Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef salute during a Saudi special forces graduation ceremony near Riyadh

After just four months at the helm, Ahmed bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud has been replaced as Saudi Arabia’s interior minister in favor of his deputy (and nephew), Mohammed bin Nayef (pictured above).

The appointment of Prince Mohammed, who was assistant interior minister between 1999 and July 2012 (and deputy interior minister thereafter), is a logical move and should ensure a substantial measure of continuity in this important function. However, the removal of Prince Ahmed will have a far greater impact on internal ruling family machinations, as arguably the 70-year-old prince represented the last viable kingly contender (after the present Crown Prince, Salman bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud) from the oldest generation of Al Saud.

insight eiu new INSIGHT: Decoding the Latest Saudi AppointmentPrince Ahmed had been handed the post following the death of Prince Mohammed’s father, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud (who had been in charge of the interior portfolio for over 35 years). Although Prince Ahmed had served as Prince Nayef’s deputy for well over three decades, he had not had a major role in the internal security of the kingdom.

Since the rise locally of al-Qaida in 2002-2007, the counter-terrorism (CT) portfolio, and the associated close working relationship with the United States, had predominately been in Prince Mohammed’s hands. In part because of this, in 2009 he was targeted in a suicide attack by a Saudi militant (who had travelled from Yemen); despite his proximity to the attacker, Prince Mohammed escaped with just a hand injury. The incident, and the overall success of the CT effort, raised Prince Mohammed’s credentials both among Saudi public opinion as well as among the U.S. officials with whom he closely liaised.

Jumped or pushed

Much of the speculation surrounding the removal of Prince Ahmed, who was active in his job seemingly right up until he sent King Abdullah a letter of resignation on November 5, has largely been centred on CT matters. It is notable that Prince Ahmed’s resignation came just a day after a major security breach by ten Saudi militants (and a Yemeni), who killed two border guards upon trying to enter Yemen. Although the attackers were arrested, the fact that eight of them had been released from jail in the last few weeks, seemingly under Prince Ahmed’s orders, may have hurt his job prospects. However, it is important to note that the release of the eight Saudis was a consequence of the rehabilitation programme – which “re-educates” and finances repentant Islamic militants – instigated by, among others, Prince Mohammed, and that two of the militants were released before Prince Ahmed took over the Interior Ministry. Alternatively and more prosaically, Prince Ahmed’s decision to step down may have been entirely his own, and could have reflected merely unhappiness at the overweening day-to-day demands of the job.

“It may turn out that Prince Mohammed’s appointment is a bold promotion reflecting ability, but not one that yet denotes a clearer path to the next generation of rulers.” – The Economist Intelligence Unit

Still, King Abdullah’s favoring of comparative youth – Prince Mohammed, who is his nephew, is around 53 – over one of his own brothers is a highly unusual step. The Interior Ministry is viewed as one of the so-called sovereign ministries (alongside defense and the Saudi Arabian National Guard, or SANG), which are traditionally seen as stepping stones to acceding as monarch. As such, Prince Ahmed’s resignation may well mark the end of his chances to succeed after his full brother, Crown Prince Salman, but, commensurately, raises the prospect of Prince Mohammed being prepared as second in line to the throne instead. Yet, beyond security affairs, Prince Mohammed’s views on social matters, political reform and Shia inclusion (all areas where King Abdullah is viewed as relatively dovish, by Saudi standards) are not known, although his father was a well-known hardliner on such matters.

reu saudi king 300 07nov12 INSIGHT: Decoding the Latest Saudi Appointment

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah pictured in Mecca in an August 14, 2012 file photo (Reuters).

Rise of the next generation

The issue of the so-called generational switch has long been a fraught one in Saudi Arabia, actively and increasingly discussed following the deaths of two senior princes in the last 12 months. Health rumours aside, the 76-year-old Crown Prince Salman could rule well into his 80s, but the long overdue process of choosing his successor now seems firmly in train. Undoubtedly Prince Mohammed’s appointment aides his chances of eventually acceding as monarch; it also complements the appointment in 2010 of Prince Mitab (the king’s son) as SANG chief, and the more recent appointment of Bandar bin Sultan as foreign intelligence chief (although the latter individual is not viewed as a viable contender for the crown). However, for now the title of second deputy prime minister – a key indicator of the future succession – remains vacant, as it has since Prince Nayef was promoted to crown prince in 2009. As a result, the choice of the future King Salman’s crown prince will remain unclear for now.

The process of choosing the next crown prince could be made more complicated by the presence of the hiya al-Baya (Allegiance Commission), which was set up by King Abdullah in 2006 but would only become fully active upon his death. The commission, which is composed of the direct descendants of Abdel Aziz (the founder of Saudi Arabia), is supposed to choose the crown prince, after being handed a shortlist of up to three candidates by the king (although it can choose its own candidate, in the highly unlikely event that it does not like any of the king’s nominees). By leaving open the potential for multiple candidates, the presence of the hiya al-Baya may well help soothe those other princes that currently feel aggrieved by Prince Mohammed’s promotion. These include the 71-year-old governor of Mecca, Khaled al-Faisal; the deputy defense minister, Khaled bin Sultan (63); and Mohammed bin Fahd (62), the governor of Eastern Province. It may turn out that Prince Mohammed’s appointment is a bold promotion reflecting ability, but not one that yet denotes a clearer path to the next generation of rulers.

This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit

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 INSIGHT: Decoding the Latest Saudi Appointment

The Economist Intelligence Unit

This post has been authored by experts of The Economist Intelligence Unit.