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Two Princes Are Rising Stars Of King Salman’s Saudi Arabia

By Glen Carey, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When the new Saudi king installed his own team, the most eye-catching appointments involved two princes young enough to be steering the world’s biggest oil exporter for decades to come.

One is a familiar figure to Saudi Arabia’s global allies. Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, heads a new security council and was made deputy crown prince, putting him in line to become the first king from his generation of royals. The other is less well known outside of Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son, takes charge of an economic council in addition to posts as defense minister and gatekeeper to the royal court.

It’s an accelerated rise to power by the standards of the House of Saud, whose latest ruler inherited the throne in a time of turmoil. Saudi Arabia is battling to preserve an embattled ally in Yemen, turn the tide of Syria’s civil war, and fend off threats from the Islamic State. An oil slump has left the kingdom, which has boosted spending to ward off political unrest, facing its first budget deficits in years.

While Mohammed bin Nayef’s appointment wasn’t unexpected, Mohammed bin Salman “did surprise many, due to his youth and relative inexperience,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy in Vienna, Virginia. “Bestowing that many responsibilities on him at such a young age is a clear indication of the trust that King Salman has in his son.”

In the oil-rich and secretive kingdom, there has always been speculation about the succession. It intensified when King Abdullah was admitted to a Riyadh hospital in December with pneumonia, and persisted right up to his death the next month.

Salman was immediately named his successor and moved swiftly to dispel any remaining uncertainty. Even before Abdullah was buried, Salman named his half-brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the youngest son of the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud, as crown prince and heir, with Mohammed bin Nayef as his deputy.

A week later came more signals about who’s in and out of favor. Salman’s overhaul went beyond cabinet changes. He created the two new councils to oversee the economy and security, making their heads, the two Prince Mohammeds, ostensibly the most powerful men in Salman’s government.

Mohammed bin Salman’s age hasn’t been disclosed, and the Saudi embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for information. News reports and analyst estimates put him in his early 30s.

Salman also removed two of Abdullah’s sons from their positions as governors of Riyadh and Mecca, and dissolved the National Security Council, which was run by Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the U.S.

The moves raised questions among some longtime Saudi-watchers.

Politics at the royal court involves “distributing power and spoils among the different factions,” and there’s always a chance that it flows “disproportionately to whatever faction has the throne,” said Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and former U.S. intelligence officer for the Middle East. “Salman may have nudged things somewhat” in that direction, he said.

Before gaining his three new jobs, Mohammed bin Salman wasn’t well known outside Saudi Arabia, according to an Arab diplomat who declined to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. Diplomats are watching how the prince manages his senior roles and conducts himself in meetings with senior military officials, he said.

For some Saudi allies, that opportunity to meet Prince Mohammed bin Salman came in Riyadh last week when military officials from nations joining the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State met to assess its progress.

Mohammed bin Salman’s previous experience of government involved running his father’s court when he was crown prince and defense minister, according to the website of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Now, he heads a council that includes Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi and Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf. The new body has already highlighted the need to diversify the economy and assess changes in the energy market, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

“Mohammed bin Salman has been given a portfolio of great power,” Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said. “He is young and has many years to grow into his role. In the meantime, his power derives entirely from his father, for whom he acts and whose confidence he clearly enjoys.”

It’s not unprecedented for princes to be given senior roles while relatively young. What’s unusual is the concentration of power in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman, said Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, and a specialist in Saudi politics.

Since King Faisal came to the throne in the 1960s, “there has always been a sense of corporate leadership at the top, shared power and responsibility,” Gause said by email. “This concentration of power seems to go against that. It raises questions. I don’t know anything about Mohammad bin Salman, so I do wonder if he is spreading himself too thin and has the political skills to manage three really important jobs.”

King Salman may further consolidate the power of his branch of the family by appointing another son, Abdulaziz, as the next oil minister to replace Ali al-Naimi, said Crispin Hawes, managing director of research company Teneo Intelligence in London. Abdulaziz is currently the deputy oil minister, and Naimi has held the post for two decades.

“The king wasn’t going to remove Naimi on the same day he walked in,” Hawes said. “I wonder if at some point in the next six to eight months Naimi will be allowed to retire, and Abdulaziz will replace him.”

The rise of Salman’s sons isn’t guaranteed to last. The king is 79 and Muqrin, who’s in line to succeed him, “can make some changes in a different direction as quickly as Salman has made changes,” Pillar said. “Mohammed bin Salman’s time in the spotlight might not endure beyond his father’s reign.”

