The vanishing prince: Where has Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef been?

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) had taken a conspicuously low profile in the ten months since his accession to the number-two post in Saudi Arabia. What does it mean?

There is no single standard of behavior for Saudi crown princes. They have been very different in how they perform their duties and how they behave publicly. Princes Faysal and Fahd outshined the kings they served. Prince Nayef, MBNs father, was ill when he came to office and was largely inactive. Prince Abdullah was effectively regent for a decade due to Fahd’s stroke in 1995. But Abdullah was very careful to maintain the status of Fahd as king. Crown Prince Muqrin was only in office three months before he was removed in an unprecedented change in the line of succession last April by King Salman.

When King Salman was crown prince before Abdullah’s death last year, he traveled extensively to represent the Kingdom. In just two years he visited Japan, China, India, Pakistan, the Maldives, France, and several Arab states. He was the face of the Kingdom, despite persistent rumors of poor health.

MBN has mostly stayed at home except for a visit to Camp David. Instead, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman has visited Russia, France, Egypt, Jordan, the United States, and most recently NATO headquarters in Brussels. The king’s 30 year-old favorite son has been the Kingdom’s deal maker. He has also been the face of the war in Yemen. His image is pervasive.

The king’s 30 year-old favorite son has been the Kingdom’s deal maker.

Crown Prince Nayef has also been noticeably silent on some prominent events. Last week, for example the king and the deputy crown prince issued condolences and messages of support for Turkey after the major terrorist attack in Ankara, specifically invoking their religious position as the Custodian of the Holy Mosques. MBN was not listed in the messages even though counterterrorism is his portfolio. Mohammed bin Salman has given a flurry of interviews about coming reforms in the Kingdom, he rarely mentions his cousin. The Economist profiled the deputy, not the number two.

The crown prince is quite busy in his other role as Interior Minister. Last year in Beirut, his spies brilliantly nabbed the mastermind of the 1996 Khobar Iranian-sponsored attack that killed 19 American airmen. The Ministry of Interior was in charge of the mass execution of convicted terrorists on New Years. It is deeply involved in fighting both al-Qaida and the Islamic State inside the Kingdom. It was responsible for security at last year’s Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, which was marred by accidents.

The crown prince has always been a private man like his father. He became famous in the Kingdom for surviving multiple al-Qaida assassination attempts, not for grand standing. Perhaps his low profile is simply his personality. 

Nonetheless, the contrast between his quiet pursuit of his duties and his younger cousin’s high profile is much commented-on in Saudi circles. Does it presage changes to come? Will Nayef go the way of Muqrin? In an absolute monarchy, that is the King’s prerogative alone—but it is the subject of universal speculation.