The new crown prince of Saudi Arabia was in Washington this week to cement Gulf ties with the United States. His role as a counter-terrorism champion makes him a pivotal regional figure.
Newsmaker: Mohammed bin Nayef
Whether or not a person can ever truly change is something Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has probably thought about very deeply.
As the man who ran the country’s interior ministry for many years, Prince Mohammed, 55, staked much of his personal reputation on a programme that aims to rehabilitate religious militants and reintegrate them into society.
These are men who left Saudi Arabia for wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. Some of the fighters, who left home to wage this self-proclaimed “jihad”, spent years at in Guantanamo Bay, before being sent back to Saudi Arabia.
Upon reaching the kingdom, some were enrolled in a deradicalisation programme championed by Prince Mohammed, the face of a new generation of Saudi leaders who rose to prominence through his work at Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry. His story is inherently connected to attacks by extremists inside the kingdom and the two-pronged approach he has advocated to combat them.
Last month, he was made crown prince, the first of the grandsons of King Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, expected to become king, a move that shifted the succession line to a new generation.
Today, one of his key achievements, the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center, has seen more than 3,000 Saudi Arabian men graduate from its programme since its establishment in 2006.
The programme has been successful in turning men away from violence. But sometimes the transition cannot happen, as Prince Mohammed knows only too well: once a militant who claimed he wanted to surrender attempted to assassinate the prince in a suicide bombing.
Change was likely on Prince Mohammed’s mind when he flew to the United States this week to meet the US president Barack Obama. Gulf Cooperation Council leaders were gathered with Obama to enhance cooperation between Gulf Arab states and the US.
The GCC states also wanted assurances about a deal the US was involved in negotiating, along with other world powers, over Iran’s nuclear programme. There were concerns a deal would result in Tehran increasing its regional influence, following the expected lifting of international sanctions.
Expectations for the meetings were tempered by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud deciding not to attend. Prince Mohammed was sent in his place, along with the king’s son, the deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz.
Prince Mohammed doubtless got a sense of where Saudi Arabia and GCC capitals stood with Washington, and where the relationship is heading. These are factors that he will have to weigh carefully, especially if and when he becomes Saudi Arabia’s monarch. While Washington says it remains committed to its partners in the region and wants to establish a framework for working together more closely, there is a sense that US objectives in Asia are beginning to have the greater priority.
With King Salman not attending the summit, it allowed Prince Mohammed to further enhance his position as a security chief and increase his understanding of Washington.
Prince Mohammed was born in Jeddah on August 30, 1959. He’s a son of Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was interior minister, first deputy prime minister and crown prince until his death in 2012, and Al Jawhara bint Abdulaziz bin Musaed Al Jiluwi. His brother, Saud, is currently governor of Saudi Arabia’s restive Eastern Province. Prince Mohammed is married to Princess Reema bint Sultan bin Abdulaziz, with whom he has two children, Princess Sarah and Princess Lulu.
Not a great deal is known about Prince Mohammed’s early life. He attended high school in Riyadh. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he took classes in the US state of Oregon, at Lewis & Clark College and Portland State University. A faculty member at Lewis & Clark remembered him as “a very nice young man, very humble”. The time spent in the socially liberal Pacific Northwest probably gave Prince Mohammed a wider sense of the world beyond conservative Saudi Arabia, along with insights into the US.
From early on, it seemed he was groomed for an important role in Saudi Arabia. From 1985 to 1988, he took security classes with the FBI. Then, from 1992 to 1994, he trained in counter-terrorism methods with the United Kingdom’s Scotland Yard. He also attended security courses in Saudi Arabia.
For a number of years, he worked in private business, which reportedly included the exclusive right to import gas masks following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Then, in 1999, he was appointed to join his father in countering domestic threats, as an assistant minister of interior for security affairs.
In May and November 2003, Al Qaeda bombed several residential compounds in Riyadh. Saudis, other Arabs and westerners were among the 56 people killed.
Prince Mohammed claimed an early victory against Al Qaeda in the kingdom when one of the alleged masterminds of the May attacks, Ali Abdulrahman Said Alfagsi, surrendered in Jeddah, after becoming the target of a massive manhunt.
Sadly, further attacks followed in 2004: in Yanbu Al Bahr on May 1, killing seven people; Al Khobar on May 29 and 30, which killed 22; and December 6, when an attack on the US consulate in Jeddah killed nine people. Smaller-scale attacks and assassinations, mostly of westerners, continued around the kingdom.
Though there were suspicions that Al Qaeda had sleeper cells or sympathisers within the security forces, Prince Mohammed pursued the terrorists relentlessly.
On December 29, 2004, two suicide bombers attacked outside the interior ministry, killing one other person and causing damage to the building. In 2005, a turning point was reached when security forces killed 15 militants in Ar Rass in the Al Qasim region. Thousands were arrested in security sweeps. By 2006, Al Qaeda’s network in Saudi Arabia was considered mostly dismantled.
Prince Mohammed was widely credited for this. His father, who had a number of other responsibilities as crown prince and first deputy prime minister, had delegated much of the day-to-day running of the interior ministry to Prince Mohammed.
He was at times criticised for a harsh, security-first approach to combating terror in the kingdom, as he made efforts to continue the interior ministry’s deradicalisation programme.
Many of the men who went abroad to fight had been young, craved adventure and were frustrated with a leadership that they perceived to be out of touch.
As part of the deradicalisation programme, clerics spoke to them about how they had distorted the teachings of Islam. They were allowed to continue their education and have access to a gym, a swimming pool and other amenities, while living in a former resort not far from Riyadh.
The militants were treated gently, according to reports, apparently with the intention of showing them that there was an alternative to the life of an extremist, and also to convince others to return home. The men were given the opportunity to get married; wives were allowed to visit on weekends. Many of the men who graduated were successfully reintegrated into society. Others weren’t. Still, Prince Mohammed kept a hand open to militants who wanted a fresh start.
It was a risky strategy. In 2009, Prince Mohammed’s office received a call from Abdullah Al Asiri a 23-year-old Saudi man who had left the kingdom to join Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Al Asiri said he wanted to arrange for a number of Saudi Arabian citizens in Yemen to return home. They wanted a personal guarantee from Prince Mohammed that they wouldn’t be jailed if they did return.
Al Asiri was brought by plane to Jeddah and then to Prince Mohammed’s palace. Once there, Al Asiri called his fellow militants in Yemen, passing the phone to Prince Mohammed before setting off a bomb inserted in his rectum. But instead of exploding outwards, the blast went upwards, taking off Al Asiri’s head. Prince Mohammed survived, suffering minor wounds.
Following his counter-terrorism successes, Prince Mohammed was last year also handed responsibility for the kingdom’s policy towards Syria. Many Saudi citizens had gone to fight there and the kingdom was worried what might happen if they came back.
With his newly increased prominence, observers will be focused on Prince Mohammed to try to decipher what direction he will send Saudi Arabia in the future.
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