On Monday, I wrote about the staggering sum of $2 billion entrusted by the Saudi investment fund PIF to Jared Kushner’s new fund, Affinity Partners—reportedly at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince MBS over objections by a panel of financial advisers who highlighted Kushner’s lack of track record. I reported that the money was possibly both an IOU for sympathetic foreign policy led by Kushner during the Trump years and also a bet by MBS on a return to the White House by Kushner’s father-in-law, Donald Trump.
Since then, I’ve learned that what’s at the heart of this potentially reveals the reason Kushner was denied a top-secret security clearance by the CIA.
I’m told it was Kushner and Kushner’s allies who blocked top-level U.S. government support for MBS’s cousin, former Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN)—a long-time intelligence and counter-terrorist asset for the U.S.—when MBN attempted a legal coup d’état in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2017. MBN believed he had enough support from the so-called “Council of Ministers” to back him in a regime change.
If successful, both King Salman and MBS (then deputy crown prince) would have been unseated and replaced by MBN. My sources tell me it was Kushner and his allies in the White House who got word to MBS of bin Nayef’s plans, and the plot was abruptly stopped. (As I’ve mentioned before, a spokesperson for Kushner has denied passing on intelligence to the Saudis).
But, according to three sources with knowledge, it was this meddling in Saudi royal affairs that caused U.S. intelligence officials to go “apoplectic” and prevent Kushner from getting a top-level security clearance.
MBN has not been heard from since his arrest in March 2020, when he was imprisoned somewhere in Saudi Arabia. Sporadic reports of his health have not been good, to put it mildly.
According to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer and senior fellow of both intelligence and Middle East policy at Brookings who has known MBN, it was “highly plausible” that Kushner was “paid off” for getting MBN out of the way.
It’s a view I’ve heard echoed by three other sources in the intelligence community who are experienced in the region and who dealt with Kushner.
“MBN remains the most likely successor, if MBS was ever moved out of the way, despite being in prison for three years now,” says Riedel. “He is a genuine national hero. He risked his life more than once to fight Al-Qaeda and delivered. And I think he became an opponent of the war [in] Yemen. And of course the war [in] Yemen is MBS’s signature foreign policy. I've always wondered why the agency was reluctant to give Jared top-secret clearance, and spilling intelligence to the Saudis [about MBN] would be a reason.”
What is already known from public records and reports is that, in May 2017, the Saudi ministry to the interior (Nayef’s purview) hired the D.C. firm of Trump-friendly lobbyist Robert Stryk for $5.4 million to work for bin Nayef and provide “broad advisory services including public relations and media engagement as well as public affairs counsel along with marketing and outreach as pertaining to the United States.” (Stryk filed a FARA (Foreign Rights Registration Act) disclosure.) This was just weeks after MBS—then only deputy crown prince—paid a visit to the White House in March, where he reportedly met with Trump and, separately, Kushner. It was also just weeks before King Salman stripped MBN of the Crown Prince title and gave it instead to MBS.
What has not been reported is that, during this time period, MBN told people he believed that Kushner and MBS had formed an “alliance” of some sort that involved getting rid of him. MBN reportedly felt he needed to act preemptively and wanted to make sure he retained top U.S. government support in the event he staged a coup d’état to usurp both King Salman, whom he believed was mentally incompetent, and MBS, whom he thought was dangerous.
According to someone with knowledge of MBN’s thinking, “He basically wanted the U.S. to tell the Saudis that if they fucked with him, they’d be fucking with all the U.S.-Saudi bilateral agreements.”
MBN knew he had the backing of the U.S. intelligence community, who loved him. In 2017, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo had even awarded him a medal for saving American lives. But MBN also believed that Kushner and MBS were working against him. He even told people that he figured there was some sort of financial arrangement between Kushner and MBS that would eventually be revealed, if their plan was to work.
