This royal family showdown has been building ever since MBS, as he’s known, deposed his predecessor in June 2017. The roots lie even deeper, in the bitter rivalry between supporters of the late King Abdullah, who had championed MBN, as the former crown prince is called, and the courtiers who surrounded his successor, King Salman, and his impulsive son MBS, when the new king assumed power after Abdullah’s death in January 2015.
Saudi and U.S. sources say that MBS’s anti-corruption committee is nearing completion of a detailed investigation of allegations that MBN improperly diverted billions of Saudi riyals through a network of front companies and private accounts while he was running Saudi counterterrorism programs at the Interior Ministry. MBN served there as chief assistant to his father, Prince Nayef, and then succeeded him as minister from 2012 to 2017. An associate of MBN’s said Saudi investigators have demanded that he repay $15 billion they claim he stole, though it isn’t clear how they reached that number. The associate, like some others contacted for this article, requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
MBN’s supporters say these charges are false — and are contradicted by a 2007 royal decree from King Abdullah that authorized all of MBN’s activities and provided for a detailed annual report on his spending. Internal Saudi documents provided by an associate of MBN’s and reviewed by The Post support MBN’s contention that his secret financial activities were approved, at least in broad outlines, by the late king.
A secret decree issued Dec. 27, 2007, bearing Abdullah’s distinctive signature, affirms that “the assistant to the minister of the interior [MBN] will continue in … managing this fund and expenses for it in ways that support counterterrorism efforts.” The decree also authorizes MBN to create “appropriate vehicles in the private sector” to disguise sensitive activities. The decree specifies that MBN “is to brief us at the end of every fiscal year” about spending from the secret fund.
A 2013 report from MBN to Abdullah, reviewed by The Post, summarizes secret counterterrorism spending that fiscal year. The document, dated May 20, 2013, requests approval to spend 5 billion Saudi riyals (about $1.3 billion) on eight projects, including 378 million riyals for “secret airports,” 1.6 billion riyals for “aviation transport services” and 1.5 billion riyals for security “resources,” such as weapons. (The “secret airports” reference may refer to a project disclosed by the BBC in February 2013 to build a drone base in the kingdom two years before.)
MBN’s report was returned to him three days later, with a cover letter from Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the chief of the royal court. Next to the request for approval of the 5 billion riyals, a handwritten note, evidently from Abdullah, said in Arabic, “no problem,” according to a document reviewed by The Post.
The MBN associate said these Saudi documents are held by MBN’s lawyers in Britain and Switzerland and would be made available in any international legal proceeding that might arise.
A Saudi official who has worked closely with MBS on the investigation of MBN didn’t respond to two text messages requesting comment. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Former CIA officials say they were aware of MBN’s control of such secret counterterrorism accounts at the time and used them to help fund joint U.S.-Saudi projects.
John Brennan, a former CIA director who worked closely with MBN for more than a decade, explained in an interview: “The Interior Ministry was provided with a budget so they could build up capabilities, recruit personnel and develop intelligence service contacts to penetrate al-Qaeda. … Abdullah’s view was that he had to be invested in the activities that MBN was leading. MBN was one of his favorites.”
Brennan addressed the allegation, made to me by Saudis who are close to MBS, that MBN had skimmed money from intelligence accounts. “Over the course of my interaction with MBN, he wasn’t someone I thought was engaged in corrupt activity or was siphoning off money,” Brennan said.
George Tenet, who was CIA director when MBN took control of the counterterrorism portfolio at the Interior Ministry in 2003, spoke glowingly of MBN in his memoir, “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA,” published in 2007. “He is someone in whom we developed a great deal of trust and respect,” he wrote. “Many of the successes in rolling up al-Qaeda in the kingdom are a result of his courageous efforts.”
MBN’s story, as narrated by his friends and associates, illustrates the kingdom’s slow turn toward modernization, even as it was riven by family jealousies and feuds. The prince, now 60, grew up in the dynastic politics of the kingdom. He had a gentle, bespectacled face and was a dutiful second son. His father, Nayef, a son of the legendary founder King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, served as interior minister for an astonishing 37 years, from 1975 to 2012.
Nayef embodied the Saudi old guard; he was conservative, insular and attentive to the kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment. Under his leadership, the Interior Ministry was a sluggish bureaucracy, without the tools of a modern security service. Those weaknesses became dangerous when Saudi mujahideen fighters began coming home from Afghanistan in the 1990s and drifted toward al-Qaeda.
The ministry needed a shake-up, and Abdullah, then crown prince but effectively running the kingdom for the ailing King Fahd, encouraged MBN to join the ministry in 1999 as an assistant to his father. As a young prince, MBN had lived a typical royal-family life, selling family real estate in Jiddah and dabbling in joint ventures with wealthy Saudi partners. Friends recall that he liked making and spending money. But he had some credentials that impressed the king: He had been to college in the United States, spoke English well and had taken some counterterrorism courses with the FBI and Scotland Yard.
MBN’s first project in 1999 was reforming the Saudi Police Academy, a staid training center whose candidates were often recruited through nepotism and patronage. He revamped the academy with help from a talented graduate named Saad Aljabri, a former Saudi police officer who had gone on to take a doctorate in computer science from the University of Edinburgh. That began a partnership that continued until MBN was deposed as crown prince.
After modernizing the academy, MBN assigned Aljabri to reorganize the ministry’s office of military affairs, another center of cronyism and poor performance. MBN faced his first real test in handling an uprising in 2000 in Najran, a city along the kingdom’s southern border with Yemen that had a large population of Ismaili Muslims. After an Ismaili cleric was arrested for witchcraft, dozens of military officers defected, and the provincial governor’s residence was attacked. The ministry’s old guard wanted a harsh crackdown, but MBN negotiated a peaceful settlement. That conciliatory style became a trademark.
Reform cost money, and the Interior Ministry’s budget was largely consumed by personnel costs. So MBN was given authority by Abdullah, in about 2003, to use 30 percent of the ministry’s revenue from fines, passport and residency fees and other income to finance special activities. That was the beginning of the special financial arrangements that led to the current investigation, the MBN associate told me.
The Saudi security establishment sleepwalked toward the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Nayef was convinced the attacks were a conspiracy designed to defame the kingdom’s reputation. This Saudi attitude of denial continued until May 2003, when al-Qaeda bombers attacked a foreign housing compound in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including 10 Americans. Tenet rushed to Riyadh for an urgent meeting to warn Abdullah that the royal family was facing a dire threat.
Tenet recalled the scene in an interview. Gathered with him and Abdullah were Nayef and his son MBN, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, who acted as interpreter. Tenet admonished Abdullah that al-Qaeda’s plots were “directed against your family and religious leadership” and urged him to “declare war,” he wrote in his memoir.
Abdullah nominated his commander on the spot. As Tenet recalled in the interview, “the king looked at MBN and said in front of the others, ‘You’re going to handle the counterterrorism account.' ”
In the following years, MBN revamped the Interior Ministry’s security service, known in Arabic as the Mabahith, into a modern counterterrorism force. He financed operations with his 30 percent set-aside fund, but expenses grew, and by 2006, Abdullah decided to give MBN more money for secret intelligence operations, especially against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, its affiliate in Yemen.
Abdullah’s new largesse was motivated in part by a daring AQAP operation in February 2006 that built a 460-foot tunnel to free 23 of its detainees in Yemen, including the leader of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. MBN received an emergency grant of 200 million riyals ($53 million) in 2006 to augment his operations against AQAP, according to the MBN associate.
Much more money was soon on the way.
Abdullah’s December 2007 secret royal decree began by affirming that he approved all previous counterterrorism spending, including the special Yemen stipend, according to the document reviewed by The Post. The decree had three other main points: MBN (the “assistant to the minister”) could continue spending what was needed for counterterrorism, with annual reports to the king; he could organize private companies “as he deems appropriate”; and he would have a larger share of the ministry’s fee income, rising to 45 percent from the previous 30 percent.
Abdullah sent the 2007 decree to Nayef, still nominally the minister. Nayef appended a handwritten note to his son. As reviewed and translated by The Post, the note read: “In reality, this is a great support from my master the custodian of the two holy mosques.” MBN had been given what amounted to a license to write checks on the Saudi treasury.
