06 November 2012

Changes in Saudi Arabia

Something is happening in Saudi Arabia.

It is barely perceptible but it is definitely there.

In July, I suggested that King Abdullah was introducing a series of cautious reforms in a bid to weaken the grip of the House of Wahhabi. These included the (largely symbolic) right to vote for women and the participation of female athletes to London Olympics. When Nayef, the Minister of Interior and Crown Prince died in June, there was no one left to oppose Abdullah's push for more reforms.

Even before the untimely demise of Nayef, in January, Abdullah replaced the head of the "Mutawa" or the "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" also known as the religious police corps of Saudi Arabia. These are the Salafist officers who did not allow 15 girls to leave a burning school because they were not wearing proper Islamic dresses and let them burn alive.

The new chief, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheik, was a very unusual choice in that he believed that the Mutawa had too much power.
The new chief of the Mutawa
(Credit Al Arabiya)
Two weeks into the job, Mr Sheikh banned volunteers from serving in the force, and in April warned that those found to have harassed people would be punished. 
He has publicly dressed down officers deemed to have applied themselves overzealously to their duties.
Once Nayef was out of the way, Sheik could move much more decisively:
Now Mr Sheikh has announced a new raft of measures to curb their powers.

Arrests, interrogations, house raids and searches will now be carried out by other police or judicial bodies, he told al-Hayat.

Elsewhere he promised his officers would be forced to adhere to a new code of practice.

He said he would target the practice of preventing women unaccompanied by family from entering shopping centres.
This last item was both a major preoccupation for the Mutawa and a source of significant resentment. Hence, his reforms were received warmly by the general public (but not so much by the Salafists).

A couple of weeks ago, he did the unthinkable and announced that the Mutawa was going to hire female officers. When you consider that women cannot drive by themselves in Saudi Arabia, giving them such a responsibility is mind boggling.

I was sure that Sheik was going to lose his job quickly as the Salafist groups and religious establishment would put a lot of pressure on the King to get rid of him.

Then a third thing happened.

The New Minister of Interior

Yesterday, King Abdullah relieved Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the Minister of Interior from his duties (he had replaced Nayef in June) and appointed Muhammad bin Nayef, who is, as the name indicates, the late Crown Prince's son.

This is significant for two reasons.

Muhammad bin Nayef is very young (he was born in 1959). He was educated in the US. He is much more open to the public and the media than the rest of the royal family.

His most important attribute is his comprehensive fight against al Qaida and Salafist groups in the Kingdom.

He fought them with conventional methods and diminished their numbers and damaged their organizations. But he also created rehabilitation centers for ex-Jihadis and launched an amnesty program which reduced the Jihadi recidivism to just 3 percent.

Consequently, he is hated by al Qaida and the Salafist groups. He was the target of several suicide bomb attacks but he survived all of them.

By appointing him as the Minister of Interior, the King ensured that the reforms he is undertaking (including the radical changes in the Mutawa) will not be short lived. By all accounts, Muhammad's views are not in line with his late father as he shares the King's reformist perspective.

His appointment is significant for another reason.

Given the unusual rules of succession in Saudi Arabia, so far the title was passed on to the sons of the founding father ibn Saud. But most of these are dead or dying and if the current Crown Prince, Salman bin Abdul Aziz dies before King Abdullah, succession might stop being the sole prerogative of the King and could be shared with the Allegiance Council. The Council is a body that Abdullah created in 2006 to ensure that different views were taken into account when choosing a new monarch.

In that context, Muhammad bin Nayef's new position is intriguing. Typically, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense are the stepping stones towards the being anointed as Crown Prince. Muhammad might be too young to be considered for that position in the near future. But he is definitely on the right path.
"This brings forward the promotion of the next generation to the succession," said Robert Lacey, author of "Inside the Kingdom". Prince Mohammed was born in 1959.

The appointment as Interior Minister lifts Prince Mohammed, who was already a deputy interior minister, into a critical role for the ruling al-Saud family and one that has until now only been held by the current ruling generation.
One last point about these changes: How are they going to affect the Salafists in the Kingdom and within the Greater Middle East?

The Salafists have long been counting on Saudi finance and support. If the new Minister of Interior moves decisively to reduce these two pillars of Salafist ascension, he could start a new chapter in the region.

In any case, given the structural difficulties awaiting Abdullah and his successor, this will be a tricky transition. But these changes bring a touch of optimism.

After I posted this, BBC published an analysis that is largely in line with my views.

They suggest that the reason the previous Minister, Prince Ahmed was sacked after only five months in the job was because he was removing all the modernizers Muhammad bin Nayef promoted when he was running the Ministry on his late father's behalf:
The prince [Prince Ahmed] had set about removing many senior officials seen as close to Prince Mohammed who had effectively run the ministry for his father Prince Nayef for several years. That in itself was unsettling in a government department which is the largest and most important in the country.

"The people who lost their jobs were the modernisers," Mr Stephens adds. And that would not have sat well with King Abdullah, who has very gradually moved this most strict and conservative of Gulf countries along a more open road.
They also believe that his appointment is very intriguing in terms of succession possibilities and the preservation of Abdullah's reforms.
It also opens up the intriguing possibility that the next ruler of Saudi Arabia will jump a generation. The possibility that Prince Mohammed would follow Abdullah is one that Washington would in all likelihood quietly favour.

"The Americans see him as a good operator. They like him," Michael Stephens says, adding: "Mohammed bin Nayef would protect Abdullah's reforms and ensure that the gains are not undone."

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