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NBC Saudi Arabias crown prince placed his own mother under house

Issued: 2018-03-15

by Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube

WASHINGTON — 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.

Officials said the assessment of the dynamic between MBS and his mother, which has not been previously reported, is based on a combination of human intelligence, intercepts and information shared with the U.S. from other countries.

The determination that the crown prince's mother, Princess Fahda bint Falah Al Hathleen, was being kept from King Salman without his knowledge was first made during the Obama administration, the officials said. That assessment has not changed since Trump took office, according to the current officials.

The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington denied that the princess is under any kind of house arrest or separation from her husband.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence, said the 82-year-old King Salman has at times been told his third wife is out of the country receiving medical treatment. They said the king has told people around him that he misses her and apparently does not know her true location or status. Multiple U.S. officials have told NBC News previously that their interactions with the king suggest he is not consistently lucid.

At one point during a meeting at the White House in September 2015, King Salman told then-President Barack Obama that his wife was in New York for medical treatment and that he hoped to visit her while in the U.S., officials said. The officials said Obama did not inform the king that his wife was not in New York, but the king's comment was viewed as further evidence of what U.S. officials already had gleaned from intelligence on the royal family.

In early 2016, U.S. officials picked up communications in which MBS was talking about his efforts to keep his mother from his father without the king knowing, according to current and former officials.

A spokesperson for Obama declined to comment, citing the privacy of the former president's conversations with foreign leaders.

The CIA declined comment on any intelligence on the Saudi royal family. A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also declined comment for this story.

While Prince Mohammed's power base began expanding at home several years ago, his brashest moves have coincided with the strong and early support he's received from the Trump White House.

Less than two months after his inauguration, Trump hosted MBS at the White House, not the then-crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. MBS, who began trying to forge close ties with the Trump team immediately after the 2016 election, has spent hours with Kushner in Washington and Riyadh.

A spokesperson for Kushner, who oversees the administration's efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, declined to comment for this story and referred questions to the National Security Council, which also declined comment.

Trump officials view MBS as the best hope for seeing economic and social changes in the tightly controlled kingdom.

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