Abdullah Takes the Plunge into Genuine Reform

Immediately after the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s virtual monarch, summoned his half-brother Interior Minister Prince Nayef for a stern dressing down. Nayef is charged by the royal family with preserving peace and security in the realm. As a member of the Sudairi faction at court, he also supports the defense minister Prince Sultan’s rival claim to the succession against Abdullah himself.

On both scores, the conversation between the two princes – as reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Gulf – was bound to be acrimonious. Abdullah demanded to know why Nayef and his domestic security service had fallen down so abysmally in preventing the round of suicide attacks against elite residential compounds in Riyadh, the royal capital. It was entirely the interior minister’s fault that the Saudi royal family was facing its most serious crisis of survival since the 1979 bloody rebellion in Mecca. Worse still, the senior members of the royal house no longer felt safe.

(In that revolt, several dozen Wahabists led by an Othaiba tribesman and a group of National Guardsmen, seized the Mosque of Mecca and was on the point of toppling the Saudi regime when it was quelled by the desperate measure of importing French special counter-terrorism units.) The Crown Prince then laid down a blunt declaration, addressed to Nayef but meant for the ears of all the Sudairi princes: Al Qaeda’s assault on Riyadh was a turning point. He had therefore determined to employ all his powers as de facto ruler to save the House of Saud – even to the point of doing away with the traditional power-sharing agreement between the royal family and the religious authorities. This agreement has always been a cornerstone of Saudi rule.

In normal times, Abdullah’s rivals might have dismissed his declaration as an empty threat. But this time, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the crown prince swiftly showed he meant business. He issued a series of decisions amounting in Saudi terms to revolutionary reforms. If he follows through on only part of his program, this most conservative and cautious member of the Saudi royal family will have taken steps to execute the most drastic upheaval in Saudi history.

As a first step, he gathered a group of princes loyal to him and dispatched them to the various Saudi provinces to assume the duties of the governors and take charge of provincial security forces. The governors were to be left with their titles but no authority.

The crown prince acted expeditiously to remove the provincial governors as the weakest links in the royal chain of authority. Removed from the capital by influential princes who regarded them as hindrances, these governors treated their posts as a form of temporary exile until their restoration to the center of government. They did not bother to properly administer the areas under their jurisdiction, leaving an open door that invited Al Qaeda adherents to do as they pleased. The attacks in Riyadh were a wake-up call for Abdullah who was shocked to discover that outside the main cities, the throne had little control over the kingdom.


A break with the clergy?


The second drastic step the Crown prince ordered was designed to silence inflammatory fundamentalist agitation in the mosques and their use as recruiting centers for radical groups. Nayef was instructed to send security and intelligence units around the mosques to arrest clerics and preachers suspected of ties with Al Qaeda. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources disclose several hundred clerics and preachers have already been arrested in a crackdown never before seen in the oil kingdom.

Bent on going all the way, Abdullah took an extreme step he had refused to take even after the September 11, 2001 suicide attacks on New York and Washington. He issued a personal order to shut down all Saudi charitable societies operating in Europe and banned the transfer of Saudi private or public charitable funds abroad.

By that single step, Abdullah choked off the main source of operational financing for Al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist organizations worldwide.

Within days, Al Qaeda cells in Western and Eastern Europe, including those in Chechnya, were tapped out and unable to continue operations. Suddenly too, the Hamas terror rings of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, long funded by Saudi largesse, found themselves penniless.

Abdullah clamped down hard after discovering from intelligence reports on his desk that Saudi charities had been funneling cash for two-way al Qaeda movements – not only for overseas operations but also to aid the influx of armed al Qaeda gangs, weapons and explosives into the kingdom itself.

The Crown Prince also took to heart the warning from his close advisers that, failing decisive action against the terror bane as a genuine gesture towards the Bush administration, US-Saudi relations would be damaged beyond repair.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report exclusively that Abdullah is not done yet.

He is next planning the unthinkable step of severing the hitherto hallowed historic alliance between House of Saud and the Wahhabist clergy that has retarded all attempts to modernize Saudi Arabia. His first step will be to disband the dreaded morality police. He has come to realize that large segments of the religious establishment have succumbed to the influence of Osama bin Laden and represent a threat to the royal family.

The Crown Prince, driven by a new spirit of reform and house-cleaning, means to merge the regular armed forces with the National Guard – the country’s two main military forces. That done, Abdullah will get down to revolutionizing the secular regime.

Saudi Arabia’s centers of power are traditionally balanced between the Sudairi princes – who were allotted the defense ministry and army and responsibility for border security – and the princely faction led by Abdullah, who commands the National Guard, guardian of home security, the royal house and the oil fields.

The National Guard, built on tribal lines, has fallen prey to the infiltrations of secret al Qaeda and radical Wahabi cells. The crown prince has inferred from the terrorist attacks in Riyadh that the National Guard has been invaded by al Qaeda, whose cells readily exploit its vast resources of weapons, intelligence and logistical aids. Merging this force with the regular army would make a thorough purge of these radical elements possible. The danger is that the regular army, including the air force and military intelligence, might find themselves opened up to the same sort of invasion.

Bearing this danger in mind, Defense minister Prince Sultan of the Sudairi clan would have to agree to the consolidation of military forces. However, if he objects, the Crown Prince appears to be determined enough to force the merger on Sultan. This could well touch off a fierce confrontation between the rivals at a time that Abdullah may have to contend with a clergy fighting tooth and nail to preserve its privileged position and an al Qaeda insurgency.

In short no one knows exactly where Abdullah’s revolution will lead.

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