During an assignment I took on back then, I had joined the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage in 2016 as an official guest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. After performing the basics of the pilgrimage, a feast was organized on the second day of Eid al-Adha, bringing together all foreign guests at King Salman’s palace in Mina. Following certain security procedures involving intense security checks, our hands constantly being sanitized, and cellphones and cameras being forbidden, we were taken into the high-rise hall where the king would individually shake hands with his guests. When it was our turn – in alphabetical order of each guest’s respective country– we stood up and were guided by officials. Once we reached the end of a corridor of flesh formed by unfriendly-looking soldiers clad in uniforms, we shook hands with King Salman. We also shook hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and finally Second Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was standing to his left. We then moved into to the side hall where the sumptuous tables were waiting for guests.
The scene I witnessed at Mina Place that day, the intensity of security measures surely contained lessons learned from when King Faisal was assassinated by his own nephew during a similar event at his palace in Riyadh on March 25, 1975. While 1975 might seem like ancient history, Faisal was Salman’s brother after all; neither he nor the Saudi state mind forgot this assassination. One other point that did not go unnoticed during the event was the confidence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Back then, he was the most important figure in Saudi Arabia after King Salman.
Mohammed bin Nayef was the son of King Salman’s brother, Prince Nayef. Prince Nayef, who served as interior minister from 1975 to his death in 2012, had stood out with his fight against dissident organizations in the country, and especially against al Qaida. Following the death of Nayef, who also served as crown prince for a few months between 2011 and 2012, his son Prince Mohammed became interior minister. As the prince worked for many years as his father’s right-hand man during his term as minister, he developed close relations with the American intelligence in particular. Thus, in the spring of 2015, King Salman designating Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince was received on a positive note in Washington and other global capitals. However, one person was not happy: Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Bin Zayed hated Bin Nayef so much, that according to a 2003 WikiLeaks document, he had even said in reference to the Saudi prince and his father, “Darwin was right!” (about humans descending from apes). Of course, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was aware of this animosity, and he had already started planning the measures he would be taking when he would one day assume the throne. However, he was the one who lost. King Salman dismissed his own nephew on June 21, 2017, replacing him with his son Mohammed bin Salman. Mohammed bin Nayef has been under house arrest since then.
United Arab Emirates (UAE) Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed had always wanted Mohammed bin Salman to become crown prince. With Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election, the foundation was laid for the operation that would be conducted against the Saudi throne. The necessary changes in Riyadh were made through the aid of the White House connections provided by UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef al Otaibah. Once the process – which also involved Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner – was complete, the Middle East had a new political player: Mohammed bin Salman. Had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 elections, we probably would have seen Mohammed bin Nayef at King Salman’s side – or perhaps, even on the throne. Of course, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi would have also been alive. He would not have been murdered at Saudi Arabia’s consulate building in Istanbul, with his body dissected and burned in the furnace.
It is a known fact that the new U.S. administration prefers Mohammed bin Nayef or King Salman’s brother Prince Ahmad as crown prince. However, there is now one other obstacle preventing them from escaping Mohammed bin Salman: Israel. In order to pick up the pieces and put them back together after the “wreck left behind by Trump,” Joe Biden and his team will require the support and cooperation of Israel, which has become Saudi Arabia’s strategic partner in recent years. If a defense line is built for Mohammed bin Salman, including Egypt, in addition to the UAE and Israel, the Biden administration’s area of maneuver would be quite restricted. We will watch and see together what steps they will take.