New generation of leaders comes to the fore
London - In a dramatic reshuffle, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ensured that, after six decades of power passing through a succession of brothers, a new generation will take control of the conservative monarchy when he dies.
Salman passed over his half-brother Prince Muqrin, the 35th and youngest surviving son of Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdul-Aziz, to name his nephew, current Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince and successor to the throne. A royal decree issued April 29th relieved Muqrin of his position as crown prince and second deputy prime minster, saying it was done on his own request.
Salman named his son, Minister of Defence Prince Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince, the second in line to the throne.
Seventy-five-year-old Prince Saud al-Faisal, foreign minister since 1975, also stepped down due to health reasons and was replaced with the kingdom’s former ambassador to the United States, Adel Al- Jubeir.
The succession has long been a favourite topic with Saudi political watchers and analysts, with many speculating about the mechanics involved behind the closed doors of Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council, the government body assigned with the task since 2007. The reshuffle of what has become known as the “triangle of power” marks the first time since 1953 that the positions of crown prince and his deputy are held by members from a new generation from the royal family.
“I think we’re going to see a more confrontational policy, faster decision-making and more long-term thinking. A leadership that won’t hesitate from any confrontation,” Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to the kingdom’s Interior Ministry, told Reuters.
Mohammed bin Nayef, globally known the kingdom’s counterterrorism tsar, was born in 1959 and became interior minister in 2012, the youngest Saudi royal to be named to such a high-ranking post. He oversaw a crackdown on al- Qaeda following a wave of deadly attacks on the Gulf state from 2003 to 2006.
Western governments noted his successes in confronting the global extremist network and his men were the first to detect and prevent al-Qaeda attacks, said one expert. The prince’s reputation put him in the firing line. He survived an attack by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in August 2009 when a suicide bomber infiltrated his security. Mohammed suffered superficial injuries when the bomber killed himself.
According to Mohammed al- Zulfa, a former member of the kingdom’s consultative council, “The reason he’s been able to reach these heights is based on his diligent work at the Interior Ministry. He also has exceptional ties with both liberals and conservatives, and his work with dealing with those who have transgressed out of what our religion (terrorists) deems as acceptable is well documented.”
Zufla said Mohammed bin Nayef’s work in bringing former militants back into the fold of Saudi society through the CARE rehabilitation programme was testament to the prince’s abilities. “He also has an outlook and a vision both domestically and regionally concerning the challenges facing the kingdom, so in many ways his appointment is perfect timing,” Zufla said.
According to Jane Kinninmont, the deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, “The reshuffle indicates the king’s determination to press ahead with the transition to the next generation of Saudi leaders, and to consolidate the power of his son, Mohammed bin Salman. It smacks of a confident and assertive new king, but also raises some questions about the balance of power within the royal family.”
“Mohammed bin Nayef was already in line to be the first prince from the third generation of Al Saud to take the throne. King Salman has overturned King Abdullah’s decision to put Prince Muqrin in place as the next king, but empowering Mohammed bin Nayef continues a trend that had already begun under King Abdullah,” she said.
Mohammed bin Nayef, she said, is well liked in the West as he is seen as taking a more holistic approach to security than his father, former interior minister Prince Nayef. His programme of rehabilitation for would-be jihadis has had a mixed record as a small percentage of those involved returned to jihadi groups, but it symbolised his determination to use religious, ideological, social and economic tools as part of security, not just traditional policing and punishment.
Mohammed bin Nayef is also seen as one of the key forces behind the current programme of labour-force nationalisation, designed to get more Saudis into jobs and make it harder for the private sector to employ quite so many foreign workers. He sees unemployment as a security issue, among other things.
Concerning the new deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Kinninmont told The Arab Weekly, “is less well known and his rapid rise this year has taken a lot of Saudi-watchers in the West by surprise. At the age of 34, he now holds four of the kingdom’s top jobs.
“His designation as deputy crown prince indicates his father’s trust in him and his approval of the air strikes in Yemen, even if these are yet to have a decisive result on the ground. The extent to which he can work effectively with Mohammed bin Nayef will be one of the key issues for Saudi policymaking, as between them the two Mohammeds hold much of the power in Saudi Arabia.”
“Meanwhile the appointment of a younger-generation non-royal as foreign minister continues the trend of empowering younger-generation leaders and brings a technocrat into a position traditionally held by royals,” she said.