House arrest of Saudi crown prince sparks watchdog’s concern

Human Rights Watch urges authorities to explain Mohammed bin Nayef’s travel ban

The Saudi authorities have been urged to reveal why they have placed ousted crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef under house arrest in his mansion in the port of Jeddah and banned him from travelling abroad.

In a lengthy letter addressed to foreign minister Adel al-Jubair, the campaigning group Human Rights Watch accused the kingdom of "rampant use of arbitrary travel bans and detentions of Saudi citizens over the years, including during Mohamed bin Nayef's tenure as interior minister" and said these measures had "often broken Saudi law".

While at the interior ministry from 1999 to 2015, bin Nayef (57) carried out a harsh crackdown on Sunni jihadis, Shia dissidents and critics of the regime. He was decorated by the US Central Intelligence Agency for waging an effective battle against terrorism.

In January 2015, bin Nayef was appointed deputy crown prince by his uncle, King Salman, who had assumed power on the death of his half-brother, Abdullah. When Salman assumed power, another half-brother of the late king, Muqrin bin Abdel Aziz (70), moved up from deputy crown prince to crown prince. He held the latter position for just three months before he was replaced by bin Nayef.


The removal of Muqrin – the last of the sons of the founder of the monarchy to be in line for the throne – effected the shift to the generation of grandsons.

Bin Nayef was the first to be appointed, but in a surprise move in June, he was dismissed as crown prince and interior minister and replaced by King Salman’s favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman (32).

Seamless transition

On July 18th, the New York Times reported in detail on bin Nayef's removal from the position, which had been portrayed as a seamless transition by Saudi media. On June 20th, the report said, bin Nayef was called to a palace in Mecca, where his body guards were dismissed and he was held incommunicado in a room and subjected to pressure to give up his claim to the throne.

At dawn, allegedly deprived of medication for diabetes, bin Salman conceded defeat. Unidentified Saudi sources were quoted as saying bin Nayef had been bypassed because his health had deteriorated due to powerful painkillers prescribed by doctors to treat longstanding injuries suffered in an assassination attempt in 2009.

However, neither illness nor mental impairment has prevented earlier Saudi princes from serving as king. The Allegiance Council, comprising senior princes, approved his removal , although there is said to be considerable unhappiness with the palace coup.

Emerging from incarceration, bin Nayef was met by his successor, bin Salman, who kissed his cousin’s hand. In addition to being promoted, bin Salman is defence minister, head of the council tasked with diversifying the Saudi economy and supervisor of the operations of the state oil company.

Palace guards

Since bin Nayef’s removal, there have been changes in the palace guards and reorganisation of the interior ministry.

Since his father became king, bin Salman, an aggressive youngster with marginal experience in government, has stepped up Saudi backing for jihadi insurgent factions fighting the Syrian government, waged a deadly and devastating war in Yemen, promoted confrontation with Iran, and blockaded Qatar, which has successfully got round measures to isolate the emirate.

Qatari supermarkets are filled with goods transiting Oman and Qatari commercial aircraft continue to operate normally.

The king left for a month-long holiday in Morocco last week, leaving bin Salman in charge. In a decree, the king said bin Salman would be responsible for "managing state affairs and taking care of the interests of the people during the period of our absence from the kingdom".

While in Tangiers, King Salman is expected to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron and Jordanian king Abdullah. It is rumoured the king may step down in coming months.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times