Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is probably the most talked about crown prince in the history of the Wahhabi kingdom, in a political culture where leaders are usually careful not to air their dirty laundry in public and fear abrupt decisions and risk-taking above all else.
Saudi Arabia: How MBS deposed his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince
Touted as Saudi Arabia’s “prince of counterterrorism”, Mohammed bin Nayef was named crown prince in 2015. His young cousin, Mohammed bin Salman, devised a way to strip him of his title and oust him from the throne. In the fourth part of our series, we look at the events that foreshadowed his cousin's fall.
This is part 4 of a 6-part series.
It took Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) two years to oust his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), from Saudi Arabia’s throne. His plan was not a foregone conclusion. In 2015, MBS’s 30 years of age could not hold a candle to his cousin’s 56. Despite having no previous military experience, Prince Mohammed had just been appointed defence minister, whereas Nayef, serving as interior minister since 2012, had an accomplished career in the security and intelligence field.
‘They saved my butt more than once’
At the start of the millennium, Nayef had become Saudi Arabia’s go-to counterterrorism expert. Trained by the FBI and Scotland Yard, he began his career at the interior ministry, where he was head of intelligence and eventually interior minister, a post that had him working closely with the CIA. He developed ties with David Petraeus, the former CIA director under Obama, and has a network of contacts at the US Department of State.
Well-liked by the Americans, Nayef was one of just a few Saudi princes who mastered the issues he was tasked with handling. In 2010, he alerted the CIA to a cargo plane bomb plot involving two aircraft bound for the United States.
Jon Finer, who served as chief of staff for former secretary of state John Kerry, was impressed by Nayef’s ability to regularly provide critical intelligence on jihadist activities. A Riyadh-based US Department of State employee once said of MBN’s team: “They saved my butt more than once.”
In April 2015, when King Salman named Nayef crown prince, Washington viewed him as the ideal successor. In his home country, the lucky crown prince-elect was considered a national hero.
But even before his nomination, some signs pointed to his being edged out. In March 2015, MBS orchestrated and initiated a military campaign in Yemen without so much as informing his cousin. Gradually, the wannabe crown prince severed Nayef’s ties with his American friends.
The situation quickly took a turn for the worse during the summer of 2015, when then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir talked up MBS to his US counterpart, Kerry. “He is the future of the kingdom,” Al-Jubeir told him. Kerry took note, but sought to avoid getting mixed up in Saudi Arabia’s succession war at all costs.
Around the same time, Saad Aljabri, who had been MBN’s chief of staff and travel companion for 15 years, paid a visit to the White House to update the US administration – which was quite fond of him – on the war in Yemen. Nayef was squarely against the war and his stance was all MBS’s clan needed to accuse him of seeking to discredit the king’s son. In September, Nayef and Aljabri learned on live TV of King Salman’s plans to fire the latter, thereby depriving the interior minister of his closest aide.
You know why Nayef cannot be king. He will neither be accepted by the Saudis nor any of us. He cannot be king. He won’t be. – UAE’s MBZ
A few weeks later, Nayef was getting ready to welcome US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal when the diplomat was taken aside by MBS’s team in Jeddah. The king’s son told Westphal he needed to see him, reassuring him that he would have plenty of time to meet with the crown prince afterwards.
But that is not the way things went. MBS dragged out the tête-à-tête for so long that the two men were unable to meet in the end. The White House grasped that an internal war was playing out. While the US saw Nayef as the most well-placed to take over the throne, it had also become clear that the country would need to develop a trust-based relationship with the ascendant MBS.
All the more so that Nayef was increasingly less capable of countering his energetic cousin’s influence. A suicide bomb attack carried out by an Al Qaeda militant in 2009 had injured him more seriously than he cared to admit. Due to his growing dependency on painkillers, he had sometimes been absent from the political stage, and he even nodded off once in the middle of a meeting with then US president Barack Obama.
US intelligence agency reports had noted his painkiller addiction and use of medication to stay awake, as well as his taste for cross-dressing and penchant for men. Gulf state royals are well aware of these allegations and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE strongman who took MBS under his wing, delights in reminding his influential US friends of this information.
