correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described Mohammed bin Zayed. He is the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. This version has been corrected.
Behind the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi lies a power struggle within the Saudi royal family that helped feed the paranoia and recklessness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Eventually, this rage in the royal court led to the death and dismemberment of a Washington Post journalist.
The opening scenes of this family feud took place in January 2015 in a VIP hospital suite in Riyadh, as King Abdullah lay on his deathbed. According to a Saudi who was at the hospital at the time, Abdullah’s sons and courtiers briefly delayed informing his successor, King Salman, that the monarch had passed — perhaps hoping to control the court’s stash of money and sustain powerful positions for Abdullah’s wing of the family.
The cutthroat scheming within the House of Saud over the following years matches anything in the fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” The fallout extended to the United States, China, Switzerland and other countries, as the two most powerful clans of the royal family jockeyed for power. As the tension increased, the royal court around Mohammed bin Salman, the new king’s favorite son, even dared to try to kidnap a member of the Abdullah faction in Beijing in a brazen operation in August 2016 that reads like a chapter in a spy thriller.
MBS, as Salman’s son is known, became increasingly anxious and aggressive toward those he considered enemies. Starting in the spring of 2017, a team of Saudi intelligence operatives, under the control of the royal court, began organizing kidnappings of dissidents abroad and at home, according to U.S. and Saudi experts. Detainees were held at covert sites. The Saudis used harsh enhanced interrogation techniques, a euphemism for torture, to make the captives talk. They were forced to sign oaths that if they disclosed any of what happened, they would pay a severe price.
This real-life drama was described to me in a series of interviews by prominent Saudis and U.S. and European experts, in the United States and abroad, in the weeks since Khashoggi’s death. These sources had firsthand knowledge of events but asked not to be identified because they involve sensitive international matters. The information was checked with knowledgeable U.S. sources to confirm its accuracy. It helps explain the vortex of rage and lawlessness that ultimately sucked in Khashoggi, a Post Global Opinions columnist, when he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Here’s the bottom line, for U.S. and Saudi experts who have reviewed the intelligence findings: Khashoggi was murdered by a team sent from the royal court in Riyadh, which was part of the rapid-action capability that had been organized 18 months before. Khashoggi’s provocative journalism and his ties to Qatar and Turkey had offended the increasingly autocratic crown prince, who issued a “bring him back” order in July 2018, one that wasn’t understood by U.S. intelligence until three months later, after Khashoggi’s disappearance in Istanbul.
The United States has closely observed this internecine war. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, became a close counselor to MBS. Kushner visited MBS in late October 2017 on a private trip; neither has disclosed details about the conversations, but it is possible they discussed the royal family’s machinations. A week after Kushner’s visit, that Nov. 4, MBS staged what amounted to an internal coup, arresting more than 200 Saudi princes and business leaders and holding them at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Plans for these arrests were made carefully by MBS’s closest confidants in the royal court.
Topping MBS’s enemies list in the Ritz-Carlton putsch was Prince Turki bin Abdullah, an ambitious son of the late king, who had earlier conveyed to American and Chinese contacts his worries about MBS’s erratic decisions. Turki remains in captivity, and his top military aide, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, died in custody after being held at the Ritz-Carlton last year.
The palace intrigue began swirling in early January 2015, when King Abdullah, who according to news reports had been diagnosed the previous year with lung cancer, faced a worsening medical situation. He was rushed by helicopter from his desert retreat at Rawdat Khuraim to the VIP wing of the Saudi National Guard hospital in Riyadh, surrounded by his sons and palace aides. As the king slipped into a coma, the royal court tried to keep his mortal illness quiet as they speculated about succession possibilities, including the chance that Abdullah’s son Mutaib, head of the National Guard, could become king.
When Salman, then crown prince, came to the hospital on Jan. 23 and demanded, “Where is my brother?” he was informed by Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the chief of the royal court and guardian of family funds, that Abdullah was “resting.” In fact, according to a Saudi who was present at the hospital at the time but requested anonymity, Abdullah was already dead. When Salman learned the truth, he was furious. Echoing down the hospital corridor came the sound of loud blows, as the new king slapped the now-deposed chief of the royal court. Tuwaijri was arrested and taken to the Ritz-Carlton in November 2017; he’s now under what’s described as house arrest, after repaying the bulk of the money he had improperly pocketed during Abdullah’s reign, Saudi sources said.
