Mohammed bin Nayef: the crown prince destined never to wear the crown
ABU DHABI // His appointment as crown prince of Saudi Arabia a little over two years ago, was heralded as the end of over 60 years of succession by the sons of Abdulaziz ibn Saud.
Yet in the end, it was not Prince Mohammed bin Nayef who was destined to become the first of the next generation to rule over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
His replacement by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of King Salman, and his removal as interior minister, also signals the end of the political life of one of the most recognisable Saudi figures on the international stage.
Approaching his 60th year, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has long been a familiar figure on the international circuit, especially in the United States, where he has reinforced the close ties between Washington and Riyadh under both Presidents Obama and Trump.
Both inside and outside the kingdom, he forged a reputation as a determined and sometimes ruthless enemy to the forces of extremism. After a series of deadly terrorist attacks between 2003 and 2005, Prince Mohammed is credited with a security crackdown that had thousands arrested but saw Al Qaeda driven from the country within a year.
Three years later, he agreed to a meeting with a Saudi recruit to Al Qaeda in Yemen who claimed he spoke for several of his fellow countrymen who wished to surrender and return home. It was an assassination attempt: The young man had a bomb implanted inside his body but the explosion left the prince with only minor injuries.
That experience did not deter Prince Mohammed from his other strategy for dealing with those seduced by extremism. Young Saudis who had left home to fight abroad were allowed to enter a de-indoctrination progamme that would allow them to re-enter society, while providing support the families of dead militants, who had previously faced being ostracised.
To date, more than 3,000 Saudi Arabian men have successfully graduated from his Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center; one of his enduring achievements.
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Educated first in Riyadh and then in colleges in the United States, the young prince was groomed early for his role in counter terrorism, training first with the FBI and then with Scotland Yard in London.
His experiences left him with an easy familiarity with the West, and an openness to foreign media. According to the New York Times, he once summed up his rehabilitation strategy for terrorists by saying: “If you stop five but create 50, that’s dumb.”
As far back as 2012, the prince was warning that Yemen was in danger of becoming a failed state, and as the chair of the Council for Political and Security Affairs, played a leading role in the Saudi military coalition fighting to restore President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi and the fight against Houthi militants.
His efforts have brought international recognition; from the French Legion of Honour last year to the CIA’s prestigious George Tenet medal for contributions to fighting terrorism, just four months ago.
In 2016, Time Magazine made him one of its 100 Most Influential People. For James B Smith, President Barack Obama’s ambassador in Riyadh until 2013, Prince Mohammed was: “The hardest working person I have seen in any government.”
At home, the prince has championed greater rights for women, opening up positions for them to work at the Saudi intelligence agency, the General Directorate of Intelligence, and telling a Bloomberg interviewer this April: “We support women for the future and I don’t think there are obstacles we can’t overcome.”
For many observers, his appointment as crown prince was message to the Saudi people; a reassurance of stability and continuity during a time of sweeping domestic reforms. If Prince Mohammed is not now destined to rule his people, he has at least smoothed the path for his successor.