Maintaining the balance of power in Saudi Arabia

18 December 2012

The deaths of several senior Saudi royals and the elevation of a new generation of rulers risks upsetting the careful equilibrium at the heart of the region’s largest economy

With a younger generation of princes acceding to prominent positions in government, a wind of change is blowing through the House of Saud, which promises lasting change at the helm of the Middle East’s most important economy.

The deaths of two long-serving bastions of Saudi authority, successive crown princes Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz – also the Defence and Aviation Minister – in October 2011 and then Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz in July 2012, has opened gaps at the top of the tree that will accelerate the handover of power to a third generation of Saudi princes – the grandsons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz al-Saud. 

Striking shift with the Saudi ruling family

The appointment on 5th November of 53-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, son of the former crown prince, to take over his father’s fief, represents the most striking shift in the personnel arrangements of the Saudi ruling family in many years. In a country where succession planning has become an obsession, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s assumption to a key institution of state has led to feverish speculation about whether the rising star of Saudi royalty is being groomed for the top position.

There is a strong sense the House of Saud is taking action so that a power vacuum does not open up at the top

Rumours soon abounded that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef would take the number three position in the royal pecking order, as second deputy Prime Minister, although the position remains empty. The Interior Minister’s appointment, just five months after his predecessor, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, was named successor to Prince Nayef, has led many to view this as a significant pointer to the identity of the future monarch. With King Abdullah in poor health and the subject of false death rumours in late November, there is a strong sense the House of Saud is taking action so that a power vacuum does not open up at the top.

The king’s official successor, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, 76 years old himself, is not in robust health. Concern has mounted that the imminent demise of the two most senior royals could leave the kingdom bereft of authority and cohesion at a time when Saudi influence in the region is critical. It is this recognition that may ultimately have dictated the decision to skip a generation and instead cede control to the younger men represented by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The latter is not the only younger prince to rise up the ranks. Another recently elevated member of the Al-Saud family is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the new head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID).

A longer-standing figure than Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 63-year-old Prince Bandar is well known to Western policy makers as a former ambassador to the US, where he established close connections with Western intelligence agencies. More than two decades spent in Washington ensured him the ear of senior incumbents at the Oval Office, notably President George Bush, during whose presidency the prince was a regular visitor to the Bush family ranch in Texas.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s main brief is domestic security, leaving Prince Bandar to tackle Saudi Arabia’s regional opponents, notably Iran and Syria. With Qatar making diplomatic gains by taking a leading stance on policy towards Syria and the recent Arab Uprisings, Prince Bandar’s activism will be particularly prized, not least with the long-serving Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, reportedly suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

“Princes Bandar and Mohammed will have extraordinary responsibilities,” says Theodore Karasik, a Gulf-based analyst at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis. “As head of the GID, Prince Bandar is charged with halting the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to control the spread of domestic jihadism.”

Prominence increases

With Prince Bandar, the kingdom now has a big-hitter on board with the personality and contacts to capitalise on Riyadh’s influence in diplomatic circles. Riyadh’s voice is starting to be heard much louder in regional capitals and beyond.

Other prominent princes from the younger generation include Prince Saud, who heads the court of Crown Prince Salman, and Prince Bandar’s brother, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, a deputy defence minister whose personal ambition to succeed Prince Salman as defence minister may have been undermined by the fact that his campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels last year was not viewed as an unqualified success.

Much is also expected of Mecca governor Prince Khaled bin Faisal. The widely respected son of the late King Faisal, and brother of Foreign Minister Prince Khalid bin Faisal, is the Faisal family’s main future prospect, given the advanced age of Prince Saud and influential former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.  

King Abdullah’s own son, 60-year old Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, will also figure prominently in his role as the head of the powerful Saudi Arabia National Guard (Sang), one of the key institutions within the security triumvirate alongside the Interior Ministry and Ministry of Defence & Aviation (Moda). Sang is the elite unit of tribal forces whose primary purpose is to protect the royal family. Long the fief of King Abdullah, it acts as a counterbalance to the other two branches of military power.  

In the past, Moda, the bailiwick of Prince Sultan; the Interior Ministry, controlled by Prince Nayef; and the tribal units of Sang, answerable to King Abdullah, acted as balancing forces against each other. “This structure ensured a balance as each was independent and would help to prevent a coup as there were three legs to the stool,” says a Saudi-based lawyer. “It served the kingdom well.” But two of these men are now dead and Abdullah’s health appears fragile.