“Khaled al-Tuwaijri was very damaging to the sons of King Abdullah,” says Tarek Obaid, a Saudi business executive who advised the Abdullah clan.
Members of the royal family had already been spying on one another, as the succession struggle loomed. One of Abdullah’s sons described bugging the phones of many senior princes. The Abdullah camp also purchased a Chinese-made device that could secretly detect the identification numbers of phones within a 100-yard radius without accessing the phones directly. Surveillance devices hidden in ashtrays and other items were scattered around palaces in Riyadh to pick up political plots and gossip.
An avid courtier who helped King Salman and his son MBS consolidate power in those early months was Saud al-Qahtani, a lawyer and former Air Force member with a penchant for hacking and social media. The Salman camp had initially been suspicious of Qahtani because he had worked as one of Tuwaijri’s assistants in the royal court since the early 2000s. Qahtani was interrogated and beaten in the first days after Salman’s accession, says one palace insider. But he soon proved his loyalty to MBS, with a vengeance.
As director of the court’s Center for Studies and Media Affairs, Qahtani fed MBS’s suspicion about potential rivals and coup plotters. Qahtani also began assembling cyberweapons to use on behalf of MBS. In June 2015, he contacted a shadowy Italian group known as “Hacking Team” about acquiring covert cyber tools. On June 29, 2015, Qahtani messaged the head of Hacking Team: “The Saudi Royal Court (THE King Office) would like to be in productive cooperation with you and develop a long and strategic partnership.”
Saudi and U.S. investigators have concluded that Qahtani, as MBS’s commander of information-related operations, helped organize Khashoggi’s murder.
King Salman’s team began playing hard-nosed family politics from its very first week in power. In late January 2015, a royal decree removed two of Abdullah’s sons, Turki and Mishaal, as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, respectively. Their ouster left scars that never healed. MBS, just 29 then, was installed as minister of defense; Mohammed bin Nayef, the pliable son of the powerful former interior minister and a favorite of the CIA, was named deputy crown prince below Crown Prince Muqrin, an unassuming former head of intelligence.
Salman and MBS tightened their control further in April 2015. Muqrin was dumped as crown prince and replaced by Mohammed bin Nayef. (A year later, as a farewell gift, the king gave Muqrin the 280-foot luxury yacht Solandge in addition to other perks, according to a Saudi who was familiar with the transactions.) MBS became deputy crown prince, formally joining the line of succession.
Though not yet 30, MBS was already a Machiavellian prince, encouraged by Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Tahnoon, a senior UAE intelligence official who visited MBS’s yacht frequently on weekends during that first year. MBS already had a reputation in Riyadh as a hothead, who in his younger days had intimidated a land registry official who was blocking a property transfer the young prince wanted by sending him a bullet as a warning.
MBS proclaimed his desire to modernize the kingdom. But he was also paranoid about rivals, such as Abdullah’s sons, as well as Mohammed bin Nayef, and, later, about the threat from the uncontrollable journalist Khashoggi.
Two warning signs in September 2015 should have alerted observers that MBS was “a Saudi prince who could jump-start the kingdom — or drive it off a cliff,” as a headline on a 2016 piece of mine put it. Ambassador Joseph Westphal, the American envoy in Riyadh, traveled that month to Jiddah planning to see Mohammed bin Nayef; but he was rerouted at the airport and sent to see MBS instead — an unsubtle suggestion of who was really boss. That same month, a longtime Saudi intelligence official named Saad al-Jabri visited then-CIA Director John Brennan in Washington, during a private visit. Jabri, a close adviser to Mohammed bin Nayef, hadn’t told Salman about the trip; when Jabri returned home, he was fired. He now lives in exile.
Members of the Abdullah clan were watching as MBS grasped the levers of power that had once been theirs. Knowing that Brennan and other members of the Obama administration were uneasy about MBS, several of Abdullah’s sons hired a leading strategic advisory firm in Washington, to gather information about the new dynamic in U.S.-Saudi relations.
The meetings were hardly a secret plot, as MBS may have imagined. Over several days in May 2016, Prince Turki bin Abdullah and his closest adviser, Saudi businessman Obaid, met with a series of former CIA and State Department officials in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. They were accompanied by Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, the military adviser and protector of Turki and other sons of the late King Abdullah — and the man who would end up dead the next year after being held at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.
