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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Royal Pains: Two Princes Vie for Power in Saudi Arabia, Make a Mess

Jan 23 2016, 5:24 am ET by Robert Windrem A rivalry between two princes may explain Saudi Arabia's sudden eagerness to pick fights at home and abroad, as the two men spark one international disaster after another while vying for the kingdom's throne. "To understand the Saudi royal family, you don't go to the Kennedy School of Government," says Bruce Riedel, the CIA's former national intelligence officer for the Middle East. "You read Shakespeare!" The struggle between Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Prince Mohammad bin Salman has all the elements of Elizabethan drama, including strange alliances, ambitious courtiers - and an ailing, ancient king who may be mentally incompetent. Diplomatic sources and U.S. officials believe 80-year-old King Salman, with whom Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet in Riyadh this weekend, shows signs of dementia. One official said that during a recent meeting, the king was only able to follow the conversation by pausing while an aide in another room typed a response that the king then read from an iPad. Some in the U.S. government believe that when King Salman declined to come to Camp David last spring to meet with President Obama, he was not just snubbing the president but trying to avoid embarrassment in front of world media. The princes who would take his place may be first cousins, but they're polar opposites. "MBN," as Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef is known, is 55 and a trusted U.S. ally. The interior minister and crown prince rose to power on his slow, steady success as head of the Saudi counterterrorism program, where he became a favorite of the CIA. He was sometimes also known as the Prince of Darkness because of his rank, his job in intelligence, and his night-owl habits. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz salutes the Kingdom's national anthem as he arrives to inaugurate the works of the Shura Council in Riyadh. Photo was made available on Dec. 23, 2015. Saudi Press Agency / Handout "MBS," Mohammad bin Salman, is King Salman's son. Just 29, he's the defense minister and a savvy publicity hound who shot to prominence in 2015 as the architect of Saudi Arabia's war against Yemen's Houthi rebels . "Bin Salman is a pop idol," notes Riedel, who is now at the Brookings Institution. "His picture is all over Saudi social media, on television, on billboards. There are pop music songs about him!" Bin Salman's trips to Russia, France and the U.S. were heavily covered in Saudi papers and burnished his image with the huge chunk of the kingdom's population that is under 30. "They can see themselves in him," said Riedel. "The system didn't normally operate that way." U.S. officials say the younger generations of the Saudi public seem energized by bold action, and the princes are competing for public favor by seeing who can take the most aggressive stance towards the nation's internal and external enemies. But their bold actions have brought risk and ruin. The byproducts of their power struggle now include mounting tension with Iran, an increasingly costly military quagmire in Yemen, and protests by Shiites around the world. Last month's beheading of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shi'ite cleric, which U.S. officials strongly believe was pushed by Prince bin Nayef, has led to a break in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and a wave of condemnation in the West. A war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, pushed by bin Salman, had initial success but is now a stalemate that costs the kingdom $200 million per day. Last year's decision to keep pumping oil in the face of declining prices, which both princes backed, has shrunk Saudi Arabia's economic power and led to lower revenues and vast cuts in social services. The rivalry is the result of an odd arrangement the royal family made after King Abdullah died in January 2015. The family's Allegiance Council anointed Salman king and bin Nayef crown prince. There were multiple rationales for appointing bin Nayef, aside from his counterterrorism work. He is the son of the late Prince Nayef, who would have been in line for the throne if he hadn't died before Abdullah. The new King Salman, however, then appointed his son, Mohammad bin Salman, deputy crown prince, placing him directly behind bin Nayef in the order of succession. Which of the two princes will win in the end? Salman has a very high opinion of his son. "The king thinks the sun shines out of the boy's backside," said Simon Henderson, director of the Washington Institute's Gulf and Energy Policy Program. When Secretary Kerry meets with King Salman this weekend, he will also be meeting with young bin Salman. Could Saudi Arabia and Iran's Diplomatic Spat Lead to Something Far Worse? 