Mohammed bin Nayef, often referred to as MBN in the kingdom, is on more solid ground. He’s the first Saudi official to supervise the internal and the external security services. He’s known to delegate responsibility to his staff, and to have a picture on the wall next to his office of every interior ministry personnel killed in the line of duty.

Prince Mohammed’s rise began during Abdullah’s last years, when the former monarch sought to promote a younger generation of princes. Two of his closest advisers have advanced with him. Khalid al-Humaidan has been made head of general intelligence, and Saad al-Jabri is a minister without portfolio and a member of the political and security affairs council.

Both men work regularly with regional and international partners, especially the so-called Five Eyes — an intelligence- sharing group comprised of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They’ve collaborated against jihadist threats from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef “has government experience and experience dealing with international partners.” Gause said. “He seems to be a good candidate to be the first king from his generation.”

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets the new King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the Erqa Royal Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on January 27, 2015, after joining President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and other dignitaries in extending condolences to the late King Abdullah. [State Department photo/Public Domain]


Late Night Roundup: Big Saudi Oil, And Big Corporate Money

America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia — and with all their glorious oil — got noticed by the late night shows.

The Daily Show skewered the American foreign policy establishment and its seemingly unlimited affection for Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the death of King Abdullah — with Jon Stewart contrasting the country’s egregious human rights abuses in juxtaposition to what really seems to matter.

David Letterman hosted MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, with the two of them also discussing the abnormal relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The Nightly Show looked at the issue of big money in politics, with Larry Wilmore realizing that it’s simply impossible to get away from the Koch Brothers and all the other big spenders.

At the end of his monologue last night, Conan O’Brien talked about Sarah Palin’s disastrous speech in Iowa last weekend — and revealed what her new campaign slogan will now be.

Still ‘No Way Out’ For Saudi Women

A friend of mine, an environmental consultant working at a research compound in Saudi Arabia, had a memorable moment when she tried to visit an archaeological museum in Riyadh. She found a time when the museum was “open to individuals” and requested a driver, but was told she could not go. “You don’t understand,” the man at the help desk said with a chuckle. “Individuals means men.”

And so it goes in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated as children and worse under a system that makes apartheid in South Africa seem like a beacon of liberty.

The Saudis, key suppliers of oil and allies in the fight against terrorism, are hardly on the receiving end of sanctions or boycotts despite their egregious brand of gender apartheid. Rather, as they mourned the death of King Abdullah, they welcomed a U.S. delegation that included President and Michelle Obama, three current or former secretaries of state, two former national security advisors, the director of the CIA, Sen. John McCain and other members of Congress.

The massive VIP presence is an important signal at a time of transition, but it’s also a galling, glaring acknowledgment of impotence. Saudi women live under soul-killing and sometimes physically threatening laws and traditions, and there’s very little we can do about it. When she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton once said publicly that she was moved by brave protesters defying the Saudi ban on women drivers. Once. More typical was Obama urging the newly ascended King Salman in a private meeting this week to let civil society “take hold.”

Abdullah is viewed as a reformer. He gave women seats on the unelected Shura Council that advises the king and the government, and said in 2011 that they could vote and run — both firsts — in 2015 local elections. He also established a university where men and women attend class together. But the deeply disturbing fundamentals, as catalogued in the State Department’s human rights report on Saudi Arabia, remain untouched.

The core of the oppression is the requirement that all adult women have a close male relative as a guardian. The polite fiction is that this is to protect women — the first meaning that comes up in a Google search for “guardian definition.” But the second definition is much closer to the truth: “a person who looks after and is legally responsible for someone who is unable to manage their own affairs, especially an incompetent or disabled person or a child whose parents have died.”

A Saudi woman needs her guardian’s permission to study, travel, marry, work and receive some medical treatments. Women cannot get driver’s licenses or share public space or offices with men. Outside their homes, they must wear long black abayas, cover their hair and, in some areas, cover their faces, hands and feet as well. Foreigners are supposedly exempt from the head-scarf rule, but that didn’t stop intimidating religious police from ordering my friend to cover her hair, or hundreds of Twitter users from criticizing Michelle Obama for going bareheaded during her condolence visit.

The State Department list goes on and on. Girls can’t play sports at school. Women are well educated but few have jobs. In court, “the testimony of one man equals that of two women.” Reporting a rape is a huge risk. Following sharia law, “courts punished victims as well as perpetrators for illegal ‘mixing of genders,’ even when there was no conviction for rape.” There have been “reports of police or judges returning women directly to their abusers, most of whom were the women’s legal guardians.”

“Behind the Veil,” a 2013 report from the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, describes a woman admitted to the hospital in 2006 after her guardian — her husband — shot her. Police said they could not intervene unless her guardian filed an official complaint, which of course he did not. She was readmitted two more times with gunshot wounds. The third time, she died.

Obviously, Saudi Arabia is no paradise for anyone. It mistreats guest workers and minorities, and imprisons dissidents. It is similar to the Islamic State in its array of barbaric punishments, including stoning, lashing and amputation. The case of blogger Raif Badawi, convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, has triggered international outrage.

Badawi’s case prompted the Washington Post editorial board to propose an “international commission of inquiry” to take testimony on the repression of dissidents and the absence of rights for women. Good idea. Investigators should look into reports by Channel 4 News in Britain that four of Abdullah’s daughters have been held against their will in a Jeddah compound for 13 years. “Our father said that we had no way out,” Princess Sahar said in a chilling email to reporter Fatima Manji, “and that after his death our brothers will continue detaining us.”

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo: President Barack Obama is greeted by Saudi Arabia King Abdullah upon his arrival at King Khalid Airport on June 3, 2009 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s King Abudllah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has died at age 90, state television announced on Jan. 22, 2015. He had been in the hospital for several weeks suffering from a lung infection. Abdullah, a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda, came to power in 2005 after his half-brother died. (Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

Arming Syria Rebels Top Topic As Obama, Saudi King Meet

Riyadh (AFP) – U.S. President Barack Obama was holding talks with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh Friday on arming Syria’s moderate opposition, as the long-time allies seek to bridge their differences over Iran and Syria.

Obama arrived from Italy for an evening meeting with the monarch on a royal estate outside Riyadh.

Discussions would focus on ways to “empower” Syria’s moderate opposition, including militarily, a senior White House official said.

“That will definitely be one of the main topics of conversation is how do we best empower the moderate opposition inside of Syria politically, militarily as a counterweight to (President Bashar) Assad,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with Obama on board Air Force One.

Rhodes said U.S.-Saudi ties have been improving thanks to cooperation over ways to support Syria’s opposition.

“Our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall (autumn) when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy,” said Rhodes.

Saudi Arabia is disappointed over Obama’s 11th-hour decision last year not to take military action against the Syrian regime over chemical weapons attacks.

It also has strong reservations about efforts by Washington and other major world powers to negotiate a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

Saudi analyst Abdel Aziz al-Sagr, who heads the Gulf Research Centre, said Saudi-U.S. relations are “tense due to Washington’s stances” on the Middle East, especially Iran.

The recent rapprochement between Tehran and Washington “must not take place at the expense of relations with Riyadh,” Sagr told AFP.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, long wary of Shiite Iran’s regional ambitions, views a November deal between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program as a risky venture that could embolden Tehran.

The interim agreement curbs Iran’s controversial nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief, and is aimed at buying time to negotiate a comprehensive accord.

Analyst Khaled al-Dakhil spoke of “major differences” with Washington, adding that Obama will focus on easing “Saudi fears on Iran and on regional security”.

Saudi Arabia, the largest power in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, fears that a possible U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East and a diplomatic overture towards Iran would further feed Tehran’s regional ambitions.

Iranian-Saudi rivalry crystallized with the Syrian conflict: Tehran backs President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while several GCC states support the rebellion.

Obama’s stances towards events reshaping the region “have strained (Saudi-U.S.) relations but without causing a complete break,” said Anwar Eshki, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies.

U.S. security and energy specialist professor Paul Sullivan said Obama meeting King Abdullah could “help clear the air on some misunderstandings”.

“However, I would be quite surprised if there were any major policy changes during this visit. This is also partly a reassurance visit,” he added.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has said that “whatever differences we may have do not alter the fact that this is a very important and close partnership”.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship dates to the end of World War II and was founded on an agreement for Washington to defend the Gulf state in exchange for oil contracts.

OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia is the world’s top exporter of oil.

Obama and the king are also expected to discuss deadlocked U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

They will also discuss Egypt, another bone of contention since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, who was a staunch U.S. and Saudi ally.

The kingdom was dismayed by the partial freezing of U.S. aid to Egypt after the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July — a move hailed by Riyadh.

On Thursday, Egypt’s Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi resigned as defence minister after announcing he would stand for president.

Meanwhile, dozens of U.S. lawmakers have urged Obama to publicly address Saudi Arabia’s “systematic human rights violations,” including efforts by women activists to challenge its ban on female drivers.

And rights group Amnesty International said Obama “must break the US administration’s silence on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record by taking a strong public stand.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb