Early in November, the Saudi Arabian government announced the replacement of interior minister Prince Ahmed Bin Abdul Aziz, named to the post in June of this year, after the death of Prince Nayef, his elder brother. Nayef, who succumbed at age 78, had been feared widely as the embodiment of the most extreme trend in Wahhabism, the ultra-fundamentalist Saudi state sect. Nayef was the leading opponent of the cautious reform course pursued in the desert monarchy by 88-year-old King Abdullah since his rise to the throne in 2005.
Prince Ahmed, born in 1941, has been followed as interior minister by Nayef’s son, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef. A grandson of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud (1876-1953), the founder of the Saudi state in its most recent form, Prince Muhammad, only 53, represents the second generation of Saudi princes. He is therefore viewed by some observers as a herald of changes brought about by those inevitable forces, aging and death.
While his father was alive, Muhammad Bin Nayef was, and apparently remains, head of the Saudi program to suppress al Qaeda within its borders—which has mostly meant exporting the terrorists to Yemen. The members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are expected to leave alone Saudi territory in exchange for “rehabilitation” in comfortable surroundings if they “come home.”
Violent extremists are housed at vacation facilities and lectured by state clerics on the error of their “deviant” views. Nevertheless, the propinquity of Prince Muhammad with the “amnestied” radicals and their Yemen-based directors was illustrated by the peculiar incident in 2010 when a plot to send bombs to synagogues in the United States via cargo courier firms was foiled. Explosive-laden packages had been turned over to United Parcel Service and Federal Express offices in Yemen. Their tracking numbers and addresses were delivered by Prince Muhammad to U.S. personnel after the items were sent, but before they could reach their targets.
BBC News quoted a British analyst, Michael Stephens, of the Royal United Services Institute, who claimed that Prince Ahmed had been too active in substituting his own functionaries for the late Nayef’s cadres in the Interior Ministry. Stephens described the Nayef appointees as “modernizers” and alleged that Ahmed’s disfavor toward them was perceived by King Abdullah as a counter to his reform aspirations.
Saudi sources, typically preferring anonymity, are not convinced. Close watchers of the kingdom warn that Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef has more reason to hew to his father’s hard-line Wahhabism. In addition, the switch from Prince Ahmed to Muhammad Bin Nayef took place immediately after an explosion in Riyadh that killed 23 people and left more than 110 injured.
Described as a traffic accident involving an oil tanker truck, the blast destroyed a freeway overpass and a nearby building, where heavy industrial equipment was stored. The fatalities included ten Filipinos. Amateur video reproduced by the London Guardian showed Saudis searching through the remains of the devastated warehouse for salvageable goods.
In the aftermath of the detonation, Filipino media reported that the driver of the truck that blew up, named Robin Kebang, was in Saudi police custody. Rumors swirled through the Saudi public that the event, rather than a traffic mishap, involved a terror conspiracy, leaving Prince Ahmed embarrassed and vulnerable. And there the matter has rested, like many other enigmatic happenings in Saudi Arabia.
In a repetition of the pattern seen in the Saudi state since the beginning of King Abdullah’s reign and his reform efforts, only shifts in high offices, and anti-reform measures by fanatical Wahhabis, provoke ongoing debate.