The king has died. Long live the king. Saudi Arabia today is a medieval system whose horrid human rights practices match its antiquated political system. King Abdullah died Thursday; King Salman ascended the throne Friday. Official Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the swift and smooth transition. President Barack Obama visited Riyadh to pay his respects—or, some would say, demonstrated his obeisance.
Saudi Arabia’s new top leadership: King Salman, right, Crown Prince Muqrin, center, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, left. By Saudi Press Agency, via Associated Press BEN HUBBARD and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK JAN. 26, 2015
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister of Saudi Arabia, arrived at a meeting of security chiefs from across the Arab world in Marrakesh, Morocco, last March to deliver a call to arms: It was time, he declared, for a concerted effort to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, according to two Arab officials briefed on the meeting.
Several were stunned at his audacity. Brotherhood-style Islamists are an accepted part of politics in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco itself, to say nothing of their warm welcome in Qatar, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the powerful Saudi prince.
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As world dignitaries including President Obama fly here this week to congratulate the new monarch, King Salman, it is Prince Mohammed’s appointment to deputy crown prince that has captured attention across the Middle East. Analysts and diplomats say his elevation is a harbinger of the Saudi leadership’s longer-term vision for their state and the region, but it also raises thorny questions about royal politics among the hundreds of princes who may feel passed over.
Prince Mohammed’s rise in prominence comes amid newly tense relations between Riyadh and Washington, and while his focus on counterterrorism is in line with the White House’s, it is uncertain that he would be any less hostile to the continuing negotiations between Washington and Iran over itsnuclear program, or to signals that the White House is no longer pushing for the ouster of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
At the same time, Prince Mohammed’s security-first approach to preserving stability and silencing political opposition has been criticized by human rights groups and has often been cited as a motivation by those who support radical Islamist groups.
As interior minister, Prince Mohammed oversees a range of internal security forces; protects vital oil infrastructure; and commands a domestic intelligence network that keeps him informed about the secrets of the kingdom. He has also played a critical security role in almost every sensitive Saudi international file as well, including dealing with Bahrain, Qatar, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinians.
Prince Mohammed works closely with American intelligence and has such close ties to the White House that he has met twice, in Washington and Riyadh, with Mr. Obama.
“He is the strongest prince,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University who studies Saudi Arabia. “He is the most powerful guy in the system. He is the pivot.”
As a younger half brother of King Abdullah, who died last week, King Salman, 79, has been next in line for the throne for years. And like those two men, the new crown prince, Muqrin, 69, is also a son of Saudi Arabia’s founder.
But Prince Mohammed, 55, is the first of the founder’s grandsons to be named as an heir to the throne, and his coronation would make him the first of his generation to lead the kingdom.
Many took his appointment as an attempt to underscore the dynasty’s stability, laying out its rulers for decades to come.
“They have told the people of Saudi Arabia that everything is going to be stable for the next 30 years, so don’t worry about the transition,” said James B. Smith, a former United States ambassador to Riyadh. “And it is a strategic message to everyone else who wants to try to second-guess the whole transition idea.”
Prince Mohammed, moreover, has only daughters, so he is not perceived to have a personal interest in positioning specific heirs to succeed him. “It means he is a player for the system, who cares about the family as a whole more than he does about himself,” Professor Haykel said.
But unlike the older generation, made up of a few dozen men, Prince Mohammed’s cohort has an estimated 600 princes, and some analysts suggest that his selection could anger cousins or even uncles who were not chosen.
“It sets into motion some very strange family dynamics, none of which appear very good,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute who studies Saudi Arabia.
While either of the next two kings could technically name someone else as a successor, many who know Prince Mohammed say he has stood out for his hard work and integrity. Whenever a security officer is killed in the kingdom, he is known to pay his respects to the family in person, said Mustafa Alani, a scholar at the Gulf Research Center. And when King Abdullah’s death was announced, Prince Mohammed was not in Riyadh jockeying for position; he was at a counterterrorism conference in London.
“He is the hardest-working person I have ever seen in any government, and I spent a lot of time with him,” said Mr. Smith, the former ambassador.
Unlike King Abdullah or King Salman, who studied at the court, Prince Mohammed was educated in the West and graduated from Lewis & Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Ore.
Because of his Western education, Prince Mohammed is believed to favor liberalization on matters like education and opportunities for women. But he has made few public statements on social issues, and experts say his security mind-set makes him unlikely to push for changes that might endanger his family’s legitimacy as the guardians of the kingdom’s ultraconservative version of Islam.
“None of these people are ideological,” Professor Haykel said. “There is no commitment to anything beyond their interests.”
Prince Mohammed is a second-generation security chief, the son of the former interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. As deputy minister under his father, Prince Mohammed was credited with a leading role helping Saudi Arabia fend off Al Qaeda and other Islamist militants over the last decade.
Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray Prince Mohammed as personally motivated to fight militant Islam and in tight cooperation with the United States.
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“Terrorists stole the most valuable things we have,” Prince Mohammed told Richard C. Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the United Nations, in 2008. “They took our faith and our children and used them to attack us.”
State Department officials credit Prince Mohammed with developing a distinctive approach to combating terrorist recruiting in the kingdom, working directly with the families of dead militants. By providing support to the families “and telling them their sons had been ‘victims’ and not ‘criminals,’ ” the program gave the families “a way out” and provided a public relations advantage to the government.
“If you stop five but create 50,” Prince Mohammed was quoted as saying, “that’s dumb.”
Prince Mohammed was also eager to cooperate with the United States. In 2009, he called their law enforcement and intelligence agencies “one team” and said he had asked the king for permission to maintain a special “security channel” to exchange information with Washington regardless of the ups and downs of bilateral relations. But that focus on security has included a broader crackdown on dissent.
Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, said that while law enforcement under Prince Mohammed’s father had often been arbitrary, Prince Mohammed had professionalized and formalized it.
“The actual outcomes for people are worse,” Mr. Coogle said. “You did this or said that, so you are sentenced to 15 years.”
Among the laws used to stifle dissent are a so-called cybercrimes law and a terrorism law implemented last year that allows for the prosecution of acts that “undermine the security of the society” or “endanger its national unity.” The law gives the interior minister broad powers over detention and has been used to jail many nonviolent dissidents, Mr. Coogle said.
“He is the architect of the crackdown on and jailing of these activists with ludicrously harsh sentences,” Mr. Coogle said. “This is all on his watch.”
Still, after a recent attack on members of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority in its eastern province, Prince Mohammed flew to the funeral to pay his respects — an important gesture for a Saudi royal.
In 2009, Prince Mohammed was lightly wounded when a militant who came to his palace saying he wanted reform blew up a bomb hidden in a body cavity. Though some criticized Prince Mohammed for letting his guard down, Mr. Alani, of the Gulf Research Center, said that Prince Mohammed had told his guard not to search the man so as not to humiliate him.
“It showed that this man is not delegating things to his assistants,” Mr. Alani said.
Correction: January 29, 2015
An article on Tuesday about suggestions of a shift in Saudi Arabian foreign policy with the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who takes a hard line on security matters, to second in line to the Saudi throne misstated the given name and omitted the middle initial of a former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia who said the move was an effort to underscore the dynasty’s stability. He is James B. Smith, not Jeffrey. In addition, a contributors’ note was omitted. David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo — not from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the dateline for the article. (Ben Hubbard reported from Riyadh.)
Ben Hubbard reported from Riyadh, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.