To manage operations securely, MBN decided to create a network of what the CIA calls “proprietaries,” nominally private companies that are used to conduct covert operations. He told his aides in the ministry, in a document reviewed by The Post, that in creating these cover companies, he was “emulating the standard followed by international security agencies” and wanted to establish companies that could provide secure technology and allow transportation of armed personnel without “embarrassment” for Saudia, the official national airline.
MBN asked two top aides — Aljabri, his chief of staff, and Abdullah al-Hammad, a senior finance official in the ministry — to supervise the network. To compensate them for managing the system, he promised 5 percent of the annual profit from the proprietary companies, according to a document reviewed by The Post. Such an arrangement would be forbidden by a Western intelligence service, but the kingdom operated by different rules for rewarding loyalty.
The network of front companies was managed through Sakab Saudi Holding Company, based in Riyadh. “Sakab” in Arabic means a horse so graceful that it moves like running water, and the company’s logo was a stylized horse, drawn in gold. The articles of incorporation for Sakab, dated May 9, 2008, designated two Saudi business executives as the nominal managers of the company and promised them 1 percent of the annual profit.
Sakab managed four main operations, all headquartered in Riyadh: Alpha Star Aviation Services transported intelligence personnel and their weapons; a construction company, partnered with a well-known Turkish firm, built infrastructure for Mabahith and its operations, including a new headquarters building; Security Control Company provided armored vehicles and other security services; and Technology Control Company worked with American and Saudi companies to provide encryption, decryption, data-mining and other digital services.
MBN assured the king in submitting his 2013 accounting: “I want to convey to your majesty that all information is contained in the narrowest circles … and every step is documented and circulated with high confidentiality.”
For the U.S. government, which only a few years before had feared that Saudi Arabia might by overrun by al-Qaeda, MBN’s well-financed mobilization against extremists was a godsend.
A March 30, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the intelligence and national-security agencies back in Washington boasted that the Interior Ministry was “THE BIGGEST DOG … the largest and most domestically influential Saudi ministry.” MBN, the cable said, “is held in high regard” by Abdullah and “well-respected by the Saudi populace for his effective work in beating down Al Qaeda in the Kingdom and running an effective deradicalization program which has gained wide local and tribal support. ... The result is operations in the USG interest can be conducted in a highly effective and cooperative manner within the Kingdom.”
One former senior U.S. official stationed in Riyadh explained: “Everybody in the U.S. government understood that MBN had the broadest spending authority from the king.” Through this channel, the Saudis funded many joint U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism operations, he said.
Spending through such foreign liaison services fell outside normal congressional or executive-branch oversight. But former officials insist the money wasn’t misused. The guiding rule, said one, was simple: “You can’t ask liaison to do something you couldn’t do yourself.” Otherwise, it was an intelligence bonanza, the equivalent of free money.
The fruits of this U.S.-Saudi partnership were clear in 2010 when the Saudis uncovered a plot by AQAP to transport plastic explosives hidden inside computer printer cartridges that would be shipped aboard international cargo planes. That operation, involving agents recruited through MBN’s special-operations funds for Yemen, saved many lives, according to U.S. and Saudi former officials.
MBN had authority to write checks on the Saudi central bank. The first check in the documents reviewed by The Post was for 300 million riyals, written on Nov. 16, 2008. It was deposited into a numbered account for MBN’s benefit, his associate said, with the notation, “Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs Supervision of Special Urgent Security Operations.” Sakab then managed the money in the account, to provide a commercial front.
Money gave MBN unique power. Explained the MBN associate: “Having a secret fund under your own name is the Holy Grail in Saudi Arabia.”
MBN, with this secret fund, was entrusted with the sensitive assignment of distributing cash to other princes and notables. Such payments have long been common practice in Saudi Arabia, in effect a way of enhancing security by sharing some of the royal family’s largesse. Senior princes, such as Salman when he was governor of Riyadh and Nayef when he was interior minister, received monthly stipends of millions of riyals, the MBN associate said.
Abdullah had placed extraordinary trust in MBN. This commitment deepened after an assassination attempt nearly killed MBN on Aug. 27, 2009. An AQAP operative named Abdullah al-Asiri visited MBN’s palace in Jiddah on the pretext of surrendering personally to the ministry’s terrorist rehabilitation program. He detonated an explosive hidden in his rectum, and MBN was injured in the blast. Abdullah rushed to see him in the hospital.
Abdullah’s support for his counterterrorism chief seems never to have wavered. MBN succeeded his father as interior minister in 2012 and, even after Adbullah’s death and Salman’s succession, MBN was named crown prince in April 2015 — suggesting that he would eventually become king. But MBS was named deputy crown prince at the same time, an ominous sign for MBN.
MBN understood that his privileged position under Abdullah had ended, his Saudi and American associates say, and in mid-2015, he began liquidating his secret network of companies by transferring ownership to the Saudi Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
A handwritten letter from MBN dated Aug. 1, 2015, noted the PIF’s current valuations, and the increase in value since MBN’s initial seed money: The net profit for Alpha Star after deducting all loans, board bonuses and expenses, was 4.5 billion riyals; Technology Control gained 462 million riyals; Security Control gained 1 billion riyals. The total capital gain for the three companies was 5.9 billion riyals ($1.6 billion), the MBN associate said.
Still, the footsteps from MBS’s royal court were getting louder. MBN’s top aide, Aljabri, was fired by Salman on Sept. 10, 2015, after he had met abroad with then-CIA Director Brennan. In an Oct. 13, 2015, message, MBN directed Aljabri, now a private adviser, to move ahead with “restructuring the existing companies … and liquidating the interest.”
Although MBN had promised Aljabri and al-Hammad 5 percent of any profits as compensation for their management role, MBN revised this to 5 percent of half the profits; these payments were made in late 2015. Aljabri, who lives in exile in Toronto, declined to comment. Al-Hammad, who is said by MBN’s associate to be in prison in Saudi Arabia, couldn’t be reached for comment.
MBN wasn’t a profligate spender, compared with some senior princes, according to Americans who knew him well. But he increased his private wealth significantly during his government service as chief of counterterrorism. He may have done everything with the king’s blessing, as the documents suggest. But the larger problem of corruption is a major issue for the kingdom. Though MBS is a lavish spender himself, his crackdown on wealthy princes and business people is one reason he remains popular at home, despite his harsh authoritarian rule. What’s troubling about his arrest and possible prosecution of MBN is that he may be using the corruption issue to destroy a rival.
The last chapters of MBN’s story have a sad inevitability: He simply wasn’t a match for MBS in his ability to protect his friends and punish his enemies. American and Saudi friends of MBN say that he may have been limited by substance-abuse problems that began with the painkillers he took after being wounded in the 2009 assassination attempt.
The ambitious, risk-taking MBS found a powerful new ally when Donald Trump became president in 2017. Aljabri fled the kingdom in May 2017. A month later, MBN was summoned by his nominal deputy, MBS, and told to resign. He asked to call two prominent princes, Mohammed bin Fahd and Khaled bin Sultan, the MBN associate said. They told him the game was up, they’d made their deals with his rival and MBN had no choice but to resign as crown prince.
MBN submitted and swore allegiance to MBS. A royal decree issued June 21, 2017, announced that he had been removed as crown prince and replaced by his deputy. Some of his former friends and allies, including senior officers of the Mabahith, had already switched sides and become MBS supporters. Others were arrested and reportedly tortured. The Ritz-Carlton arrests of prominent Saudi businessmen and princes in November 2017 intimidated any remaining dissenters.
The squeeze on MBN tightened. The former crown prince’s wife and daughters were banned from travel abroad. Authorities seized 21 billion riyals ($5.6 billion) in MBN’s liquid family assets, including 17.8 billion riyals ($4.7 billion) in personal holdings and 3.1 billion riyals ($826 million) that were related to Sakab.
On March 6, 2020, MBN was arrested along with his uncle, Prince Ahmed. A royal court official told senior princes that the two had been plotting a coup and would be tried for treason.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” wrote William Shakespeare in “Henry IV, Part II.” That precept applies to crown princes, past and present.
The dazzling rise and tragic fall of Mohammed bin Nayef is a modern Shakespearean tragedy, set in a desert kingdom. Whatever MBN’s failings, the American intelligence officers who worked with him regard him still as a hero who helped save his country when it was mortally threatened. They recall the motto of the Mabahith, the modern security service that MBN did so much to create: “A homeland we don’t protect, we don’t deserve to live in.”
The Post’s Linah Mohammad translated the documents cited in this report.