Saudi-watchers and bloggers – and the official media – are having a field day over the appointment of the kingdom’s new interior minister, Mohammed Bin Nayef. The significance of the sudden move is that he is the first of the younger generation of the Al Saud to be given one of the top jobs in the kingdom — which is being taken as a good indicator of the likely future succession.
King Abdullah is 89 and in poor health, Crown Prince Salman 76 and frail. Bin Nayef is well known and respected in the west, especially by its security and intelligence agencies, from his years as deputy minister of the interior, coordinating counter-terrorist efforts and running a successful “de-radicalisation” programme for repentant jihadis. He had an extraordinarily lucky escape in August 2009 when an al-Qaida suicide bomber from Yemen blew himself up in the minister’s palace but left his target only lightly injured. Panegyrics in the Saudi press predictably focus on his vision, humanity and peerless security record.
MBN, as he is known in leaked US diplomatic cables, is just 53 and thus counts as a youngster in the Saudi system. He is the son of the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who died last June after serving as interior minister for three decades. The US-educated Mohammed replaces his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, who took on the role after his brother Nayef died. There has been speculation that he was replaced because the king was angry over recent incidents in the restive Eastern Provinces and other security lapses. On Monday, 10 recently released Saudi militants were arrested after a clash with border guards as they attempted to infiltrate into Yemen. Two soldiers were killed.
If the immediate motives for the appointment are unclear the longer-term significance of the family background seems obvious. The bottom line is that MBN is the first grandson of the kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud to be appointed to one of the main leadership positions in the country in recent years. It certainly puts him in the running to be crown prince-in-waiting – and a future king. Change at the top in Saudi Arabia still takes place at a glacial pace – despite (or perhaps because of) the winds of change elsewhere in the region. This therefore counts, most observers agree, as a highly significant move.
In the words of the veteran Saudi-watcher Simon Henderson:
For the United States and others, the appointment will force observers to recalibrate their understanding of Saudi Arabia’s power structure. And to the extent that the reshuffle was not predicted, it will spark new awareness of the opacity of the kingdom’s decision- making.
But back in 2009 MBN was marked as a favourite by Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, the Emirati commentator, who pointed to another factor which seems to put the new minister in line for the very top job:
MBN’s claims to the throne are unrivalled in one aspect: out of some thousands of Al-Saud royals, including the top 100 or so involved in security affairs, MBN is one of the very few to be able to claim that he has ‘paid in blood’ for his country – and that is a tough claim to beat.