Nine months into the reign of King Salman Bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia is embroiled in two wars – an internal battle against dissident young men captivated by the radical ideas of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – ISIS; and an external campaign against the Yemeni insurgency backed by Iran in its backyard.
Two rival princes are separately in charge of running the two wars: Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Nayef who as Minister of the Interior is responsible for quelling the extremely tough domestic terror threat, while Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the king’s son and Minister of Defense, is in charge of the Yemen operation.
Both contests are far from being won. Their outcome may well determine the potential positioning of the two rival princes in the eventual race for the succession.
The domestic peril is the most taxing because of its pervasiveness. The enemy is everywhere. It may be found in any age group between 15 and 30 and in all walks of society. Saudi security authorities find it almost impossible to sketch the profile of this homegrown enemy, and are therefore hard put to seek out and lay hands on the young men who have opted for jihad.
Young Saudis flock to jihadist flag against the Crown
These youngsters are being lured into the jihadist net by non-establishment firebrand clerics, who preach violent sedition against the Crown. Conservative classes of society may be found cheering on the young followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, counting them as the legitimate opposition to the House of Saud.
Mohammed Bin Nayef won applause from Washington for the way he handled this homegrown peril as Deputy Minister of Interior during his father’s term as minister under the late King Abdullah.
He combined mass detentions of suspected Al Qaeda supporters (10,000 since 2003) with a rehabilitation program. In special rehab camps, clerics helped young radicals repent and return to the ways of the national faith of Wahhabi Islam.
But it turned out that the “rehabilitated” youngsters were no sooner free than, encouraged by some of their families, they flocked to the radical Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), ready for acts of jihadist martyrdom on their home ground.
ISIS’s strength rises against weakening national security
Notwithstanding the propaganda efforts of the security forces under the guidance of Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the number of terror suspects in detention keeps on rising.
This year, 500 people were arrested on suspicion of associating with ISIS compared with 330 in 2014. Our Saudi experts say that these official figures are nowhere near representing the true number of detentions.
The security authorities in Riyadh furthermore tend to trumpet their successes in thwarting domestic terrorist attacks, but are mum when they fail.
One such failure occurred last Thursday, Aug. 6, in the southwestern Assir Region. A bomb targeted the mosque of the Special Emergency Forces, killing 15 security officers and wounding another thirty-three.
This attack was attributed to ISIS. Its killers’ ability to break through the heavy security surrounding this exclusive mosque betokened both the weaknesses of the interior ministry’s security and intelligence systems and the strengths of the Islamist State within the kingdom.
Saudi Defense Minister wins kudos for Yemen war breakthrough
Saudi Arabia launched its campaign in Yemen against an alliance of Houthi insurgents and units loyal to former Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh in March – just two months after Salman was crowned king and formed a new government. The monarch undoubtedly approved the kingdom’s intervention in Yemen, but its live wire was his 29-year old son, the newly-appointed Defense Minister.
For six months, relentless Saudi air strikes failed to break the back of the Yemeni insurgency. The turning-point came this month, when the Saudis landed 4,000 infantry and tank forces troops in Aden along with a 1,500-strong United Arab Emirates commando contingency.
They quickly drove the rebels out of Aden, captured a nearby air field and pushed north to reach a point 150km south of the capital, Sanaa by Thursday, Aug. 12,.
Saudi and international media give the defense minister full credit for this breakthrough in the Yemen war. But Iran, which has backed the insurgency, has not yet said the last word. Even after Tehran slowed its support for the Houthis in consideration of regional expediency, Yemen suffers from chronic divisiveness and has been prey to on-and-off civil war since the ‘60s of the last century.
The US is a silent partner in Saudi-led Arab lineup for Yemen
At the same time, the king’s son has won valuable points in Yemen as a mover and shaker in Riyadh and has lent the kingdom the aura of success as a military force to be reckoned with in the Gulf region.
It is down to him that, for the first time, the army now outshines both the National Guard commanded by Mitab Bin Abdullah, scion of the late king who died in January, and the Border Guard, part of the domain of his rival, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
This altered balance among the three armed forces reflects strongly on the status of the princes which head them. The defense minister pulled ahead of his two rivals by his Yemen war stratagem of an ad hoc partnership with the UAE to gain a commando unit for the Saudi ground operation. He expanded this coalition by tacking Egypt onto it.
The United States is a silent partner in this Saudi-led Arab lineup, although Washington constantly zigzags between Barack Obama’s determination to conserve the détente with Tehran, as epitomized by the nuclear deal, and his need to calm Riyadh’s apprehensions over the regional threat posed by Iran’s ascendancy.
Two princes vie for the succession in two wars
The outcome of the two campaigns led by princely rivals will depend largely on their choices of outside partners. The king’s son, the defense minister, seems to act on impulse, his sporadic steps hard to pin down for defining his orientation. They recall the back-and-forth movements of the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud (1953-1964) which brought the embryonic realm into serious political and economic crises until he was forced to step down.
Interior Minister Bin Nayef remains faithful to Riyadh’s tradition of close ties with Washington. He has abstained from turning to outside helpers for ridding the kingdom of the ISIS threat.
The former’s advantage over the latter is that he is the king’s favorite son and as such may win a short cut for beating Crown Prince Bin Nayef to the throne after his father’s demise.
At the same time, his unfinished Yemen adventure and youth could give his adversaries fodder for arguing that he is too immature to attain the throne. Bin Nayef may in contrast seem to offer a steadier pair of hands and reliable traditional policies that are better suited to guiding the kingdom through dangerous times.