A new dawn in Saudi?

Two men are now heading the virtual entirety of the Kingdom’s intelligence gathering apparatuses. MbN’s control over the Mabahith (secret police) and Bandar’s control over the Mukhabarat will link them closely into western counter terrorist efforts.

Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef’s (MbN) appointment as Minister of the Interior is a step change in Saudi Arabian politics, that can tentatively be understood as the first step towards empowering a next generation of princes into the top rungs of power in Saudi Arabia. Since the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, only Ibn Saud and his sons have served as monarch while running the senior posts in the Kingdom’s ministries. But the ageing and increasingly health-afflicted sons are beginning to lack lustre and joie de vivre. Despite the longevity of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has seen three Crown Princes in just one year: comparisons to the Soviet Politburo of the early 1980’s are rather worryingly apt.

Saudis traditionally respect seniority and defer respect to their elders, thus the fact that the Kingdom’s rulers are all advanced in years is not a great surprise. So when the Interior Minister Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a senior and long serving prince potentially destined for the crown himself, lasted only five months in the job to be replaced by a man 20 years his junior, it is time to pay attention.

Saudi media stated that Ahmed offered his resignation voluntarily, but sources in the Kingdom have universally denied that this is the case. The King it appears waited until the Ministry of the Interior’s big remit, securing the annual Hajj, was over before announcing the release of the decision, giving rise to the question as to how long Prince Ahmed’s tenure was under threat.  Given that Hajj preparation is an intensive process taking months, it is highly unlikely that Ahmed would have found himself out of a job in the midst of such an enormous planning and logistical exercise. But Ahmed’s speech at the end of Hajj in which he graciously thanked MbN for his work seems to indicate that he knew what was coming and that MbN would be the man to replace him.

Not two months ago, rumours in Saudi Arabia pointed to a struggle for MbN. He was said to be being pushed to the fringes as Ahmed cleared the decks of the Ministry. Entire modernisation programmes under MbN’s purview were brought to a halt, and individuals close to him removed from office and out of the Ministry entirely. It seemed as if MbN’s glittering career was destined to hit the buffers. Given his previous position this personal turnaround in fortunes is both surprising and intriguing.

One thing is for certain, the Americans will be happy with the change in fortune. MbN is well liked in the Washington beltway, highly regarded, and considered to be honest, fiercely opposed to corruption and very thorough in the way he has gone about reforming the Ministry of the Interior’s security services to adequately meet the threat from Al-Qaeda which began to proliferate in the early to mid 2000’s.

In many respects the quiet studious MbN is the perfect opposite of America’s other favourite son the loud flashy Prince Bandar bin Sultan, recently appointed to the Presidency of General Intelligence (Saudi Arabia’s CIA). Both men are now heading the virtual entirety of the Kingdom’s intelligence gathering apparatuses. MbN’s control over the Mabahith (secret police) and Bandar’s control over the Mukhabarat will link them closely into western counter terrorist efforts. Which given both Saudi and the west’s interests in the on-going Syria crisis, and mutual need to mitigate emerging radicalised threats emanating from Syria across the region should provide a source of comfort.

Political message

This raises the question of competency as motive for the change. Given how seriously King Abdullah viewed the potential for a jihadist blowback in Saudi following the Kingdom’s activities in supporting rebel groups against Bashar, it would make sense that a ‘young’ dynamic prince such as MbN be appointed to the helm of the Ministry. Rumours persist that at 72 Prince Ahmed is feeling his age and was never particularly desirous of the top job. What can be deduced from the appointment is that King Abdullah wanted to make it known that younger more capable princes can and will be appointed to head the ministries if need be. Certainly MbN could have been entrusted with the Syria portfolio already given his seniority in the ministry, as he had been with the portfolio of erasing Al Qaeda some years before. But he did not need to be made minister to be able to complete the task.

The appointment of MbN to minister is a political message emanating from the top of the House of Saud. It is both a reassurance and a warning, that top level princes regardless of age can and will be replaced by younger and more capable ones if necessary and that the King is willing to do what is necessary to combat problems of ageing in the elite ruling circle. Competency will win out regardless of traditional hierarchy, this despite the Al-Sauds’ historical preference for seniority.

This of course has ramifications for the succession, and brings to light the possibility that younger princes will now be in contention for the top job in the very near future. I have previously argued that few gave King Abdullah enough credit for understanding fully the ramifications of running a gerontocracy, and few understood just how assiduously he has devoted time to resolving this issue. This is but the first in a series of steps that the Kingdom will take toward introducing younger princes into public roles rather than employ them merely as senior civil servants. Soon it will be time for the younger generation to take their step towards the top positions of King and Crown Prince.

It is still too early to say that MbN will become a future King of Saudi Arabia. There is some way to go before anyone will be required to fulfil such a role, and there will be competition from Miteb bin Abdullah, Khalid bin Sultan and a number of governors such as Khalid al Faisal and Mohammed bin Fahad. At present, it would be foolish to suggest that any one of those men does not have an equal chance.  But MbN has been significantly strengthened as a result of this appointment and can certainly begin preparing the foundations for a leadership run should he wish to do so.

With a severely unstable Yemen, a stagnating and increasingly violent Bahrain, Kuwait teetering on the verge of total political anarchy, an Iraq hostile to Saudi interests, and a Saudi Arabia facing severe demographic and employment questions, the Kingdom is in need of some good news.

MbN’s appointment to the head of the Ministry is a little of that. He brings a cool capable head, is cognisant of the myriad of threats the country faces and works assiduously to solve them. Given that Ahmed’s handling of the Shia question was notably poor, even the restive Eastern Province with its Shia majority population will most likely see positive change in the way the MOI handles a very delicate and unstable issue. In time it will be seen how MbN’s role will play out, and what it means for the Kingdom, but for now at least we should view it as a positive step for the Kingdom and for the region.

About the author

Michael Stephens is a Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf