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Bin Nayef: A political death by a thousand cuts

'Prince of Darkness' has been pushed out of line to throne and lost control of interior ministry
Mohammed bin Nayef was widely lauded by Western intelligence agencies for his counter-terrorism work (AFP)

As an overnight royal decree stripped Mohammed bin Nayef of his title as crown prince and simultaneously of his role as deputy prime minister and interior minister, footage aired on Saudi state television showed a stilted official handover to his much younger cousin.

"I am going to rest now. May God help you," the former crown prince said, to which his replacement replied: "May God help you. I will never do without your advice."

But at 51, the "Prince of Darkness," a moniker he won through his tight control of Saudi Arabia's spy services, does not appear a man ready for retirement. And while the transition is likely to be smooth, that does not mean it is without resentment.

When his successor Mohammed bin Salman, just 31, was promoted to deputy crown prince in April 2015, by his father, King Salman, "Mohammed was pictured kissing the hand of his older cousin, Bin Nayef. But it was only a matter of time before he learned to bite it," David Hearst wrote for MEE in April.

And now he has.

It was long expected by many Saudi watchers and citizens alike that the headstrong and power-hungry Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is known, would likely ascend to heir, but the pace at which it has happened, and the timing, seems to have taken many aback.

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But it now appears to be the logical conclusion of two of the most frenzied years in Saudi history – a series of events in which MBS was heavily involved, from the war in Yemen to changes to economic policy, and the privatisation of state-owned companies.

Offering assurances of a continuation of these policies is a key motivation behind Wednesday’s reshuffle, according to Andrew Hammond, a researcher at Oxford University currently writing a book about Saudi Arabia.

Continuation of policy

MBS has been promoted now, Hammond told MEE, due to "the importance of offering guarantees to Western and regional governments, investors and lenders over the continuity of foreign and economic policies, all of which are tied to Mohammed bin Salman".

"There was no guarantee that bin Nayef would maintain those policies and maintain bin Salman as his heir."

The interior minister position has now been handed to Nayef's nephew, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud.

Writing in MEE last week, Madawi al-Rasheed correctly predicted today’s royal shuffle.

Bin Nayef, she writes, "is notorious for filling Saudi prisons with dissidents and activists that may have earned him the title 'The Prince of Darkness,' constantly operating behind the thick iron curtain of security and under the pretext of fighting terrorism."

Despite any concerns about human rights, bin Nayef "must be the preferred candidate of Western intelligence services from Washington to London," she added.

The Saudi cousins pictured at a GCC meeting in Riyadh in December 2015 (AFP)

In his various roles at the interior ministry, Nayef was lauded in the US for chairing the country’s counter-terrorism programme, and was himself injured in a 2009 assassination attempt, carried out by a member of al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula.

Then in January 2015 after the death of King Abdullah, another uncle, King Salman, promoted Nayef to deputy crown prince, soon replacing Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz bin Saud – Salman and Abdullah’s youngest brother – as crown prince in April of that year.

This step of removing a crown prince was in itself unprecedented, and set in motion MBS’ rapid ascension through the ranks, and Mohammed bin Nayef’s dismissal this week.

The move left Mohammed bin Nayef as the first of the second generation, or grandsons of the kingdom's founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, in line to lead the Islamic kingdom.

But soon, Hearst wrote, the ground was shifting under the crown prince’s feet, with his royal court abolished.

And his personal antipathy towards Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, did not bode well for Nayef, as bin Zayed and MBS became increasingly close.

In recently leaked emails sent from the Emirati ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, he wrote to Washington Post journalist David Ignatius of "changes" in Saudi Arabia over the last two years. "I think we should all agree these changes in Saudi are much needed.

"Our job now, is to do everything possible to ensure MBS succeeds," Otaiba wrote.

Coup by decree?

Over the last few months, a series of royal decrees have gradually been chipping away at Mohammed bin Nayef’s power.

One appointed a nephew and ally of Mohammed bin Salman to the role of deputy governor of the oil-rich Eastern Province, governed by Mohammed bin Nayef’s brother, Saud bin Nayef. Another reinstated a previously abolished security council, which answers to the royal court directly, thus stepping on his security patch.

And then of course in April came the visit of US President Donald Trump – a hugely symbolic visit, and his first abroad as president.

For one Saudi citizen living abroad, who did not want to be named, Trump’s visit was key to MBS’s confirmation.

"MBN was Washington's man, he was stylised a hero of the war on terror, after surviving an assassination attempt a few years back," he said.

"The whole pageantry around Trump's trip to Saudi was definitely designed to convince Trump that MBS is the right horse to back."

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Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, told Reuters that the reshuffle was aimed at avoiding a power struggle between MBS and Mohammed bin Nayef by setting the line of succession out clearly.

"It's clearly a transition that has happened smoothly and bloodlessly. Now it's clear, it's straightforward. That kind of clarity lowers the risk. There's no question as to who's going to be in charge."

But what this future will look like remains unclear.

"I absolutely don't share the popular opinion about MBS as the Great Reformer. I think he's brash and too ambitious for his own good," the Saudi citizen said.

With no love lost for Mohammed bin Nayef either – "MBN and his security services were persecuting and locking up dissidents under the guise of anti-terrorism like there was no tomorrow" – he remains unconvinced of this framing of MBS as the competent leader that Saudi Arabia needs, once the ailing 81-year-old current monarch is no longer in power.

"The war in Yemen, the Qatar crisis, these are signs of a brash and ambitious ruler that are worrying signs for the future."

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