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Opinion MBS’s campaign against a former Saudi spymaster hits a roadblock

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Oct. 25 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Bandar Al-Jaloud/AFP/Getty Images)
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For six years now, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has feuded with one of the kingdom’s former top intelligence officials — in a series of suits and countersuits in U.S. courts that has also ensnared senior U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats refereeing the dispute.

The powerful crown prince, known as MBS, has accused the former spymaster, Saad Aljabri, of billions in fraud; in turn, Aljabri has asserted that MBS orchestrated the kidnapping of his children and tried to capture or assassinate him.

Now, MBS is facing a series of legal and diplomatic setbacks that could derail his case against Aljabri while leaving him open to the counterclaim. Last week, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton ruled that Aljabri “cannot fairly defend” himself against the fraud charge without disclosing “privileged information” about U.S.-Saudi intelligence activities in which he was involved.

The case is so sensitive that the Justice Department moved in August to invoke the “state secrets” privilege to block any disclosure that might reveal intelligence sources and methods. With Aljabri’s defense thus foreclosed, Gorton ordered MBS’s lawyers to file a memo by Nov. 9 “to show cause why this case should not be dismissed.” His ruling could also lead to dismissal of a similar case brought by the Saudis in Ontario, Canada.

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Aljabri has been an MBS target in part because he served as chief counterterrorism adviser to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, MBS’s rival, whom he deposed as crown prince in 2017 and who is now confined in Saudi Arabia.

MBS has been pursuing Aljabri since he fired him in 2015, including a 2017 request to arrest Aljabri that was rejected by Interpol; a 2017 travel ban and subsequent imprisonment of two of his children; and the 2017 arrest and torture of his son-in-law.

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A second legal setback involves MBS’s efforts to have the U.S. government support his claim of sovereign immunity from Aljabri’s suit alleging this campaign of harassment and the kidnap-or-kill plot.

Aljabri’s suit, filed last year in federal court in D.C., alleged that operatives sent by MBS traveled to Canada in October 2018 to capture or kill him. The alleged Canada incident occurred just two weeks after a Saudi hit team murdered Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, in an operation the CIA says was authorized by MBS.

The Saudi Embassy last year requested that MBS receive sovereign immunity from Aljabri’s lawsuit . The Saudis argued in a memorandum to the State Department that the crown prince should have “status-based immunity,” because he “exercises many of the powers of a head of government,” even though his father, King Salman, is the actual Saudi monarch. The immunity request, reviewed by The Post, argues that MBS also deserves “conduct-based immunity,” because whatever actions he may have taken involved “exercise of the governmental powers of Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudi Embassy argued that even allegations that MBS “directed an attempted extrajudicial killing do not overcome the Crown Prince’s immunity,” which “protects the Crown Prince regardless of the seriousness of the allegations made.” The Saudi filing “denies in the strongest terms any attempt to kill Aljabri” or involvement by MBS.

The Saudis initially made this immunity request to the Trump administration in October 2020, and it was still pending when President Biden took office in January. Neither administration granted the request.

MBS’s lawyers made similar immunity claims last December to U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly, in a motion to dismiss Aljabri’s lawsuit, and cited the request for immunity made to the State Department. The judge hasn’t acted, leaving MBS potentially vulnerable to a demand that he answer questions under oath in the Aljabri lawsuit.

A final setback for MBS is diplomatic, not legal: Biden’s refusal thus far to meet or speak with him. Other senior U.S. officials have met the crown prince, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan last month, and U.S. officials say they want to maintain friendly relations with the Saudi government, if possible. But the snub from Biden clearly annoys MBS, who had enjoyed strong support from Donald Trump.

MBS’s options are dwindling as the cases continue. One path out might be a settlement, in which Aljabri offers a financial payment and dismissal of his Washington lawsuit, in exchange for freedom for his two children and his son-in-law, who now are in effect hostages. Such a settlement would also relieve the intelligence community’s worry about disclosure of sensitive information. Such a settlement approach would arguably offer all parties a “win,” but MBS so far hasn’t appeared interested.

The paradox of this feud is that it comes at a time when MBS seems to be succeeding in some of his efforts to modernize Saudi society. The latest example was a concert in Riyadh last month by the pop singer Pitbull, before a sea of Saudi young people. But in MBS’s battle against his political enemies, it seems, it’s still the Dark Ages.