Addiction and intrigue: Inside the Saudi palace coup

Reuters

Fri, Jul 21, 2017 - Page 6

On June 20, Mohammed bin Nayef, a powerful figure in Saudi Arabia’s security apparatus for the past two decades and the next in line to the throne, was summoned to meet Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on the fourth floor of the royal palace in Mecca.

There, according to a source close to bin Nayef, 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 bin Nayef’s judgment.

“The king came to meet bin Nayef and they were alone in the room. He told him: ‘I want you to step down, you didn’t listen to the advice to get treatment for your addiction, which dangerously affects your decisions,’” the source said.

The new details about the extraordinary meeting between the Saudi king and bin Nayef 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.

A senior Saudi official said the account was totally “unfounded and untrue in addition to being nonsense.”

“The story depicted here is a complete fantasy worthy of Hollywood,” the official said in a statement.

The official said bin Nayef had been removed in the national interest and had not experienced any “pressure or disrespect.”

PRETEXT

However, sources with knowledge of the situation said that the Saudi king was determined to elevate his son to be heir to the throne and used bin Nayef’s drug problem as a pretext to push him aside.

Three royal insiders, four Arab officials with links to the ruling house of Al Saud and diplomats in the region told reporters that bin Nayef was surprised to be ordered to step aside.

The sources said bin Nayef did not expect to be usurped by the often impulsive bin Salman, who bin Nayef considered to have made a number of policy blunders, such as his handling of the Yemen conflict and cutting financial benefits to civil servants.

The high-stakes power grab has placed sweeping powers in the hands of the 32-year-old bin Salman and appears designed to speed his accession to the throne.

Should he get the job, the young prince would 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 Persian Gulf.

In the hours that followed the meeting in which bin Nayef was dismissed, the House of Al 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 bin Salman, it said bin Nayef had a medical condition — drug addiction — and “we have been trying for more than two years to persuade him to seek treatment, but to no avail.”

“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 Saudi source close to bin Nayef quoted excerpts of the letter as saying.

The letter was read over the telephone to members of the council, while bin Nayef was kept isolated in a room all night, his mobile phone removed and cut off from contact with his aides.

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 bin Nayef’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.

RELENTED

At dawn bin Nayef gave up. He told a palace adviser that he was ready to see the king. The meeting was short. Bin Nayef agreed to step down and signed a document to that effect.

With bin Salman’s sudden ascent, there is speculation among diplomats and Saudi and Arab officials that King Salman is poised to abdicate in favor of his son.

Quoting a witness at the palace, one source said King Salman this month pre-recorded a statement in which he announces the transfer of the throne to his son.

The announcement could be broadcast at any time, perhaps as soon as September, the source said.