How a Saudi Prince unseated his cousin to become the kingdom’s heir apparent
An inside look at how the royal-court drama unfolded shows the extent to which the kingdom’s recent leadership change was a power grab by a self-declared reformer
Riyadh — After a wakeful night confined to a Mecca palace lounge, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef emerged into a marble-walled room the morning of June 21.
The 57-year-old prince found a waiting crowd, cameras, a security guard with his hand on a gun — and his cousin Mohammed bin Salman, 31, the favored son of King Salman, newly installed as his successor as heir apparent and crown prince.
An inside look at how the drama unfolded — pieced together from interviews with people familiar with the royal court, including people aligned with each prince, and from videos of events — shows the extent to which the Saudi shuffle was a power grab by a self-declared reformer.
That June 21 morning, the older prince muttered a greeting to the younger, who approached in an ankle-length robe and red-and-white checked headdress, a video of the encounter shows. Mohammed bin Salman, known to many as "MBS," knelt and kissed his older cousin’s hand.
At that point it would have been clear to Mohammed bin Nayef that his long career — in which he had gained the trust of American intelligence officials and become a crucial figure in the U.S.-Saudi relationship — was over, say people familiar with the royal court. "When MBS kisses you," says one of these people, "you know something bad will happen."
After the June 21 encounter between the two princes, the royal court announced Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation. Mohammed bin Nayef disappeared from public view. He has been at his Jeddah palace with his movements restricted, say those people, overseen by guards loyal to Mohammed bin Salman.
A royal-court official, in a written response to questions about the shuffle, said Mohammed bin Nayef was "deposed."
"The reasons of his deposition are very confidential and no one has the right to disclose them," he said, adding that the decision to do so "was for the sake of the national interest." The former crown prince has daily visitors, he said, "and has visited the king and the crown prince more than once."
The younger prince’s ascent marks a reordering of power with profound implications for one of the world’s wealthiest and most secretive countries. With King Salman ailing, the new crown prince could soon be in charge of one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, a kingdom that ranks among the planet’s largest oil producers and importers of arms, and that uses its vast resources to boost its sway in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabian succession is governed by a malleable set of rules and family customs, and involves input from a council of about 35 top princes representing descendants of the kingdom’s founder. The June 21 move amounted to one faction’s deposing of another, in the most jolting succession fight since King Saud was forced from the throne by his brothers 53 years ago.
That has left some royal-court insiders concerned about further upheaval, worrying another group could plot a move, say some of the people familiar with the royal court. "Now it’s the precedent," one of them says.
The royal-court official declined to make Mohammed bin Salman available for comment and said Mohammed bin Nayef declined to comment.
Mohammed bin Salman in recent years has made bold promises of change, pledging to modernize and open Saudi Arabia’s economy and culture. His plan focuses on listing shares in the state-owned oil company on a public exchange and investing the proceeds to diversify the economy. He has also taken an aggressive approach to foreign policy and has worked to form close ties with the Trump White House.
His older cousin is a low-key official who has made relatively few public appearances and has followed a slow-moving approach to governance over the years. He had widespread support among older Saudi princes who have backed his more conservative approach to foreign affairs. Through his years of working on antiterrorism initiatives, he had longstanding relationships with career U.S. security officials who have sometimes been at odds with the current White House.
Some Saudis and Saudi watchers have expressed hope that economic liberalization will lead to more political and cultural liberalization, and that Mohammed bin Salman will emerge as a force for such change. His planned economic overhaul includes a push to bring more women into the workforce and improve education levels.
Discord between the two princes stretched back to 2015, in the early part of King Salman’s reign, when he made Mohammed bin Nayef crown prince and installed his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince. King Salman’s later moves to give his son power over foreign affairs, the military and the economy fueled speculation the king could move him up in the succession order.
The Qatar rift
A debate over how to handle the confrontation with Qatar that began in June, over accusations by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that the Persian Gulf neighbor supported terrorism, among other factors, heightened the sense of urgency over the rift between the princes, say several of the people familiar with the royal court. The older wanted a diplomatic solution rather than economic coercion and threats of violence, say some of the people familiar with the royal court. The younger adopted a more hawkish stance, supporting the economic blockade of Qatar that prevailed and remains in place.
"Mohammed bin Nayef did not oppose any measures taken against Qatar," the royal-court official said.
King Salman’s deteriorating health fed concerns in Mohammed bin Salman’s camp that time was growing short, say some of the people familiar with the royal court. The young prince began to lobby his father to choose him as successor.
"The King’s health is excellent," the royal-court official said of the 81-year-old monarch. "He performs his daily, varied routines in an active and energetic manner. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the King is a King until death."
The royal court recorded a video in recent weeks in which the king says it is time for Mohammed bin Salman to become king, say several of the people familiar with the royal court. They say the unpublished video could be used upon the king’s death or as a public abdication announcement.
