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Mohammed bin Nayef: US lawsuit shines light on disappeared Saudi prince

Court filing unexpectedly highlights the disappearance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's cousin and main rival
Prince bin Nayef
Saudi authorities have not commented publicly on the Prince bin Nayef case (AFP)
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Washington

A US-based lawsuit naming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in a case centred around a Caribbean oil refinery has unexpectedly highlighted the disappearance of his main rival and cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef.

In June 2020, Saudi business owner Nader Turki Aldossari filed a lawsuit on behalf of his son alleging that bin Nayef and others had reneged on a decades-old contract relating to the construction of an oil refinery on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.

But the case brought up the issue of how to issue a summons to him, considering his whereabouts are unknown.

The suit was amended to include MBS, stating he had placed bin Nayef under house arrest and seized his assets, thus preventing him from meeting his contractual obligations.

In March, MBS's counsel offered to provide bin Nayef's address on a "confidential basis", saying in a court filing that he faced terrorism-related threats due to his previous role as the kingdom's interior minister.

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And when Aldossari said a summons could not be served against bin Nayef, the court ordered MBS's lawyers to help ascertain his location.

There was no mention of him being detained, but Aldossari's counsel insisted that MBS was "holding the former crown prince under house arrest".

"Nayef is effectively a prisoner of... Saudi Arabia," the business owner said in a filing.

But last month, the judge dismissed Aldossari's breach-of-contract case, leaving the questions of the ex-crown prince's status and whereabouts unresolved.

Bin Nayef was ousted by MBS, his younger cousin, in a palace coup in June 2017. At the time, it was believed that bin Nayef, who has suffered health problems, was being held under house arrest after he was stripped of all his governing powers. 

Prior to his ousting in 2017, bin Nayef, 60, was seen as the most significant rival to the throne. He controlled the country's security forces, developed close ties to western intelligence agencies, and remains popular among conservatives sidelined by the crown prince.

Since deposing bin Nayef, MBS has centralised power and targeted any and all perceived foes and potential opponents. He has arrested several members of the royal family, including Prince Faisal bin Abdullah al-Saud, a son of the late King Abdullah.

Saudi authorities have not commented publicly on the Prince bin Nayef case.

Aldossari's lawyer told the AFP news agency that he plans to appeal the case and fight his own clients' travel ban, which he fears "could escalate to detention".

MBS lawyers register to represent bin Nayef

In a report last December, a British parliamentary fact-finding panel said bin Nayef had "not been able to contest his detention before an independent and impartial judge (and) has no access to a lawyer to discuss his situation".

In March, the US government also raised concerns over the disappearances of the Saudi prince and other senior royals in the kingdom.

However, just days before the Aldossari lawsuit was thrown out, multiple lawyers from the Washington lobbying and law firm Squire Patton Boggs registered to represent bin Nayef in the case, while also working for his rival MBS in another US lawsuit.

Squire Patton Boggs also represents Prince Mohammed's co-defendants in a separate US lawsuit brought by former spy chief Saad al-Jabri, a long-time adviser to bin Nayef, according to US court filings.

Since 2016, Squire Patton Boggs has represented the Saudi Centre for Studies and Media Affairs (CSMARC), receiving a total of around $2.7m for the work, according to US justice department filings.

A recent US intelligence report said officials associated with CSMARC were involved in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's 2018 murder in Turkey.

A US-based source close to Jabri told AFP it was "incomprehensible to see lawyers appearing on behalf of bin Nayef in one lawsuit while representing Prince Mohammed's co-defendants in another lawsuit".

Jabri himself filed a lawsuit in the US last year against MBS, accusing the Saudi crown prince of sending the kingdom's "Tiger Squad" to assassinate him in Canada three years ago.