A Saudi sheikh once positioned as the next ruler of the desert kingdom has not been seen for more than five months after being detained on the orders of his cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, the country’s de facto ruler.
Lawyers acting for Mohammed bin Nayef (known in the family as MBN), who was replaced as Crown Prince by his nephew, who is just 34, at the behest of his uncle, the mercurial King Salman, have told London’s Financial Times they are increasingly concerned about his well being.
The lawyers, who asked to remain anonymous, told the FT that MBN has not been allowed visits by his personal doctor, that his whereabouts remained unknown five months after he was detained, that his communications were likely being intercepted, and that his family were fearful of being persecuted.
A source who knows several members of the Saudi royal family told The Daily Beast that the public intervention represented an unusual tactic by the family of MBN.
“The lawyers wouldn’t be talking to newspapers without the consent of either MBN or his family. Usually people in this situation have the means to live however they want, and they agree to voluntary anonymity. They concentrate on keeping their head down. Saudi Arabia is a place where you don’t rock the boat, so if there is boat rocking going on, it points to genuine concerns,” the source said.
Saudi authorities detained bin Nayef along with some 20 other senior male royals, including the king’s younger brother, Prince Ahmed, in March.
The arrests were part of an ongoing crackdown against figures whose loyalty MBS doubts. Since assuming the role of crown prince, MBS has moved ruthlessly to consolidate his position, and integral to that has been removing or neutralizing perceived threats to his power, including members of the royal family, businessmen, academics, activists, bloggers, and journalists.
The pre-emptive strikes are designed to crush all and any dissent ahead of an eventual succession upon Salman’s death or abdication. Salman is 84.
Prince Ahmed and MBN were considered the two main rivals to MBS, and he is believed to have long feared they might set themselves up as legitimate successors to the throne, appealing to traditionalists who disapprove of MBS’ so-called modernizing agenda.
Saudi Arabia’s dynastic situation is complicated by the fact that the founder and first ruler of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, had at least 37 sons, of whom ten were considered legitimate heirs to the throne. Of those ten, a further sub-group of seven, known as the Sudairi Seven, were full brothers from the same wife.
Ahmed, 77, is one of the Sudairi Seven, and MBN, 60, is a child of another of the Sudairi Seven, meaning they both have good claims to the throne.
Just three years ago, MBN was one of the kingdom’s most powerful officials, and one of its most high profile diplomats. However, he was suddenly removed from power when his uncle King Salman dramatically "fired" him as crown prince and appointed his young son in his place.
The unnamed lawyers, speaking to the FT about MBN, said of his family and friends, “They don’t know where he’s being held, all the phone conversations are very superficial, this is quite a dire situation. Nobody can see him. They haven’t been officially charged.”
Concerns about the welfare of MBN, whose father was not averse to locking up opponents himself as interior minister, have increased after one of his former close aides, Saad Aljabri, publicly accused MBS of targeting him and his family.
The Saudi establishment accuses Aljabri of industrial scale corruption and stealing billions of dollars from the state.
Aljabri recently filed a lawsuit in the U.S. accusing MBS of sending a hit team named "the tiger squad" to assassinate him in exile in Canada two years ago and detaining his children in Saudi Arabia in an effort to pressure him. The allegations have close parallels to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of state-sponsored operatives.
The lawyers tell the FT that shortly after the Aljabri family went public about their concerns, MBN requested that his own bank statements be sent to him. The lawyers said they fear the request may have been made under duress.
“[Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s] current circumstances—and the fact that no independent source has been able to verify his wellbeing—suggest that any instructions purporting to be coming from him should not be actioned upon, as they do not appear to have been made legitimately by [him] of his own accord,” the lawyers said.