I met the group at the hotel, too, to gather information for the profile I was writing about MBS. I remember that Turki was careful in his comments; he expressed concern about the need for more balance in Saudi policy, but he didn’t propose any changes in governance.
Obaid, in an interview, described Turki’s May 2016 Washington contacts this way: “The round of meetings was to get a strategic assessment on U.S. perspectives on the kingdom and its standing, through knowledgeable U.S. defense and national-security officials.”
MBS came to Washington the next month, in June 2016, to meet with President Barack Obama and other officials. Up until then, the administration had been studiously neutral amid the mounting tension in the royal family, even with the crown prince and deputy seemingly on collision course. But Obama was impressed by the vision and energy that MBS brought to his reform agenda, and after that June visit, the United States tilted toward the young hothead-reformer.
‘Stuck in a power play’
The Abdullah clan retained some important foreign connections, especially in Asia. In 2016, those became increasingly tangled with MBS’s agenda.
Obaid traveled to Shanghai in July 2016, to prepare for Turki bin Abdullah’s participation in a meeting of the International Finance Forum, which would be held there that September, a few days before the Group of 20 meeting that would take place in Hangzhou. Since MBS would be attending the G-20, Turki’s plan to attend the IFF meeting carried a hint of intra-Saudi rivalry. Obaid checked in to a suite at the Peninsula hotel on the Bund; in the adjoining room was Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani.
Then things began to get weird. This chain of events was described by several Saudi, Swiss and American sources.
Obaid was Turki’s emissary on an important business venture. Turki had agreed to invest at least $10 million in a development fund called the Silk Road Finance Corp., or SRFC, headed by an MIT-educated chief executive named Shan Li, according to the organization’s website. The Chinese eminence behind the Silk Road initiative was Chen Yuan, a very senior leader who had headed the China Development Bank from 1998 to 2013 and whose father was reportedly one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party.
When Obaid traveled to Beijing in early August 2016 to negotiate the terms of Turki’s investment, he had a perhaps significant encounter at the sumptuous Park Hyatt hotel. He had been invited by John Thornton, the chairman of Silk Road Finance, to meet for dinner with him and Li. Thornton also invited Michael Klein, a New York investment banker who at the time was rumored to be a key adviser to MBS on his plan to raise as much as $100 billion through an initial public offering of some shares of Saudi Aramco — providing a welcome cash boost for a country facing a budget squeeze because of low oil prices. (Klein didn’t end up representing the kingdom on this deal; the job went to other bankers.) Klein met with Obaid only briefly and then left, according to his spokeswoman and Thornton.
During the Park Hyatt meeting with the Silk Road group, Obaid warned that the Saudi Aramco IPO, by imposing Western disclosure standards, could have a drastic effect on Saudi national security by weakening the royal family’s grip on power, since Aramco had long been one of the main pillars for ruling the kingdom. Instead, said Obaid, the Chinese should raise cash by working with the Saudis on a barter deal to trade some of China’s vast stockpile of U.S. Treasury bonds in exchange for Saudi oil.
By criticizing MBS’s privatization plan in front of the Chinese investment group, Obaid was, in effect, urging the Chinese to support the traditional Saudi system that under Abdullah and previous kings had maintained stability and security.
Klein said through a spokeswoman that during his brief conversation with Obaid, he never discussed either an oil barter deal or the privatization of Saudi Aramco. Thornton remembers Obaid making the oil barter proposal but doesn’t recall who was present: “I didn’t give it a second thought as a serious idea,” he said in a phone interview. According to a Silk Road executive who requested anonymity, Turki and Obaid never became actual investors in the venture.
Word of the criticism of MBS’s privatization plan by the Abdullah clan’s chief financial adviser may have gotten back to Riyadh. A week or so later, Obaid began receiving a barrage of calls from Saudi numbers he didn’t recognize and didn’t answer. Eventually, according to a knowledgeable source, he received a call from Khalid Humaidan, head of the General Intelligence Presidency, as the Saudi intelligence service is known. Humaidan said the royal court wanted Obaid to return to Saudi Arabia immediately, the knowledgeable source said. Obaid responded that he needed to check first with his boss, Prince Turki.
According to the knowledgeable source, Turki called Humaidan and asked whether King Salman had personally ordered Obaid’s return. “If it’s the king who has requested this, I will personally fly Tarek back home now,” Turki is said to have told the intelligence chief. The request was instead described as from the “court,” and Turki is said to have advised Obaid to remain in China.