The royal-court official, without directly addressing the video, said: "Any country that abandons its leader in his last days for a critical health condition is a country with no dignity and prestige."
As the young prince laid his plan, he notified the Trump administration. The week before the power shuffle, say several of the people familiar with the royal court, Mohammed bin Salman dispatched a young official named Turki al Sheikh to Washington.
President Donald Trump had met Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh and Washington in recent months. Mr. al Sheikh, a poet and writer of patriotic songs with no foreign-policy experience, had been moved by Mohammed bin Salman recently to a prominent role in the royal court.
On his June trip to Washington, Mr. al Sheikh notified the White House that Mohammed bin Salman was ready to oust his older cousin, say these people.
A White House official, referring to the Saudi leadership change, said the U.S. government "sought not to intervene or to be seen as intervening in such a sensitive internal matter," and "we consistently stressed our desire to maintain cooperation" with Saudi leadership.
The royal-court official said: "With regard to Minister Turki Al-Sheikh, he did not meet any U.S. official at all. Neither the U.S. nor any other country has been directly or indirectly informed about the matter, for this is an absolute sovereign matter."
Mohammed bin Salman’s plan began playing out soon after Mr. al Sheikh returned to Saudi Arabia, in a drama described to The Wall Street Journal by people familiar with the royal court.
On June 20, Mohammed bin Nayef was getting ready for a relaxed Eid, the big celebration at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He headed that night to the palace in Mecca for a routine gathering of senior officials.
For months, he had known his cousin could move against him. Within the three weeks leading up to Eid, people close to Mohammed bin Nayef warned him that Mohammad bin Salman was likely preparing to oust him. But, Mohammed bin Nayef dismissed their concerns as conspiracy theories.
Mohammed bin Nayef "thought why do it now, because it was the last three days before Eid," says one of the people familiar with the royal court.
Guards loyal to Mohammed bin Nayef were replaced by others loyal to Mohammed bin Salman. The royal-court official said this was normal procedure and that additional royal guards have been assigned to the older prince, adding that they don’t control his movements.
Mecca’s black-and-white Al Safa palace looms about 10 stories over the Kabaa, Islam’s holiest site. Videos show that when the king and his entourage are present, as they were June 20, its carpeted meeting rooms buzz with ministers, staffers and servers carrying trays of coffee to dignitaries in green velour armchairs.
The crown prince wasn’t set to arrive at the palace until nighttime, after Tarwieh prayers — an hour when many gatherings of high-level officials happen in the scorching Saudi summer. After dark, Mohammed bin Nayef’s motorcade set out for the palace through Mecca’s busy streets.
When he arrived at the palace that evening, he was told to proceed alone, without his security detail.
"Once he went from one room to another they took the weapons, the phones, everything from everyone" in his entourage, says one of the people familiar with the royal court.
Guards ushered Mohammed bin Nayef upstairs, through the palace’s flower-patterned hallways to a small lounge. They closed the doors, leaving him alone. It was close to midnight by then, and the crown prince wouldn’t leave until morning.
While Mohammed bin Nayef waited, Mohammed bin Salman had calls put out to members of the Allegiance Council, the group of about 35 sons and grandsons of the kingdom’s founder who weigh in on leadership structure. They were told the king wanted Mohammed bin Salman to be crown prince and asked for their support. The Saudi government says 31 members approved.
In that room, Mohammed bin Nayef was told of his fate: The kingdom’s senior princes wanted his cousin as crown prince.
Mohammed bin Nayef "was horrified," says one of the people familiar with the royal court. He was asked to sign a resignation letter and a pledge of loyalty to Mohammed bin Salman, this person says. The crown prince resisted.
Over the next several hours, royal-court officials visited him, urging him to reconsider. An emissary from the king told him to sign the resignation letter or face serious consequences.
Mohammed bin Nayef held firm. But by dawn he was exhausted. He knew there was no way out. He made the only compromise he could — he agreed to give an oral pledge of allegiance.
The royal-court official said: "The pledge of allegiance made to the Crown Prince was made willingly."
It was about 7 a.m. when Mohammed bin Salman’s men let the crown prince out. Mohammed bin Nayef didn’t expect to confront the man taking over his title immediately.
After exiting the room, though, he was surprised to hear a crowd. He walked from the corridor to the marble-walled room and saw video cameras and photographers. A guard — not one of his — stood with his hand on a holstered gun, in what people familiar with the royal court’s traditions say is a violation of protocol around the crown prince.
Then he saw Mohammed bin Salman coming quickly toward him. There was the kiss and muttered pledge of allegiance.
It took about 15 seconds. Then a guard wrapped a black cloak around Mohammed bin Nayef’s shoulders and led him off to his Jeddah palace.
The Wall Street Journal