Nov. 14, 2015 by Darius
Last week, I saw Brookings fellow Bruce Riedel talk about the unique role of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, in spearheading the fight against jihad in the Middle East.
Known as “the prince of counterterrorism,” Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN in counterterrorism circles, was born in 1959. He studied at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon and later received training in police work from both the FBI and Scotland Yard. Following his education, he was put in charge of the Saudi government’s counterterrorism program.
In 2003, MBN’s skills were put to the test when al-Qaeda launched an aggressive campaign of terrorism in Saudi Arabia itself dedicated to overthrowing the House of Saud. For three years, Mohammed bin Nayef led the kingdom’s response, and by 2006, al-Qaeda was defeated. Al-Qaeda has never again carried out a campaign of attacks in Saudi Arabia or posed a threat to the regime. Mohammed bin Nayef also pioneered an ongoing terrorist rehabilitation program that seeks to integrate former terrorists back into society. According to Riedel, the Saudi reintegration program boasts a success rate of nearly 80%, dwarfing the success rate of the US prison system. However, as Riedel noted, the Saudi program cannot effectively be applied elsewhere due to its high costs and use of tactics the West finds rather distasteful, such as threatening a former terrorist’s family if he doesn’t stay on the straight and narrow.
Riedel also spoke about Mohammed bin Nayef’s current position in Saudi Arabia. Although MBN is currently the crown prince and presumptive heir to the throne, according to Riedel if and when MBN ascends the throne, he will have less domestic legitimacy than all of his predecessors due to the simple fact that he will be the first Saudi king to be a grandson, rather than a son, of Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of the Saudi state. However, Riedel said that Mohammed bin Nayef is likely the most pro-American Saudi prince since the days of King Fahd (1982-2005). MBN’s pro-American stance is somewhat surprising given the fact that his father, Prince Nayef (who did not rule), was always deeply suspicious of the US. However, as Riedel put it, if generational change is coming to Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is the guy the US wants to do it.
However, according to Riedel, MBN’s domestic position is far from assured. His main rival is Mohammed bin Salman, son of the current Saudi ruler, King Salman, and deputy crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman is in many ways the opposite of MBN. Nobody knows for sure how old Mohammed bin Salman is (Riedel thinks he is 29), and he was never educated outside Saudi Arabia. Riedel felt Mohammed bin Salman’s age alone should disqualify him from playing a significant role in Saudi Arabia, in which age and experience have always been important qualities in the leadership. Nevertheless, Mohammed bin Salman is extraordinarily ambitious, and over the course of the last year, he has amassed a huge amount of power. Today, Mohammed bin Salman is the head of the official courts of both the king and the crown prince, which gives him control over access to the king and crown prince. In addition, Mohammed bin Salman is the head of the council that sets Saudi oil policy, and, he is the Minister of Defense. Finally, he is the public face of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
According to Riedel, Saudis are far from enthusiastic about the rise of Mohammed bin Salman. In fact, divisions in the royal court are sharper than they have been in years. Riedel cited a rumor circulating Saudi Arabia: that Mohammed bin Salman and his entourage caused the recent lethal Hajj stampede as they moved through the area, blocking key exits. Although there is probably little substance to the rumor, according to Riedel, the fact that it has become widespread enough for the Saudi government to formally deny it speaks volumes about public confidence in Mohammed bin Salman.
Riedel felt that, in the end, Mohammed bin Nayef will probably be a good king, despite facing the usual gamut of challenges. Ironically, according to Riedel, the biggest threat to Mohammed bin Nayef’s reign will come before it even begins, should King Salman decide to further elevate his own son, the 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, at MBN’s expense.