Changes in Saudi Arabia and Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

With the entire world seemingly distracted by the U.S. presidential elections last week (not to mention China’s once-a-decade leadership transition), it would be easy to fail to notice other important leadership changes around the world, especially in the Middle East. Two recent developments in particular are worth highlighting: the replacement of Saudi Arabia’s interior minister and the selection of a new leader for the Syrian National Council. While the latter has received some attention, many have overlooked the importance of the appointment of Prince Muhammad bin Naif as the country’s powerful interior minister — an important generational shift.

As Chatham House’s Jane Kinninmont notes, Western observers seem to have been taken by surprise by the recent “promotion of Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud to be the new Saudi interior minister…. However, it is likely to be welcomed in Western capitals as a sign that a younger generation of Al Saud princes are taking on a greater role in decision-making in a system sometimes described as a gerontocracy, where septuagenarians and octagenarians rule a population that is mostly under thirty….This latest move would seem to increase the likelihood of the royal succession moving to the third generation earlier than many expected….The succession will depend critically on private consultations within the family — which has a formal council to help the king decide on the political succession — and thus remains a guessing game for outside observers.”

Pratibha Thaker agrees, suggesting in an article for Middle East Voices (VOA) that, while the appointment is a bold step, it still makes the question of succession a guessing game: “After just four months at the helm, Ahmed bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud has been replaced as Saudi Arabia’s interior minister in favor of his deputy (and nephew), Mohammed bin Nayef….The appointment of Prince Mohammed, who was assistant interior minister between 1999 and July 2012 (and deputy interior minister thereafter), is a logical move and should ensure a substantial measure of continuity in this important function. However, the removal of Prince Ahmed will have a far greater impact on internal ruling family machinations….King Abdullah’s favoring of comparative youth — Prince Mohammed, who is his nephew, is around 53 — over one of his own brothers is a highly unusual step….It may turn out that Prince Mohammed’s appointment is a bold promotion reflecting ability, but not one that yet denotes a clearer path to the next generation of rulers.”

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, the media has predictably welcomed the news, lavishing praise on the King as well as the new interior minister. The Arab News editorial, for example, argues that the newly-appointed Prince Muhammad bin Naif is especially appropriate, considering his anti-terrorism credentials: “The few exceptions to this prevailing sentiment are the hidden men of violence, the bigoted killers of Al-Qaeda, who, both here and elsewhere in the world, already have cause to fear the new minister….It is because of this toughness and this dogged determination, coupled with outstanding organizational powers, that Prince Muhammad is so feared by al-Qaeda. Therefore it stands to reason that every decent person living in the Kingdom, whether Saudi or expatriate, should wish Prince Muhammad every success in his challenging new task.”

The other main Saudi daily, the Saudi Gazette, also considers Prince Muhammad bin Naif a “formidable opponent…. The Kingdom has been in the front line of the fight against the evil of Bin Laden’s followers, and no one has played a more central role than Prince Muhammad Bin Naif Bin Abdul Aziz. Thus his appointment as Minister of the Interior by King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is a significant and welcome development. Few people know more about al-Qaeda and its threat, not simply to Saudi Arabia but to the wider world….The appointment of Prince Muhammad as Minister of the Interior, therefore it sends a strong signal, that Saudi Arabia is in no way going to lower its guard. It also makes clear that those terrorists who would do the Kingdom harm are facing an indomitable and highly experienced opponent.”

Finally, Turki Abdulla Al Sadiri highlights another aspect of the new Interior Minister’s qualifications. In an article for Al Riyadh, Al Sadiri looks at how Prince Mohammad has handled the balance between the rights of accused and the need to defend the people against terror attacks: “Ministries of Interior in the third world, in general, and the Arab World, in particular, have been always looked at as powers that represent arbitrariness which do not differentiate between the actual defendant and the suspected one and do not try to spread awareness about such risks. However, the behavior of Prince Mohammad was contrary to this as it has been dealing (with such cases) through long-term objective awareness….Our contentment increases when the thought of awareness and competence continues through the presence of Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef, May God Preserve him and increase the distinguished features he’s got.”

Another important development in the region was the announcement by the Syrian National Council — the main governing body of the Syrian opposition, which has so far failed to gain international or local traction — that the new head of the SNC would be a Christian. Around the world the reaction has been positive and complimentary for what many consider to be a politically-astute decision. The Peninsula editorial believes the SNC “has taken a major and bold step towards realizing their objectives by agreeing to unite against Bashar Al Assad….The failure of the talks would have dealt a lethal blow to the Syrian uprising and strengthened the hands of Bashar Al Assad and weakened Arab and Western efforts to find a solution to the crisis.  It’s this realization which persuaded disparate to arrive at a consensus….The signing of the unity deal provides a golden opportunity both for the opposition and their backers abroad to bring the revolution to an early and happy end. For the same reason, even the slightest fissures in the new group can result in disastrous consequences for the revolution.”

In an article on Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed also believes the decision to put a Christian at the head of the SNC is significant, while cautioning “the election of Sabra does not mean we have achieved our desired hope for reform in our region….The important thing today is that the Syrian opposition, with the presence of Arab and international supervision, has been able to take a significant step, and this is what I have said over the past two years. This sends a message to al-Assad, namely that his days are numbered.”

This most recent development serves to put even more pressure on the Assad regime in Syria. What is needed now, at least according to a Khaleej Times editorial, is a more united front on the part of the Western powers: “British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to assist Syrian rebels to help shape opposition against Assad, in cooperation with the newly re-elected Barack Obama….Syria is at its most critical juncture; now is the make or break moment for Syria’s dissidents who have been battling a rogue regime…. The international community needs to jump to their side and need to do this now.”

Ultimately though, the burden of ousting the Assad regime rests on the shoulders of the Syrian people, living both outside and inside Syria: “To be sure, the new body — the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces — has hard work ahead of it….The formation of the council was been welcomed by a diverse group of opposition voices, from minorities and Sunnis alike. But the coalition is still fragile and could disintegrate if it does not receive sufficient support from Syrians, as well as from the international community….The new coalition’s leaders say several countries had pledged financial and military support if the opposition unified. This will take time. What cannot wait, however, is a better coordinated relief effort between those Syrians inside and outside the country.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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