Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has detained former intelligence officer’s son to force him to return to the country from exile in Canada.
As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed
bin Salman moved to tighten his grip on power over the past few
years, detaining senior royals and opponents, one person has
eluded him: a former top-ranking intelligence official who was
close to a key rival to the throne.
In recent months, the crown prince — known by the initials
MBS — has increased pressure on relatives of Saad al Jabri,
including detaining his adult children, to try to force his
return to the kingdom from exile in Canada, the former
intelligence official’s family say.
In the crown prince’s sights
are documents Jabri has access to that contain sensitive
information, according to four people with knowledge of the
Jabri was a long-time aide to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who
the crown prince ousted as heir to the throne in a 2017 palace
coup that left MBS the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, the
world’s top oil exporter and a key US ally.
Saudi authorities detained bin Nayef and two other senior
royals on March 6, the latest in a series of extraordinary
measures seen aimed at consolidating MBS’ strength within the
ruling Al Saud family and removing perceived threats to his
power ahead of an eventual succession upon the king’s death or
Multiple top Interior Ministry officials were also detained
in March, said two of the people with knowledge of the situation
— both well-connected Saudis.
Days after bin Nayef’s detention, according to Jabri’s
family, Saudi authorities arrested two of his children, 21-year-old Omar and 20-year-old Sarah, in a dawn raid on the family
home in the capital Riyadh.
That was followed by the detention
of the former intelligence official’s brother in early May, the
family said. Three of the people with knowledge of the situation
confirmed Jabri’s relatives had been detained.
READ MORE: Saudi’s dark history of abducting members of the royal family
According to the four people with knowledge of the
situation, the crown prince believes he could use the documents
in Jabri’s possession against current rivals for the throne. He
also fears they contain additional information that could
compromise him and his father, the king, the four people said.
The documents include information on bin Nayef’s assets
abroad, which also potentially could be useful to MBS in putting
pressure on his predecessor, said the two well-connected Saudis
and a former regional security official.
Jabri also has access
to sensitive files relating to the financial dealings of senior
royals, including King Salman and MBS, said one of the
well-connected Saudi sources, the former regional security
official and a diplomat.
The diplomat said some of the information related to land
deals and transactions, without elaborating beyond saying that
they related to King Salman during his time as governor of
Riyadh, a position he held for nearly four decades prior to his
2015 ascension to the throne.
One of the well-connected Saudi sources said the crown prince wants to press charges against bin Nayef relating to allegations of corruption during bin Nayef’s time at the Ministry of Interior.
Reuters was unable to determine the details of those allegations.
“They have long wanted Jabri as the right-hand man of MBN,”
the person said, referring to bin Nayef.
The Saudi government has not confirmed or publicly commented
on the seizure of Jabri’s children or his brother, Abdulrahman
al Jabri. The Saudi government media office did not respond to
detailed questions from Reuters about the detentions or the
reasons behind them.
Jabri’s family and one of the well-connected Saudis said
Saudi authorities had accused Jabri of corruption but did not
elaborate on the nature of the allegations. The family says the
allegations are false.
Saad al Jabri declined to comment via his son.
Reuters couldn’t determine where bin Nayef and the other two
princes are being held and was unable to reach them for comment.
A US official said Washington had raised the issue of
detention of the children with the Saudi leadership. The
official added that many US government officials had worked
directly with Jabri over a long period of time and that he had
been “a very, very strong counterterrorism partner.”
A second US official in Washington said the United States
was in contact with Jabri’s family in Canada and were “exploring
ways to assist.”
“We are deeply concerned by reports of the al Jabri
children’s detention and would strongly condemn any unjust
persecution of family members whatever the allegations against
Saad al Jabri may be,” the official said.