During a lunch at his Virginia manor, Zayed once told several American officials: “You know why Nayef cannot be king. He will neither be accepted by the Saudis nor any of us. He cannot be king. He won’t be.”
Sensing danger, Nayef extended his yearly hunting trip to Algeria by several weeks and stopped responding to his US contacts. MBS took advantage of this long absence to promote, over the course of 2016, his vision of the kingdom’s future.
‘Israel is not an enemy of Saudi Arabia’
US delegations were coming one after the other to Riyadh, more often than not on the invitation of the king and his son, affording the Americans the opportunity to meet influential Saudis.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham fell under the spell of the young prince, praising his clear-sightedness about the kingdom’s economic and societal challenges. One such delegation, made up of academics, former ambassadors, congressional aides and other influential political advisers in Washington, arrived in Riyadh in August 2016.
After a brief meeting with King Salman, the group met Nayef, who looked exhausted and seemed unable to answer their questions on topics such as economic reform, the war in Yemen and the conflict in Syria. He was even stumped by security questions, his area of expertise. The meeting was over in less than an hour and MBS was next on their schedule. Right away, the highly energetic prince emphasised the importance of US-Saudi relations and dived into issues like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, oil policy and religious reform.
MBS acknowledged that Saudi Arabia needed to improve its image in the West, but expressed confidence that the reforms he had planned would be successful. Then, to the surprise of his guests, he said, “Israel is not an enemy of Saudi Arabia.” The meeting lasted two hours and every visitor in attendance saw in him a future leader.
In January 2017, Donald Trump took office as US president. His son-in-law and special adviser, Jared Kushner, quickly befriended MBS and MBZ.
After many months of inertia, Nayef resolved to take action. Pressed by US intelligence agency officials he worked with who were concerned about his sidelining, he hired Robert Stryk, a lobbyist with connections to high-ranking Republican Party members. He was tasked with reminding the incoming US administration of MBN’s importance as a key ally, but it was already too late. Not long after Stryk was recruited, Trump made a trip to Riyadh and no official meeting with Nayef was on his schedule.
At the end of the month, MBS discreetly sent an envoy to Washington who announced to Trump administration officials that his boss was getting ready to oust Nayef.
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The king would like his son to become crown prince…
On the evening of 20 June 2017, Nayef got a call summoning him to the royal palace. Once he arrived, his security detail was detained outside and disarmed, and he was told that the king wanted to speak with him alone. Just before midnight, while waiting in a sitting room, the “guest” realised he was being held prisoner.
Meanwhile, MBS’s office had contacted the members of the Allegiance Council. “The king would like his son to become crown prince,” they were told. “What is your choice?” The fate of those who dared go against the monarch’s preference remained unclear at that point in time. MBS was named crown prince, with 31 out of 34 members voting in his favour.
An envoy proceeded to inform Nayef of the news and handed him a resignation letter to sign. According to a person close to MBN, “He was horrified”, and declined to sign the letter. For many hours, his rival’s supporters took turns visiting him in the sitting room and harassed him. Some threatened to leak information about his painkiller addiction to the public, while others made him listen to recordings of other princes who backed MBS. One visitor asked him if he planned to leave the palace in one piece.
Though Nayef held his ground the entire night, his poor health caught up with him. At dawn, the exhausted crown prince agreed to a compromise: instead of signing the letter of resignation, he would resign verbally. Thinking he would be able to formalise the verbal agreement later in the day, he headed for the exit. It was 7am. Suddenly, a door swung open and he found himself surrounded by cameras, welcomed by MBS, who assumed the role of a deferential inferior. The transfer of power was effective immediately. “I’m off to get some rest now. And you, may God help you,” Nayef told him.
MBS, 31, was named crown prince by decree of King Salman. He also became deputy prime minister and would retain his post as defence minister. In the wake of the announcement, Nayef was dismissed from every post he held, including his role as interior minister. Confined to his palace, the 57-year-old’s political career was over. The final blow came in March 2020, when he was accused of planning a coup and arrested. To date, his fate remains unknown.