Saudi leadership pressures former intelligence official’s family, seeks access to documents
LONDON (Reuters) - When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tightened his powers in recent years and arrested high-ranking kings and opponents, one person escaped him: a former senior intelligence officer who was close to a key rival on the throne.
In recent months, the Crown Prince - known by the initials MbS - has increased the pressure on Saad al-Jabri's relatives, including the detention of his adult children, to try to return to the kingdom from exiled Canada, the former secret service to force officials say family. The Crown Prince is targeting documents that Jabri has access to and that contain confidential information, according to four people who are aware of the situation.
Jabri was a long-time advisor to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, whom the Crown Prince ousted as heir to the throne in a palace coup in 2017. MbS was de facto the ruler of Saudi Arabia, the world's best oil exporter and an important ally of the United States.
The Saudi authorities arrested bin Nayef and two other high-ranking kings on March 6. This was the latest in a series of extraordinary measures aimed at strengthening the strength of MbS within the ruling Al Saud family and eliminating perceived threats to its power before a possible successor after the king's death, or abdication.
Several senior Home Office officials were also arrested in March, two of the people who knew the situation said, both of whom were well-connected Saudis.
Days after bin Nayef's arrest, the Saudi authorities arrested two of his children, 21-year-old Omar and 20-year-old Sarah, according to Jabri's family, in a raid on the family's home in the capital, Riyadh. The family of the former secret service employee's brother was arrested in early May, the family said. Three of the people who knew the situation confirmed that Jabri's relatives had been arrested.
According to the four people who are aware of the situation, the Crown Prince believes that he could use the documents held by Jabris against current rivals for the throne. He also fears that it will contain additional information that could endanger him and his father, the king, the four said.
The documents contain information about bin Nayef's assets abroad, which MbS may also find useful to put pressure on its predecessor, said the two well-connected Saudis and a former regional security official. Jabri also has access to sensitive files related to the financial affairs of high-ranking kings, including King Salman and MbS, said one of the well-connected Saudi sources, the former regional security officer and a diplomat.
The diplomat said some of the information related to land deals and transactions without further explaining that it related to King Salman during his time as governor of Riyadh, a position he held almost four decades before he took the throne in 2015.
One of the well-connected Saudi sources said the Crown Prince wanted to file bin Nayef charges of corruption during bin Nayef's time with the Home Office. Reuters was unable to determine the details of these allegations.
"They have long wanted Jabri to be MbN's right man," said the person referring to bin Nayef.
The Saudi government has neither confirmed nor commented on the confiscation of Jabri's children or his brother Abdulrahman al-Jabri. The Saudi government media office did not answer detailed Reuters questions about the detention or the reasons why.
Jabri's family and one of the well-connected Saudis said the Saudi authorities accused Jabri of corruption but failed to explain the nature of the allegations. The family says the allegations are false.
Saad al-Jabri declined to comment on his son.
Reuters couldn't determine where bin Nayef and the other two princes were being held, and couldn't reach them for comment.
A US official said Washington has raised the issue of child detention 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 was "a very, very strong partner in the fight against terrorism".
A second US official in Washington said the United States was in contact with Jabri's family in Canada and was "looking for ways to help."
"We are deeply concerned about reports of the detention of al Jabri children and would strongly condemn any unjustified persecution of family members regardless of the allegations against Saad Al-Jabri," said the official.
Canada is also concerned about the detention of Jabri's children, said Syrian Khoury, a spokeswoman for the Canadian State Department. She did not consider whether Canada took certain steps.
"He had all the files on everything"
Saad al-Jabri had worked closely with bin Nayef for nearly two decades to revise the kingdom's intelligence and counterterrorism operations and build close relationships with Western officials.
"He had all the files on everything and everyone," said the former regional security official. Jabri coordinated relations between Saudi intelligence and the U.S. 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. Bin Nayef became Crown Prince in April 2015. Jabri's son Khalid al-Jabri said that the relationship between his father and MbS was “initially really good” at the time, but the relationship soon became bad, driven by opponents near MbS who claimed that Jabri was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood . The family emphatically denies it.
Four months later, in August 2015, Jabri found out from a government television announcement that he had been fired from his post, said Khalid Al-Jabri, who now lives in Canada with his father.
Saad al-Jabri became a personal adviser to MbN, a position he held until the king was deposed as Crown Prince in June 2017 and deposed as Head of the Ministry of the Interior. The two well-connected Saudis and the diplomat described Jabri as extremely loyal MbN.
Since 2017, when Jabri moved to Canada, the Saudi authorities have repeatedly tried to lure the former intelligence agent back to the kingdom directly and through interlocutors, Khalid Al-Jabri told Reuters.
He added that his siblings were not allowed to leave Saudi Arabia for more than two years before being detained and that the authorities questioned their father more than once. The crown prince made an offer to Jabri senior in 2017 to enable the children to travel in exchange for his return, he said.
The family said they did not know where Jabri's children were being held and could not reach them. "Every time we asked people in Saudi Arabia, we were told that MbS handled their detention themselves. Don't ask for details," said Khalid Al-Jabri.
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-standing Saudi security officials, made him the target of a former western intelligence source, according to his son, the diplomat, the former regional security official.
The diplomat said Jabri could be seen as a threat to the MbS if U.S. President Donald Trump, who defended strategic defense and energy relationships with the kingdom during the global turmoil over Khashoggi's death, could not win the reelection. The White House declined to comment.
The family said that it is asking US lawmakers for help. Senators Marco Rubio and Patrick Leahy spoke to the family, according to their offices. Congress members are concerned that "two young people have disappeared after being seized by Saudi security forces," said Tim Rieser, senior foreign policy advisor to Democratic Senator Leahy. "It appears that they are being held hostage to force their father to return to Saudi Arabia," he said. He added that the Senator's office is requesting information about her whereabouts and requesting her release.
The Crown Prince is officially next on the throne of his 85-year-old father, King Salman. His efforts to separate the kingdom's economy from its heavy oil dependency and lift social restrictions, including women, have been welcomed by many Western officials and Saudis. The Crown Prince has also criticized attempts to silence dissidents and marginalize rivals. He was internationally criticized for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Kingdom's Istanbul Consulate in 2018, which the U.S. secret service had ordered, according to the Crown Prince.
The Crown Prince has denied ordering Khashoggi's murder, but said he ultimately had "full responsibility" as the kingdom's de facto leader.
Saudi observers and diplomats said MbS was increasingly concerned about its reputation at home and abroad after the Khashoggi murder. Some members of Saudi Arabia's ruling family and business elite were frustrated with his leadership after the biggest attack to date on the kingdom's oil infrastructure in September, Reuters previously reported.
There is also discontent at home, where the economy has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices, resulting in austerity measures. The Crown Prince still has strong followers and is popular with young Saudis because he opens the conservative kingdom and is committed to diversifying the economy.
(Arranged by Cassell Bryan-Low and Jason Szep)
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