Saudi Arabia’s king promotes his son—and ousts the best counter-terrorist in the Mideast

DATE IMPORTED:April 30, 2017Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (L) speaks with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef during a reception ceremony in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia April 30, 2017. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Editor's note:

Mohammed bin Nayef’s sacking has removed key expertise from Saudi Arabia’s security services and America’s best friend from the line of succession, writes Bruce Riedel. In contrast to his predecessor, the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is more recklessness in decision-making, Riedel argues. This piece was originally published by The Daily Beast.

The sacking of Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior Mohammed bin Nayef removes a central figure from the Kingdom’s war on terror.  MBN, as he is known, has exceptional expertise and institutional memory as the leading counter-terrorist in the region.  He is also America’s best friend in the family.

King Salman removed the 57-year-old Bin Nayef and replaced him as heir to the throne with his favorite son, 31-year-old Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.  The move has been anticipated for two years.  Last year the expectations became so intense that MBN spent six weeks in Algiers waiting for the axe.  The successful Riyadh summit with President Donald Trump and 50 Muslim leaders may have emboldened the 81-year-old king to move.  MBN already has pledged his loyalty to his younger cousin.  So have the senior princes.
Mohammed bin Nayef was groomed by his father to be Minister of the Interior.  He was trained by the FBI and Scotland Yard.  He has survived numerous assassination attempts by al Qaeda, although at some cost to his health.  No other Saudi royal has his credentials, experience and work ethic in this demanding role.  He commanded the loyalty of the family and the powerful religious establishment because he had defeated Osama bin Laden’s attempt to overthrow the royal regime a decade ago.

The Ministry of the Interior is the most powerful institution in the government with an estimated million employees.  It is the heart of the Saudi “deep state.”  It stifles all dissent as well as the terrorist threat from al Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State and Iranian subversion.  It ensures the loyalty of the nation.  Along with sacking MBN the king announced other personnel changes in the Ministry and the General Intelligence Directorate.

Mohammed bin Nayef is a close friend of the American security services.  Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Michael Pompeo awarded the prince the agency’s George Tenet medal in February for his years of working with the United States.  His service foiled numerous plots in Europe and the United States, including a plot to blow up a commercial aircraft over Chicago.  No successor will have his mastery of the international community of intelligence services.

MBN eschewed the media by and large, keeping his profile low.  He is risk averse from a political and public relations point of view.  Mohammed bin Salman is the opposite.  He craves publicity.  He is also reckless.  The two-and-a-half-year-old war in Yemen is his signature policy initiative.  The Saudis are bogged down in a quagmire with enormous consequences for the people of Yemen, where the war has brought malnutrition and mass starvation.  Cholera has broken out.  A child dies every 10 minutes as a consequence of the war.   Seven million people are at acute risk. The United Nations has called the crisis the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

MBS, now heir apparent, is also a central figure in the Saudi campaign to isolate its small neighbor Qatar.  That campaign has splintered the Islamic alliance the king pulled together at the summit with Trump.  It may also prove to be the demise of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a key ally for the United States in the region since the 1980s.

No candidate has been named yet for the job of Deputy Crown Prince to replace Mohammed bin Salman.  Presumably the next in line will be younger than MBS.  Age matters to the royal family.   The King has been very vigorous this year with the Riyadh summit and a month long trip to Asia, but his health is suspect.

The line of succession in the kingdom has moved laterally among the sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, for over 60 years.  Salman is the end of the line of kings who could trace their legitimacy to Ibn Saud directly.  MBS is going to have to establish his own legitimacy at a time when the kingdom faces an acute economic challenge from low oil prices and the region is in enormous turmoil.  The Saudi royal family are survivors, but they are in stormy weather and, now, without their most experienced leader.