Thu Jul 20, 2017 05:44AM
A handout picture provided on May 18, 2017 shows Saudi Arabia’s then-crown prince and interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. (Via AFP)
A handout picture provided on May 18, 2017 shows Saudi Arabia’s then-crown prince and interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. (Via AFP)

Mohammed bin Salman, a prince who rose from obscurity when his father became Saudi Arabia’s king in 2015 and who ultimately ousted an elder to become crown prince, gained that status in a secretive push that had been “planned out” in advance, a report has revealed.

Bin Salman, a brash 32-year-old son of King Salman, was on June 21 named the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia in what seemed like an abrupt decision upending the rules of succession in an ultraconservative society.

Saudi media said at the time that the so-called Allegiance Council, a body of princes who oversee succession changes, had voted 31 to 3 to approve bin Salman’s replacement of prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, a nephew of Salman who would have ascended to the throne after the ailing king, had he not been suddenly removed.

But in a report on Tuesday, The New York Times cited current and former United States officials and associates of the Saudi royal family as saying that the plot to oust Nayef had been “planned out.”

The report recounted how bin Nayef, then also the interior minister, had “one night in June” been “summoned to a palace in Mecca, held against his will and pressured for hours to give up his claim to the throne.”

‘Like a coup on Christmas Eve’

The king had earlier gathered “a group of senior princes and security officials” at the Safa Palace in Mecca.

“It was near the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, when Saudis were preoccupied with religious duties and many royals had gathered in Mecca before traveling abroad for the Eid al-Fitr holiday,” the report said. “That made it advantageous for a change, analysts said, like a coup on Christmas Eve.”

Bin Nayef was told before the midnight that he was going to meet the king. “Unaccustomed to being told what to do” as the crown prince, he “was led into another room, where royal court officials took away his phones and pressured him to give up his posts as crown prince and interior minister.”

It was not clear if King Salman himself was in that room and was personally involved in coercing bin Nayef.

“At first, he (bin Nayef) refused. But as the night wore on, the prince, a diabetic who suffers from the effects of a 2009 assassination attempt by a suicide bomber, grew tired,” the report said. He yielded “sometime before dawn.”

The Saudi court royals were in the meantime calling the members of the Allegiance Council, telling some of them that bin Nayef had a “drug problem” and was “unfit to be king.”

A handout picture provided on April 24, 2017 shows Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (R), the then-crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef (C), and the then-deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the capital, Riyadh. (Via AFP)

A crown prince begs to differ, and is removed

Since his father’s assumption of power, bin Salman was being speculated to crave a rise to become next in line to the throne. He had been trying to raise his profile by trips overseas in the months before bin Nayef was removed. And there had been talk of a power struggle between bin Salman and bin Nayef for some time.

But the report by The New York Times suggested that there was more than a father-and-son bond at play in bin Salman’s rise. Bin Nayef had apparently opposed a June 5 decision by Saudi Arabia and several of its vassal states to cut ties with and impose a blockade on Qatar, “a stand that probably accelerated his ouster.”

That diplomatic and economic war on Qatar has, along with several other key decisions, been attributed to bin Salman, whose king father reportedly suffers from partial dementia and may be about to abdicate in favor of his son. As Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, bin Salman is also believed to have been largely responsible for a disastrous invasion of Yemen, where high civilian casualties and a cholera epidemic have raised international alarm.

‘A transfer of power imminent’

Both the war on Yemen and the drama involving Qatar are believed to have been rash decisions lacking a clear exit strategy for Saudi Arabia. And there has been concern that the young bin Salman’s decisions may jeopardize the country’s stability especially once he takes over as king.

Just on Wednesday, a Reuters report said a takeover was likely to happen very soon.

“[O]ne Saudi source” quoted a “witness at the palace” as saying that King Salman this month prepared a statement announcing the transfer of the throne to his son Mohammed, Reuters said. “The announcement could be broadcast at any time, perhaps as soon as September.”

A handout photo made available by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on June 21, 2017 shows Saudi Arabia’s former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef (R) pledging his allegiance to his successor Mohammed bin Salman, as the latter kisses his hand, at the Royal Palace in Mecca. (Via AFP)

Saudi Arabia has attempted to portray the removal of bin Nayef as a smooth transition in “the best interest of the nation.” At a meeting after the drama, bin Salman was seen kissing bin Nayef’s hand and telling him, “We will never dispense with your instructions and advice.”

“Good luck, God willing,” replies bin Nayef, according to footage of the encounter.

But the Tuesday New York Times report and an earlier one indicating that bin Nayef has been confined to his palace seem to expose a court at battle with itself.

Saudi officials have denied that bin Nayef is under house arrest.