On Aug. 21, Li invited Obaid to come to Beijing to look at an office for the Silk Road Finance Corp. that would be located in Yintai Center in the heart of downtown, a source said. It was a fashionable spot, with the new Park Hyatt hotel in the building. Li said that Obaid could meet Chen, the godfather of the Silk Road venture, on the trip.
On the afternoon of Aug 25, Obaid flew from Shanghai to Beijing on a private jet. When the plane landed, it taxied to a remote area of the airport. Parked nearby was a plane with the tail marking “HZ-ATR.” The “HZ” prefix designated it as a Saudi plane. What happened next was described by knowledgeable Saudi and Swiss sources who were briefed on the case.
As Obaid left his plane, he was stopped by more than 40 plainclothes Chinese security men. The leader of the group, speaking in Arabic, is said to have told Obaid: “We are the Ministry of State Security. Are you going to cooperate?” Obaid surrendered; his head and body were covered in a bag so tight that he couldn’t see or move unassisted; he was taken to an interrogation facility somewhere in Beijing and handcuffed to a chair.
A Chinese intelligence officer asserted that Obaid was a terrorist financier who was organizing a plot by Pakistani militants to disrupt the G-20 summit scheduled for the next month, a source briefed on the case said. “Where are you hiding the terrorists? Where are you hiding the Pakistani militiamen?” demanded the interrogator. Obaid protested that he had no idea what they were talking about; they had the wrong man. He was subjected to a lengthy and painful interrogation ordeal.
Fortunately, Ministry of State Security technicians were examining Obaid’s iPad and cellphone and checking the information against their own sources. Quickly, the Chinese concluded that an error had indeed been made: Saudi officials had given them false information about Obaid to arrest him as a terrorist and extradite him back to the kingdom.
According to a knowledgeable source, a senior Ministry of State Security officer told Obaid: “Look, there’s been a mistake. Someone in your country called us five minutes before you landed in Beijing and said you were a terrorist financing a hit on the G-20 summit.” The Chinese official explained: “You are stuck in a power play in your country between two powerful princes.”
Chinese intelligence officers, angry that they had been deceived, arranged for Obaid to quickly travel back to Shanghai and protected him for the rest of his stay in China.
Meanwhile, the Saudis, who had hoped to snatch Obaid in Beijing, were furious that he had slipped their grasp. They sent agents to search hotels in Beijing, looking for the Abdullah clan’s operative. In Shanghai, Obaid received a call from Gen. Yousuf bin Ali al-Idrissi, deputy head of Saudi intelligence, telling him to fly back to Beijing and get on the Saudi plane that had been sent to pick him up, according to a source briefed on the case. Obaid turned again for advice to his patron, Prince Turki, who called Idrissi. According to a knowledgeable source, Turki said: “If the king wants it, it will be done. On whose behalf are you speaking?” Idrissi gave an ambiguous answer about who had ordered Obaid’s forced departure from China. Obaid stayed in Shanghai under close guard of the Ministry of State Security for another week.
Because Obaid had a Swiss passport, he also received protection from the Swiss Consulate in Shanghai. A Jan. 11, 2017, letter to Obaid’s lawyer from Swiss Consul General Françoise Killias Zillweger confirms: “Referring to the assumption of responsibility for Mr. Tarek Obaid, I inform you that this Consulate Generale has provided benefits under the consular protection.”
Turki arrived in China on Aug. 30 and spoke at the IFF meeting on Sept. 1; he was also photographed with President Xi Jinping. MBS arrived for the G-20 summit that took place in Hangzhou Sept. 4 and 5. By then, Obaid was on Turki’s private Airbus flying to Switzerland. The Chinese checked to make sure that Obaid had arrived safely in Geneva. Once there, Obaid was immediately treated at a specialized clinic for injuries he had suffered in China, according to a Swiss source.
An embarrassing failure
MBS spoke at the G-20 gathering about his Vision 2030 modernization plan. But privately, he was said to be upset when he learned about Idrissi’s embarrassing failure in the rendition effort.
When he returned home, MBS conducted an “investigation” of the incident. Idrissi was fired as deputy chief of intelligence; he was replaced later by Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri — a man the Saudis would later dismiss on suspicion that he helped plot Khashoggi’s killing in Istanbul. The Saudis sent a special delegation to China to apologize for the misuse of intelligence channels in the Obaid case.