Power balance in Saudi Arabia

Were a younger generation prince to attempt to take control of a rival institution, the balance of power could be upset. “If you have Prince Mitab becoming the head of Moda, as some have speculated, would you then have a merger of the National Guard and Moda,” asks the lawyer. “How would that affect the balance of power?”

As Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is unlikely to do away with the rulebook set by his father, with a firm grip on security and a zero-tolerance approach to domestic subversion. His credentials are solid, as the architect of the successful rout of Al-Qaeda during the Jihadist uprising that broke out in 2003.

He will likely display both the good and bad cop sides as Interior Minister; as shown by the robust anti-terror strategy against jihadist violence in the mid-2000s, as well as the jihadi rehabilitation programme that brought in Al-Qaeda operatives.

Though lacking his father’s close ties to the conservative clerical establishment, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has reached out to a broader coalition of Saudi opinion. “The prince wants to appear to be a modern guy,” says Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based critic of the Saudi ruling family. “The Americans love him and he wants to keep them happy by avoiding doing things that make them upset or embarrassed.”

There is some generational shift, but I think it has been smooth so far, it’s not shaken the Saudi ruling family

Ali al-Ahmed, US-based critic of House of Saud

This means persisting with a tough approach towards Shia protesters, who have fomented unrest in Qatif (Western opposition to security crackdowns on Shia demonstrators in the Eastern Province has been muted), but undertaking a more sensitive strategy in dealing with issues related to the status of women, which are a hot button issue in Western capitals.

The jihadi rehab programme demonstrated that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef can play a public-relations-savvy game, winning garlands by selling the programme as an innovative Saudi method of rooting out extremism. Yet it may be harder to retain that bank of goodwill if the Interior Ministry takes a hard line on Twitter users daring to air criticism of the authorities. That is unlikely to perturb the prince. At just 53 years of age, a novice in House of Saud terms, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is still young enough to make mistakes and learn from them.

More important perhaps is that his appointment, and any subsequent shifts in the make-up of the senior leadership, does not weaken the ultimate authority of the Saudi royal family.

Orchestrating change

The most important task facing the House of Saud is to manage the generational change smoothly, preventing power struggles breaking out between the rival camps that make up Saudi royalty. There are concerns that changes in personnel, ushered in at speed, could unsettle policy. Few though would bet against the Saudi leadership pulling it off.

“There is some generational shift, but I think it has been smooth so far, it’s not shaken the family,” says Al-Ahmed. “Yes, it might pose problems in the future having cousins ruling together, but we haven’t seen much fallout from these arrangements in Kuwait, for example. There will doubtless be problems, but it won’t be a death blow.”

So long as the different centres of power are maintained and they all broadly work towards the same goals, the next generation of Saudi princes are likely to succeed in holding the kingdom together – and finish the job of modernisation started by King Abdullah.

Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef survival skills

The new Saudi Interior Minister first made international headlines when he survived an assassination attempt in August 2009 from a Yemeni-born suicide bomber, Abdullah al-Asiri. Though detonated within metres of the then-deputy Interior Minister, he survived the explosion intact.

The incident proved to be the making of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, both in that his success at dismantling jihadist networks had made him a figure worth targeting, and in that his experience of surviving such a potentially brutal attack revealed him as the one senior prince who could boast of making a personal blood sacrifice.

His appointment as Interior Minister will be well received in the US, where security officials credit him with building communication channels that helped avert several attempted attacks by Al-Qaeda on Western targets.

The jihadist rehabilitation programme, a hearts-and-minds strategy to counter terrorism, may have not been deployed so successfully had Prince Mohammed bin Nayef not thrown his weight behind it.

It is too early to judge whether the new minister will prove to be a modernising force. However, a Saudi-based lawyer says his extraordinary competence marks him out from the crowd. “He’s already proven himself,” says the lawyer. “He led the anti-terrorism effort for many years and was almost killed as a result, but is highly respected by the US government and other governments who work closely with him on these issues. He gets high marks from those people, as well as from Saudis. He’s seen as a very strategic thinker and a very effective administrator. That has to be a good thing.”

Key fact

The king’s official successor, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, is 76 years old

Source: MEED

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