It happened on June 21 of this year when Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz summoned Mohammed bin Nayef, who has been a powerful figure in Saudi Arabia’s security apparatus for the past two decades and the next in line to the throne. The prince came to meet the king on the fourth floor of the royal palace in Mecca. According to sources close to the prince to whom he is known by his acronym MbN, the king ordered him to step aside in favor of the king’s favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman. The reason: an addiction to painkilling drugs was clouding MbN’s judgment.
extraordinary meeting between the king and MbN that touched off the de facto palace coup help to explain the events that are reshaping the leadership of the world’s biggest oil exporting nation. It has not been possible to independently confirm MbN’s addiction issues. Palace officials declined to respond to detailed questions about the circumstances surrounding MbN’s overthrow. Sources with knowledge of the situation, however, said that the king was determined to elevate his son to be heir to the throne and used MbN’s drug problem as a pretext to push him aside. Three royal insiders, four Arab officials with links to the ruling house of Saud, and diplomats in the region, claimed that MbN was surprised to be ordered to step aside. The high-stakes power grab has placed sweeping powers in the hands of the 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, also known by his acronym MbS, and appears designed to speed his accession to the throne. Should he get the job, the young prince will preside over a kingdom facing tough times from depressed oil prices, the conflict in Yemen, rivalry with an emboldened Iran and a major diplomatic crisis in the Gulf.
The source close to MbN acknowledged that he had health issues, which were aggravated after an al Qaeda attacker tried to blow himself up in front of him in his palace in 2009. The health issues were corroborated by three other sources in Saudi Arabia and Arab official sources with links to the royal family. An Arab source with close Saudi links also provided a similar account of the meeting at which king Salman asked MbN to step down because of his alleged drug addiction. These sources said MbN had shrapnel in his body that could not be removed and he depended on drugs such as morphine to alleviate the pain. One source said MbN had been treated in clinics in Switzerland on three occasions in recent years, though this information could not be confirmed independently. In the hours that followed the meeting in which MbN was dismissed, the House of Saud’s Allegiance Council, comprising the ruling family’s senior members, were informed of a letter written in the name of the king. Drafted by palace advisers to MbS, it said MbN had a medical condition - drug addiction - and “we have been trying for over two years to persuade him to seek treatment but to no avail”. It also said that because of this dangerous situation we see that he should be relieved of his position and that Mohammed bin Salman be appointed in his place.
The letter was read over the phone to members of the Allegiance Council, while MbN was kept isolated in a room all night, his mobile phone removed, and cut off from contact with his aides. His bodyguards from elite paramilitary interior ministry units were also replaced. Envoys were sent to council members to get their signatures. All but three of 34 signed. The coup had worked. Calls by council members who backed MbN’s removal were recorded and played to him by a palace adviser to demonstrate the strength of the forces against him and to discourage any urge the 57-year-old crown prince might have to resist. According to two Saudi sources with links to the royal house, only three members of the council opposed his overthrow: Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a former interior minister, Abdulaziz bin Abdallah, a representative of the family of late king Abdallah, and prince Mohammad bin Saad, a former deputy governor of Riyadh. At dawn MbN gave up. He told a palace adviser that he was ready to see the king. The meeting was short. MbN agreed to step down and signed a document to that effect. When MbN left the king’s quarters, he was surprised to see MbS waiting for him, the adviser said. MbN was embraced and kissed by MbS while television cameras rolled. MbN remains under house arrest to keep him out of circulation following his overthrow, with no visitors allowed except close family members. He is not taking calls, said the source. In the past week he was only granted permission to visit his elderly mother with the new guards assigned to him. The source said MbN would like to take his family to Switzerland or London but the king and MbS had decided that he must stay.