Three royal princes and a top functionary are venturing on a new style of Saudi government that begins to move away from strict royal family interests to a broader approach aiming at gradual reform at home and an activist foreign policy abroad.
The world’s biggest and wealthiest oil and gas power is being steered in its new direction by a Quartet of powerbrokers identified by DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts as General Intelligence Director Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Interior Minister Mohamed bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, National Guard Commander Prince Miteb – who is the son of King Abdullah, and President of the Royal Court Khalid al-Tuwaijri. His post is equivalent to prime minister. He also doubles as the king’s personal secretary.
The makeup of this quartet is intriguing and significant for a number of reasons:
1. King Abdullah has made sure that two of its members defer to him for key military and political decisions. However because of his advanced age, 91, and feeble health, more and more decisions will necessarily devolve to this pair.
2. In 1970 King Faisal decreed that the order of succession would operate on the guiding principle of passing among the first generation of the founder Ibn Saud’s sons, according to age and ability. Now for the first time in 40 years, the kingdom’s has passed into the hands of an elite group which does not match this order.
Combining phased reform with foreign policy activism
Seasoned observers of the Saudi scene recall Prince Bandar’s comment as ambassador to Washington 30 years ago that he hoped one day to shape his country’s policies free of “royal family considerations.” Now that he has attained high office in Riyadh, he appears to be powerful enough to start breaking with the old convention.
At the same time, most Saudi experts, while discerning the first steps of change, predict a drawn-out and gradual process of reform over a period of years. They are meanwhile watching to see if the Quartet’s cohesion and unity of purpose holds up.
3. Two powerful Saudi figures back the Quartet: Crown Prince and Defense Minister Salman bin Abdul Aziz, on the quiet, and the international tycoon Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al-Saud, who has placed his considerable international connections and fortune at their disposal.
Alwaleed’s total worth is estimated at $20 billion. He ranks 26th on the Forbes list of the world’s richest individuals.
4. The four Quartet members agreed on policy guidelines for the promotion of reform in all walks of Saudi life while pursuing an activist strategy in foreign policy.
Opposing Obama, pragmatically collaborating with Putin
DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf sources view this activism in terms of a novel approach and break with tradition both with regarded to the US President Barack Obama and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Whereas the princely elite group is resolutely opposed to the current US policy in the Middle East and the war on terror, it is more often in tune with Russian policy in these two areas without subscribing to Moscow’s objectives.
5. The Saudi leadership takes strongest exception to Obama’s policies in two fields: his initiative for a US rapprochement with Iran and his recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood as the key rising political force in the region.
Bandar views the US president’s approach to Iran as an American license for Tehran to maintain nuclear arms. He does not trust Obama’s avowed pledge to prevent this happening or believe he will ever resort to military force to this end.
Riyadh perceives the Muslim Brotherhood as the moving force in the Islamist terrorist movement and a threat to the very existence of the Saudi kingdom. The Saudis are therefore willing to bolster any Middle East force ready to fight the Muslim Brotherhood and resist the Obama administration’s patronage of this movement.
Arab regimes cajoled to purge Brotherhood from government
The clash of Saudi-US interests has had its strongest impact on the moving Egyptian stage. Saudi political, military and financial largesse is in steady spate toward Egypt’s military leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and the heads of judiciary, who this week outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and ordered its assets seized.
Activist Saudi policy in relation to Cairo has succeeded in detaching the Egyptian military regime from its dependence on US economic and military assistance and turning it round to reliance on Saudi Arabia for sustenance.
The same Saudi Quartet pulled the strings for the Qatari coup, which caused the abdication of Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and removal of Prime Minister Shaikh Hamad bin Jasem Al-Thani, who was leading Muslim Brotherhood champion in the Gulf region.
Their hand was less visible, though critical, in purging the Muslim Brotherhood from the ruling echelons in Tunisia and Morocco.
In Rabat, King Mohammed VI was forced to sack Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, head of the Moroccan Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development Party.
In Tunis, Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood, was persuaded by a promise of financial rewards to quit the Tunisian government.
Saudis dig up a candidate for Syrian provisional prime minister
On the incendiary topic of the Syrian civil war, the ruling Saudi Quartet is dead against Obama’s policies, convinced they will end up perpetuating Bashar Assad’s rule and strengthen the belligerent Iran-Syrian-Hizballah axis.
6. Notwithstanding fundamental differences between Riyadh and Moscow on Syria and Iran, Prince Bandar’s visit to Moscow on July 31 and his long exchange of views with Vladimir Putin covered enough common ground to clear the way for a series of back-channel exchanges between them ever since on cooperation.
Most of all, they are of one mind on the importance of battling the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are also agreed on one aspect of the Syrian question: their common energy interests.
Both would accept a transitional regime in Damascus provided it prevented Qatar running oil and gas lines through Iraq and Syria to the emirate’s fuel to the Mediterranean and out to Europe.
The Saudi Quartet is for first time intervening in Syrian politics with a view to setting up a transitional government headed by Ahmad Tomeh in the teeth of Washington’s plans. Moscow has not demurred.
A long stride towards this objective was taken on Sept. 14, when the main Syrian opposition coalition elected Tomeh, 48, a dentist and longtime anti-Assad dissident, as its candidate for provisional prime minister.