1:05 The public applauded the young prince's aggressive stance in Yemen. "To them, Saudi had never been so bold," said a Saudi journalist who wished to remain anonymous.. "The Yemen operation had finally upped the ante for Saudis. Saudi Arabia didn't need any more nurse maids. He represented them, he was in touch with them. The U.S. is less enthusiastic. Though he has compared himself to Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, bin Salman is not as enamored with the West as his older rival. Foreign intelligence services also question his decision-making. In December, the BND, Germany's intelligence agency, publicly released an extraordinary and scathing analysis of bin Salman, saying he is behind the kingdom's "impulsive policy of intervention." The minister of defense, the paper stated, "harbors a latent risk that in seeking to establish himself in the line of succession in his father's lifetime, he may overreach." Bin Nayef is favored --it's hardly an exaggeration to say beloved -- by the United States. More than one U.S. official has privately said bin Nayef is the man the U.S. wants to be king. When King Salman skipped last May's Camp David summit on Syria, seen as an affront to President Obama, he sent the two princes. Obama praised both but particularly noted bin Nayef's counterterrorism role. "Mohammed bin Nayef has been a partner with us on counterterrorism work and security work for a very long time. So we have great admiration for him," said the President. "This is the first time that we had had a chance to work closely with the Deputy Crown Prince, and I think he struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart, I think wise beyond his years." A senior U.S. intelligence official went even further, telling NBC News, "Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef is a strong and committed partner to the U.S., and he possesses an in-depth understanding on a range of security related issues. His pragmatic, proactive leadership in addressing complex security issues cannot be overstated."  Nimr al-Nimr Execution Ignites New Chapter in Shiite-Sunni Struggle 2:37 Here's one example cited by Riedel: When al-Qaida planted bombs on UPS and FedEx planes headed from Yemen to Chicago on the eve of the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, MBN called the White House and gave President Obama's terrorism advisor -- now CIA Director --John Brennan the tracking numbers for the deadly containers. The planes were then detained at stopovers and the bombs removed. It's not surprising. Bin Nayef has had an open line to the last four CIA directors, say U.S. officials. During the early post-9/11 years, bin Nayef would visit the U.S. four times a year to meet with his White House counterpart, Fran Fragos Thompson, sessions facilitated by bin Nayef's fluent English, learned in Oregon, where he attended Lewis and Clark College. Bin Nayef also studied at the FBI in the late 1980s, and at Scotland Yard's antiterrorism institute between 1992 and 1994. Another western diplomat told NBC News, "He is clearly very smart and ambitious but also focuses on what needs to be done and I would definitely describe him as a doer. One of the smartest things about him is that he has built up a team over the years that has a broad range of expertise and they are extremely loyal to him and if you look at the results successful." And he is no shrinking violet when dealing with the media. He will often leak tales of derring-do to the Saudi and other Middle Eastern media. No billboards, just a steady stream of positive stories with him as the hero. The older generation of Saudi princes, who are closer in age to bin Nayef, also question why King Salman has invested so much power in his 29-year-old son, according to the Saudi journalist. But whether the old guard's regard for bin Nayef and American affection for him will help him become king remains to be seen. Image: SAUDI-CONFLICT-COALITION Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holds a press conference on Dec. 14, 2015, at King Salman airbase in Riyadh. According to media reports, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a military coalition of 34 countries including Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey to fight "terrorism" in the Islamic world. but the alliance excludes regional rival Iran and several countries facing ongoing violence. Saudi Press Agency / via AFP - Getty Images "The fact the U.S. officials like him can be as much as hindrance as a help and he's caught up in what is best described as a battle royale," said Henderson, who added that bin Nayef "feels threatened by Mohammed bin Salman and would like to sideline him." Riedel thinks the U.S. may be making a mistake in pushing bin Nayef as hard as they have. He's no reformer, says Riedel, noting that for dissidents in the Middle East, bin Nayef is the "public face of repression in the kingdom," equating dissent with terror. Some of the "team" he has built up are informants. Riedel and others in the U.S. government, believe bin Nayef, who still controls the counterterrorism apparatus, had to be part of the decision-making process that led to al-Nimr's execution. Another U.S. official said, "It's in his portfolio." How does it end? Not well is the experts' consensus. Bin Salman controls access to the royal court along with his mother. Thus, Riedel says, bin Nayef, as crown prince, cannot meet with the king without his deputy's permission. Moreover, the king may not even be competent enough to control his succession, according to multiple sources. "Will the son connive with the favorite wife to deny Bin Nayef?" asks Reidel. "It happened in Jordan." But bin Nayef is a survivor, literally. He's survived assassination attempts --at least three and possibly four -- the most serious in August 2009 when the brother of al Qaeda bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri blew himself up while shaking hands with him. Bin Nayef suffered minor burns. "So he has luck," said Henderson, "which is seen as a valuable asset in Saudi culture." -- Andrea Mitchell contributed reporting to this story. ======================================== Sat Jan 23, 2016 7:16pm GMT Related: Davos Exclusive: Saudi-Iranian proxy war over Syria spreads to Davos DAVOS, Switzerland | By