Time Running Out for MbS?

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Muharram 13, 1442 2020-09-01


by Zafar Bangash (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 7, Muharram, 1442)

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, goes an old saying. Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) may not wear a crown but as the lyrics of the Beatles’ song from the 1960s go, like a fool on the hill, he can clearly feel his head spinning round and round.

MbS has put all his eggs in Donald Trump’s basket. Until the beginning of this year, this was working fine as Trump appeared to be coasting toward victory in the November presidential elections. Then came the pandemic that pulled the floor from underneath his feet. Now America’s narcissist-in-chief is thrashing about like a wounded beast trying to blame others while refusing to take any responsibility for America’s disastrous situation due to his incompetence. Even his right-wing support base is abandoning him.

Trump clearly gets that sinking feeling. So does MbS. Like master, like slave. If Trump is not elected in November, MbS would be in big trouble. Some people in the US hold the view that Trump may refuse to leave the White House even if he loses, crying foul over mail-in ballots. That would be a disaster for America but even worse for MbS and Trump’s other foreign puppets. Trump would be totally consumed by fighting an internal war, that may even erupt into a civil war. He would have no time for petty potentates abroad. For Trump, everything revolves around him.

MbS is described as tempestuous, mercurial, short-tempered and violent. With King Salman out of circulation because of ill-health, MbS is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. So, he must take responsibility for all decisions and the consequences—good or bad—that flow from them.

Internally, he has made far too many enemies, antagonizing everyone at once: human rights activists, academics, members of the royal family, religious scholars, tribal leaders and even women rights activists. He may be able to overcome the challenges at home but does he have the capacity to withstand external pressure?

Let us list them. The most serious threat to MbS’ ambition to ascend the throne comes from the US intelligence establishment whose favourite Saudi was the former crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef. They wanted him as future king. He had served as interior minister for a long-time and had cultivated close links with the CIA. The manner in which MbS mistreated and continues to mistreat his cousin Bin Nayef has annoyed the CIA. Some agency members have made no secret of their disdain for MbS.

This is evident from the manner in which a former Saudi spy Saad al-Jabri, a top CIA asset, has lodged a law suit in US federal court even while Trump is president. This is viewed as the Washington establishment’s stern warning to Riyadh regarding al-Jabri’s complaint that MbS had sent a hit squad to eliminate him in Canada. The Saudi hit team, called ‘Tiger Squad’ was intercepted by Canadian Border Service Agents at Toronto Pearson International Airport in mid-October 2018. MbS thought he could perhaps eliminate al-Jabri the same way he killed Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

Why is MbS so desperate to silence Al-Jabri whom he has tried to force to return to the kingdom, but without success? The 106-page document filed in Washington DC court describes al-Jabri as a 39-year veteran with expertise in national security and counterterrorism. He held the rank of major general and worked closely with Bin Nayef when the latter headed the interior ministry and then as crown prince. He is privy to much of bin Salman’s corrupt business dealings, the creation of a team of personal mercenaries and other criminal activities. Al-Jabri also had close working relationship with the CIA spanning several decades.

“Few places hold more sensitive, humiliating and damning information about defendant bin Salman than the mind and memory of Dr. Saad — except perhaps the recordings Dr. Saad made in anticipation of his killing,” the claim asserts.

“That is why defendant bin Salman wants him dead, and why defendant bin Salman has worked to achieve that objective over the last three years.” Al-Jabri who holds dual Maltese and Saudi citizenship, fled the kingdom in 2017. He first went to Turkey and from there made his way to Toronto where he now resides as a permanent resident.

Al-Jabri claims that his family members in Saudi Arabia have been detained and tortured and two of his children have “simply disappeared”, all in MbS’ desperate bid to force him to return to the kingdom. As a long-time intelligence operator, Al-Jabri knows the fate of Saudi royals that were kidnapped from Europe. They all disappeared without a trace. He does not want to suffer the same fate.

What MbS fears is that Al-Jabri’s damaging information about him would be used by the CIA to discredit him and thus get rid of him. America’s intelligence establishment has not forgiven MbS for his mistreatment and torture of Bin Nayef, the CIA’s man in Riyadh. With Trump’s exit from the White House looking increasingly likely, CIA spooks are anxiously waiting for an opportunity to settle scores with MbS. Al-Jabri’s revelations would form an important part of their elimination plan.

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