Inside the Saudi palace coup that brought MBS to power

By | November 29, 2022

Anuj Chopra writes:

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.” [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email