Paul Taylor Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (C) attends the session 'Responding to Fragility' of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (C) attends the session 'Responding to Fragility' of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 21, 2016. Reuters/Ruben Sprich Senior Saudi and Iranian figures clashed behind closed doors at a private meeting convened by the World Economic Forum in Davos this week to try to promote peace in Syria, participants said. The barbed exchange between Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at an invitation-only meeting on Wednesday underlined the hostility between the two Gulf rivals, who are waging proxy wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations and cut off trade and transport ties with Tehran two weeks ago after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran. The protests erupted following the Saudi execution of a leading Shi'ite cleric that outraged predominantly Shi'ite Iranians. The standoff highlights some of the reasons U.S.-Russian-backed peace talks on Syria may not open as planned in Geneva next week. There is no agreement on who should represent opponents of the Syrian government, and Riyadh-backed rebels are demanding that Russia first stop air strikes in Syria. An official photographer snapped Faisal and Zarif shaking hands outside the room. The picture was not distributed and any warmth evaporated when they sat around the table with U.N. and other senior officials. "It was a dialogue of the deaf," said one participant, who asked not to be identified because of the confidentiality of the session. Zarif denied any secret meeting with Prince Turki, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States. Asked at a news conference the same day whether he would meet any Saudi officials in Davos, he said: "There won't be any secret meeting." Prince Turki confirmed to Reuters that he had attended the session with Zarif and others but declined comment on what was said, citing the off-the-record ground rules of the meeting. U.N. special envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa of Egypt, the foreign ministers of Italy and Austria and officials from Turkey and several other Western nations were also around the table. SECTARIAN STRIFE De Mistura opened the meeting by saying the time was ripe for the Geneva peace talks because outside powers all wanted a political solution to the five-year-old civil war in Syria, the participants said. However, several speakers questioned Russia's motives for intervening in the conflict since September with air strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad. They cast doubt on whether Moscow and Tehran wanted any deal that would involve Assad's eventual departure. Zarif said Iran supported a political solution and had set out a four-point peace plan when it was finally invited to join international diplomacy on Syria last year. It had been excluded for years at U.S. and Saudi insistence. Without naming any country, he took a veiled swipe at Riyadh by condemning those, he said, who fanned and exploited sectarian differences between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims across the region. At his news conference, Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of having spent millions of dollars to lobby the U.S. Congress against an international deal on Iran's nuclear program. An agreement with Iran led to the lifting of U.N. sanctions on the country this week. He said Riyadh had panicked after the embassy attack and the Saudis needed to "come to their senses". Prince Turki hit back in the closed session, blasting Iran's role in the Syria conflict, the participants said. Quoting an Arabic saying, he told Zarif: "I really like what you say but when I look at what you do, I wonder." Prince Turki, the 70-year-old youngest son of the late King Faisal, accused Iran of having 10,000 fighters on the ground in Syria supporting Assad, participants said. He described the Syrian leader as a "terrorist killing his own people" who was directly kept in power by Tehran, the participants said. One participant said the prince's remarks were sharper than expected and shocked some of those attending the meeting. While declining to comment on the exchange, Prince Turki told Reuters the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had boasted publicly that Iran had 120,000 fighters in Arab countries. Iran has acknowledged that officers of its Revolutionary Guards have been killed in Syria, but it denies having a large military presence in the country or participating directly in combat operations. Officials close to Damascus and familiar with military developments have said that hundreds of Iranian fighters have joined the ground war in Syria since Russia began its air strikes last September, many of them deployed near Aleppo. A Middle East diplomat said the Iranian presence was closer to 2,000 Revolutionary Guards, but they were augmented by several thousand Shi'ite volunteers from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq who had received military training in Iran. Zarif did not respond to Prince Turki's attack in the meeting and the rest of the session was inconclusive. U.N. envoy de Mistura lamented that "this is the third year we are talking about Syria and not getting anywhere", one participant said. He said the Europeans at the table only talked about the humanitarian situation and the refugee crisis and how to stop refugees reaching Europe. (Writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Larry King)

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