Canada was also concerned about the detention of Jabri’s
children, said Syrine Khoury, a spokeswoman for Canada’s Foreign Ministry. She didn’t elaborate on whether Canada was taking
‘He had all the files on everything’
For nearly two decades, Saad al Jabri had worked closely
with bin Nayef, helping to overhaul the kingdom’s intelligence
and counterterrorism operations and building close ties with
“He had all the files on everything and everybody,” said the
former regional security official. Jabri coordinated relations
between Saudi intelligence and the US Central Intelligence
Agency, the former official said. The CIA declined to comment.
When King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015, he
appointed Jabri to a cabinet-level position. Bin Nayef became
crown prince in April 2015. Jabri’s son, Khalid al Jabri, said
that at that time the relationship between his father and MBS
was “initially really good” but the relationship soon soured,
spurred by opponents close to MBS who alleged that Jabri was a
member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The family strongly denies it.
Four months later, in August 2015, Jabri learned he had been
fired from his post via a state TV announcement, said
Khalid al Jabri, who now lives in Canada along with his father.
Saad al Jabri became a personal adviser to MBN, a position
he held until the royal was deposed as crown prince and removed
as head of the Interior Ministry in June 2017. The two
well-connected Saudis and the diplomat described Jabri as
fiercely loyal to MBN.
Since 2017, when Jabri moved to Canada, Saudi authorities
have made repeated attempts to lure the former intelligence
official back to the kingdom, both directly and through
interlocutors, Khalid al Jabri told Reuters.
He added that his siblings had been barred from leaving
Saudi Arabia for more than two years prior to their detention
and were questioned by authorities on more than one occasion
regarding their father. The crown prince had made an offer in
2017 to Jabri senior to allow the children to travel in exchange
for his return, he said.
The family said they don’t know where Jabri’s children are
being held and aren’t able to reach them. “Every time we ask
people inside (Saudi Arabia), we’ve been told MBS is handling
their detention himself. Don’t bother asking for details,”
Khalid al Jabri said.
READ MORE: From the battlefield to the sports field, Saudi influence wanes under MBS
Jabri’s deep knowledge of some of the kingdom’s most
sensitive information, coupled with his popularity in Western
political circles and among some long-serving Saudi security
officials, made him a target, according to his son, the
diplomat, the former regional security official and a former
Western intelligence source.
The diplomat said Jabri could be perceived as a threat to
MBS if US President Donald Trump, who defended strategic
defence and energy ties with the kingdom during the global
uproar over Khashoggi’s death, failed to win re-election.
White House declined to comment.
The family said it is lobbying US lawmakers for help. Senators Marco Rubio and Patrick Leahy have spoken with the family, according to their offices. Members of Congress are concerned that “two young people have disappeared after being seized by Saudi state security forces,” said Tim Rieser, senior foreign policy aide to Democratic Senator Leahy.
“It seems that they’re being used as hostages to try and coerce their father to return to Saudi Arabia,” he said. He added that the senator’s office is seeking information about their whereabouts and calling for their release.
The crown prince is officially next in line to the throne to
his 85-year-old father, King Salman. His efforts to diversify
the kingdom’s economy away from its heavy reliance on oil and
lift social restrictions, including on women, were welcomed by
many Western officials and Saudis.
But the crown prince has also
drawn criticism for attempts to silence dissidents and
marginalise rivals. He came under international criticism over
the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s
Istanbul consulate, which the US Central Intelligence Agency
has said the crown prince ordered.
The crown prince has denied ordering Khashoggi’s killing but
said he ultimately bears “full responsibility” as the kingdom’s
de facto leader.
Saudi watchers and diplomats said that MBS has grown
increasingly concerned with his standing, both at home and
abroad following the Khashoggi killing. Some members of Saudi
Arabia’s ruling family and business elite expressed frustration
with his leadership following the largest-ever attack on the
kingdom’s oil infrastructure in September, as Reuters previously
There is also discontent at home, where the economy has been
struck hard by the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices,
leading to austerity measures. The crown prince nevertheless
still has staunch supporters and is popular among young Saudis
for opening up the conservative kingdom and pledging to
diversify the economy.