put corruption allegations over MBN and his associates to damage their public impression as honest and men of integrity,” Umer Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider. (MBN is a popular nickname for Mohammed bin Nayef.)
“We see this corruption tactic plays well with Saudi audiences as has been the case in Ritz,” he said, referring to the 2017 purge where hundreds of royals were detained in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, accused of corruption, and made to swear allegiance to MBS.
“There’s an understanding within Saudi ruling circles that people like al-Jabri need to remain quiet, and it’s them who are changing or damaging Saudi image abroad,” Karim said.
“Therefore, attempts are now being made to push corruption allegations to taint his image and portray him as a person whose own record is not 100% right.”
Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East at Rice University, told Business Insider that the corruption trial is an attempt to further smear bin Nayef’s reputation back in Saudi Arabia.
“It is likely that any trial against him would be an attempt to ensure that MBN is neutralised within Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“It is likely that MBS can ensure that a verdict is delivered, which does do that, but he cannot control what happens internationally, and that is probably a major concern.”
MBS’s enemies are darlings of the US
Bin Nayef and al-Jabri are especially favoured in the US, which makes it harder for MBS to destroy them.
Both worked closely with US intelligence agencies during the War on Terror in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
George Tenet, the former head of the CIA, once called bin Nayef “my most important interlocutor.”
US lawmakers from both parties have met the two men’s causes with sympathy, and bin Nayef’s reputation in Washington is causing MBS headaches.
“We need to know right now where he is and if he is safe,” Rep. Francis Rooney, a Republican from Florida, tweeted of bin Nayef on July 16, 2020, after The Washington Post published a report detailing his charges.
Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut, also tweeted: “It is not OK for the Trump administration to ignore the disappearance of one of our strongest counterterrorism allies, Mohammad bin Nayef.”
Al-Jabri too has earned the backing of the US.
“Saad al-Jabri was a valued partner to the US on countering terrorism,” a State Department spokesperson told Business Insider this week.
“Saad’s work with the United States helped save American and Saudi lives. Many US government officials, both current and former, know and respect Saad.”
Americans are comparing MBS to Mohammed bin Nayef
Ulrichsen, of Rice University, told Business Insider: “Officials in Washington and London have long held MBN in high regard for the results he obtained and the cooperation he extended on security and defence issues, and have contrasted those results and cooperation with what they see as an alarming decline since MBN was ousted.”
As an example, Ulrichsen cited the killing of three US cadets by a Saudi gunman on US soil in December 2019. The terror cell al-Qaeda – which bin Nayef worked with the US to bring down – had claimed responsibility.
A long line of silenced Saudis
Bin Nayef and al-Jabri are the latest in a long line of people MBS has tried to silence abroad.
Other Saudi critics in exile in the UK, Norway, and Canada – namely Omar Abdulaziz, Iyad al-Baghdadi, and Ghanem al-Dosairi – have reported of their families targeted, their phones hacked, and their lives threatened.
But as criticism continues to pile up at MBS’s door, one thing is assured: unless something drastic changes, he will become King of Saudi Arabia when his father dies. King Salman is 84.
“The succession will be instant to MBS, he needs no further steps upon the passing of the King to assume the monarchy,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi politics expert who serves on the board of MBS’s $US500 billion mega-city project NEOM, told Business Insider.
Karim, from RUSI, told Business Insider: “This is all about altering MBN’s perception as a clean operator at home and tainting those who have worked for him.”
“Of course, if the King were to pass away and MBS succeed to the throne without any opposition, the campaign against MBN and al-Jabri might abate.”
“So long as MBS is still the Crown Prince he may feel he has to take MBN out of the equation to ensure his eventual succession.”
- Read more about Saudi Arabia:
- A top Saudi intelligence official who fled to Canada in 2017 is suing Mohammed bin Salman, saying the crown prince sent an elite squad to kill him 2 weeks after Khashoggi’s death
- A Saudi princess, silenced
- How the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Emiratis took over Washington
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