MBN’s alleged palace coup effort was stymied, however, before it ever began. King Salman and MBS allegedly learned of what was afoot—my sources believe from Kushner or people close to him—at warp speed. “The Kushner machine went into action,” a source told me. And the U.S. did nothing to help MBN when he was deposed and replaced by MBS a month later.
Subsequently, on March 6, 2020, MBN was arrested and charged with treason (which he denied) and has not been heard from since. He has literally been “disappeared.” Meanwhile, his chief aide, Saad bin Khalid Aljabri, fled to Canada.
According to Bruce Riedel, the treatment of a senior royal like this is unprecedented, even in Saudi Arabia: “There’s been reports with pretty gruesome details of knives and torture [about MBN]. All of this is just not the Saudi Arabia that existed for the last hundred years, I can't think of a single case of a royal prince being arrested and put in jail, not one. Maybe there are one or two junior princesses who got in trouble over drugs or something who were put in rehab. But the notion that a member of the royal family—who let alone is a former crown prince—would be put in prison and basically vanish from the face of the earth is… That's not how the royal family operates.”
Nor is what allegedly happened normally how the U.S. government works. Which might go some way toward explaining why senior intelligence officials prevented Kushner from getting a top security clearance.
Unlike Mohammed bin Salman, Mohammed bin Nayef was a huge intelligence asset to the U.S. He was viewed as a moderate—someone the U.S. “deep state” wanted to work with as the ruler of Saudi Arabia.
“He gave us the flight plan and the code for bombs that were being sent by commercial industries into the United States,” Riedel told me. “Intelligence never gets more actionable than that. I mean: the flight number that the bomb is coming on. That's about as good as it gets.”
Further, bin Nayef was well-liked within the council of ministers, unlike MBS, and he was a moderate.
“Saudi Arabia was never a nice place. It was never a democracy, but it was not a repressive police state like this. And, certainly, members of the royal family were never ever imprisoned, nor were senior people in the business world. I mean, that just didn't happen,” says Riedel referring to the round-ups by MBS of business people, members of the royal family, and former government ministers in 2017 in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. “If King Salman dies, I think it’s questionable if MBS is the automatic successor. I think he literally would be prepared to use force to compel them [the council of princes]. But there are going to be some who are going to say, No, he's a poor choice. He's misrun the government. He got us involved endless war in Yemen that cost a fortune and ended up with the Iranians winning. He's shaken down members of the royal family at the hotel. I think there's a lot more animosity against MBS than is often portrayed. And he becomes much more vulnerable once daddy's no longer political cover for him. And the person he's most vulnerable to is Mohammed bin Nayef.”
Given, this you’d think that the Biden administration would be moving heaven and earth to help MBN. Riedel says that, as far as he knows, CIA director Bill Burns is trying. But, according to Riedel, whatever is going on in back-channels is not enough.
“It’s extraordinary that MBN has basically been forgotten by those countries who he worked with and whose citizens he saved, including Americans,” says Riedel. “I can understand that there might be a logic initially to trying to work this quietly behind the scenes, but it's April—it's been more than a year since the Biden administration came in. And working behind the scenes has not worked to get Mohammed bin Nayef out.”
I’ve previously reported there’s currently a frenzied back channel between the Biden administration and the Saudis because of the rising price of oil due to the war in Ukraine. This comes after months of a big chill emanating from the Biden White House to Saudi Arabia. So, the news of the Kushner investment and the bad odor it gives off could scarcely come at a less politically expedient moment.
Riedel says that people often ask him why Biden doesn’t put the past behind when it becomes to Saudi Arabia.
“My answer is [that] the Washington Post won’t let him,” Riedel says. (The Post is where Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident who was murdered by a team working for Mohammed bin Salman was employed.) “The Washington Post is not going to let Joe Biden get away with this. In fact, they have an editorial that they just posted about Kushner. It doesn't talk about Mohammed bin Nayef, but it says it's pretty obvious that Kushner is getting paid off for something.”