A Saudi official close to MBS explained the kingdom’s chagrin, in a private statement to a fellow Saudi: “They were embarrassed by al-Idrissi’s mistake. I mean, Saudi Arabia was even embarrassed by this behavior. . . . He [Idrissi] made a mistake. He shouldn’t have done this.”
Says Obaid of the false accusation that he was a terrorist: “There was clear abuse of power by incompetent thugs, but I don’t believe that the crown prince’s instructions were for these events to play out as they did.”
But MBS’s royal court evidently didn’t learn the lesson. The suspicion of perceived enemies and desire for absolute control only deepened. Starting in the spring of 2017, the Saudis began a secret program for kidnapping dissidents and holding them at secret sites, according to knowledgeable U.S. and Saudi experts. The program involved a special “tiger team” operating in tandem with the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the royal court, headed by Qahtani. Turki al-Sheikh, another close MBS adviser, helped oversee the interrogation sites, according to the U.S. and Saudi experts.
MBS’s internal putsch gathered momentum last year, as the crown prince began to fear that his life was threatened. In June 2017, Mohammed bin Nayef was humiliatingly deposed as crown prince and replaced by MBS. In November, a week after Kushner’s visit, MBS rounded up his royal enemies, starting with Turki bin Abdullah, and warehoused them at the Ritz-Carlton.
The detainees included some of the most senior princes and wealthiest commoners in the kingdom. After the Ritz-Carlton resumed its hotel business, new detainees were taken to secret sites.
Several Saudi women’s rights activists were detained in May 2018, just a month before MBS removed the ban on women driving. MBS critics say that the crown prince didn’t want the female activists to get credit for his reform. One of the activists was so traumatized by her harsh treatment that she tried to commit suicide, according to a human rights activist, reportedly by slitting her wrists with a razor blade.
Obaid remains in Switzerland. He’s under investigation there and in the United States on suspicion of improper payments from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, known as 1MDB, to a company called PetroSaudi International, which was founded by Turki bin Abdullah and Obaid. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
What’s haunting about this tale of family rivalry is that it helped breed the paranoia that led to Khashoggi’s death.
Why didn’t anyone stop this deadly chain of error? The failed rendition of Obaid from China is eerily similar to the Khashoggi killing in Istanbul. In each case, the Saudis wanted to silence a meddlesome critic. When initial contacts failed, they attempted an illegal covert operation, each time under the direction of the deputy chief of intelligence, who had close links with the royal court. The deputy intelligence chief, each time, proved to be the fall guy; no hard evidence has emerged in either case documenting MBS’s role.
Both operations appear to have been organized by a special cell within the royal court, where Qahtani was a key supervisor, not by the Saudi intelligence services. That’s reassuring to U.S. officials, who see as potential stabilizing forces Humaidan and his colleague Abdulaziz al-Howairini, the head of the internal security agency, known as the Mabahith.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two cases is that Obaid is alive in a suburb of Geneva, while Khashoggi is dead and dismembered, the whereabouts of his body unknown.
The Saudi public prosecutor has arrested 18 Saudis in the case, including Maher Mutreb, a former intelligence officer and sometime bodyguard for MBS, who Saudi officials have charged was the leader of the team that murdered Khashoggi. Qahtani and Assiri have both been fired from their jobs, and Qahtani is among 17 Saudis sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for their alleged roles in the Post journalist’s death. The Treasury statement said that Qahtani “was part of the planning and execution of the operation”and that Mutreb “coordinated and executed” it.
Every Saudi watcher I spoke with believes that MBS is likely to survive in power, despite the global outrage over Khashoggi’s killing. The closest thing to a “smoking gun” in the Khashoggi case is that Qahtani is said to have exchanged multiple messages with MBS in the two days surrounding the journalist’s murder. But unless those messages are disclosed, it might be impossible to prove a connection.
The brutal paranoia of MBS’s royal court in Riyadh recalls Baghdad in the days of Saddam Hussein. The spotlight cast by Khashoggi’s killing gives Saudi Arabia, and the United States, a last chance to check a slide toward Hussein-like despotism from overwhelming the region.
The House of Saud rules with a sometimes bloody hand. The United States, as the kingdom’s key ally, has an obligation to calm this family feud before it does any more damage to Saudi Arabia and the world.