When Saudi Arabia’s crown prince visits the White House next week, he’s expected to be welcomed as a reformer who’s expanded women’s rights in one of the most restrictive countries in the world, allowing them to drive and attend sports events.
Yet there is one Saudi woman whom U.S. officials say has not benefited from the prince’s rise: his own mother. Fourteen current and former senior U.S. officials told NBC News that intelligence shows Prince Mohammed bin Salman— often referred to by his initials MBS — blocked his mother from seeing his father, King Salman, more than two years ago and has kept her away from him as the young prince rapidly amassed power.
Prince Mohammed, a key ally of the Trump White House, has concocted various explanations of his mother’s whereabouts over the years, such as that she’s out of the country receiving medical treatment, so King Salman would not know his son has been behind her continued absence, the current and former officials said.
U.S. officials interviewed for this story believe, based on several years of intelligence, that MBS took action against his mother because he was concerned that she opposed his plans for a power grab that could divide the royal family and might use her influence with the king to prevent it. The officials said MBS placed his mother under house arrest at least for some time at a palace in Saudi Arabia, without the king’s knowledge.
Last June, at just age 31, Prince Mohammed abruptly displaced his cousin to become crown prince of the oil-rich kingdom. He implemented some economic and social changes in the following months, but also made some brazen power moves at home and in the region. In November MBS oversaw the arrests of more than 200 Saudi officials and businessmen, including prominent princes and rival members of the royal family, in what the government has described as a crackdown on corruption.
President Donald Trump defended the Saudi government for “harshly treating” those who were imprisoned as part of the effort. Trump, and his son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, have embraced MBS as a close partner and critical player in the administration’s Middle East strategy.
The White House announced Monday that the president will meet with the crown prince on March 20, saying Trump “looks forward to discussing ways to strengthen ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia and to advance our common security and economic priorities.”
But the meeting, which is part of MBS’s multistate tour across the U.S., comes as some senior U.S. officials are increasingly concerned his aggressive tactics could sow more instability in the Middle East.
The U.S. intelligence assessment of Prince Mohammed’s actions against his mother, which American officials said has long been concealed from both King Salman and the public, is an example of MBS’s willingness to remove any perceived impediment to solidifying his position as Saudi Arabia’s next king, the current and former officials said.