by Thomas W. Lippman
The latest shuffling of the royal lineup in Saudi Arabia certainly advances the relentless campaign by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s young son, to consolidate power in his own hands. But it also poses potential obstacles for the United States and its allies in the global effort to combat terrorism and violent extremism. The reason it may be troubling can be found in the State Department’s annual “Country Reports on Terrorism,” issued last week.
According to the report’s section on Saudi Arabia, the kingdom made across-the-board gains last year in curbing radical messages, arresting radicalized individuals, breaking up groups suspected of terrorist activities, cooperating with the United States and international agencies, and cutting down the flow of money to organizations that promote violence. The Saudis redoubled their efforts, the report said, “partly as a response to international media criticism that alleged Saudi Arabia’s export of extremism abroad.”
Furthermore, the kingdom “continued to maintain a strong counterterrorism relationship with the United States and supported enhanced bilateral cooperation to ensure the safety of both U.S. and Saudi citizens within Saudi territories and abroad.”
This positive assessment followed an earlier government report that omitted Saudi Arabia from its annual listing of “Jurisdictions of Primary Concern” on issues of money laundering and terrorism financing. U.S. allies such as Canada, Spain, and Britain achieved the dubious distinction of making that list, along with China and Russia, but not Saudi Arabia, which got mostly high marks from the State Department on this issue.
Saudi Arabia of course did not get the same straight A grades as European nations such as Austria and Norway. In particular, the State Department report noted that “some individuals and entities in Saudi Arabia probably continued to serve as sources of financial support for terrorist groups.” Often that support takes the form of hard-to-trace cash, including currency smuggled out of Saudi Arabia by radicals from other Muslim countries who entered Saudi Arabia on the pretext of making the pilgrimage to Mecca. But the Saudis are working hard to limit this flow, the State Department report said, and have largely shut down the transfer of money through banks and other channels.
On the whole, the kingdom could not have hoped for a much stronger tool to use in its effort to launder its reputation. The report can be read as an unequivocal response to the vociferous critics in Congress and around the world who have accused or suspected Saudi Arabia of supporting extremism and terrorism. The opposite is true, the State Department said.
But the gains noted in the State Department report were largely the work of the Ministry of Interior under the leadership of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, or MbN. As minister, and as assistant minister before that under the leadership of his father, the late Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, MbN had established himself in American eyes as an effective, creative, energetic, and reliable partner against terrorism.
Now MbN, who was formerly crown prince as well as interior minister, has been stripped of all his government positions and, as of last week, his former department has been disassembled.
King Salman ordered the creation of “a new authority to be called ‘the Presidency of State Security,’ [which] will be established, to deal with whatever concerns the Security of the State, with its head to be reporting to the Prime Minister.” The prime minister is the king; the 31-year-old crown prince is deputy prime minister and thus the de facto boss of the new organization, in addition to being defense minister and the head of a national committee directing economic and oil affairs. The package of royal decrees last week even appointed him supervisor of new, royal-sponsored national clubs devoted to falconry and camel husbandry.
The royal decree ordering the shuffle declared that
The following departments, currently part of the Ministry of Interior, will be annexed to the new Presidency of State Security: Investigations, special security forces, special emergency forces, security aviation, technical affairs, national information center, and other departments in charge of combating terrorism, its finance and financial investigation. Whatever concerns security of the State, including civil and military personnel, budgets, documents, and information will also be transferred to the new authority.
It may well be that the officials and agents who are transferred to the new security department will continue their work as before, while reporting through a new chain of command. What the United States loses is the personal rapport with MbN and the knowledge of Interior Ministry operations that have developed over the past decade.
U.S. officials looking for continuity may find it in the appointment of Gen. Abduzaziz al-Huwairini, a longtime colleague of MbN, as director of the new agency. The king’s order giving him that assignment was a surprise to those in Washington who’d read in The New York Times a few days earlier that he’d been booted from the government and confined to his home because of his closeness to Mohammed bin Nayef.
Even with this latest accretion of power, the crown prince still does not control the largest and best-equipped domestic security organization, the National Guard, which has been trained by American contractors for 40 years. The Guard, which is responsible for maintaining order, is under the command of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, a son of the late King Abdullah, Salman’s predecessor. Speculation has already surfaced in the region that he and his National Guard will be the crown prince’s next and biggest target.
Photo: Mohammed bin Nayef (via Wikimedia Commons)