The United States pulled out the stops for him when he visited
Washington last week to prepare for President Barack Obama's
fence-mending trip to Riyadh next month.
Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice,
Central Intelligence Agency chief John Brennan, Homeland Security
Secretary Jeh Johnson, Federal Bureau of Investigation director
James Comey and National Security Agency director Keith Alexander
all sat down with the 54-year-old, a veteran of Saudi Arabia's fight
against al Qaeda.
Prince Mohammed seems likely to be a central figure in the world's
top oil exporter for decades to come. Many Saudis say he is a strong
candidate to become king one day.
"He's now playing not only the role of Interior Minister, but also
that of a senior diplomat and adviser to the king," said Robert
Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03.
"He is probably someone destined for even greater responsibilities
in Saudi Arabia in due course," he said.
In recent weeks Prince Mohammed's influence has become more apparent
in Saudi policy on Syria, where the kingdom's rulers fear their
support for rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad may
inadvertently revitalize radicalism at home.
Officials in Riyadh have noticed an increase both in Saudi jihadis
leaving for Syria and in online chatter supporting Islamist
militancy. This month King Abdullah decreed prison terms of 3-20
years on Saudis who go abroad to fight.
Saudi Arabia's goal of toppling Assad, an ally of its regional rival
Iran, is unchanged, but it is refocusing on countering militancy,
and is trying to ease differences on Syria with Washington, say
Saudi and diplomatic sources in the Gulf.
So Prince Mohammed, who has built trust with U.S. security officials
over a decade of cooperation against al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and
Yemen, is playing a bigger role.
"He has a lot of credibility," said a diplomatic source in the Gulf.
"The fact that he is going to Washington now to say terrorism is a
shared concern is a smart message."
Obama's visit to Riyadh is aimed at smoothing three years of
tensions between the two historic allies over policy on Syria, Iran
and Egypt. Saudi Arabia still hopes to convince the United States to
adopt a more muscular approach on Syria that would counter both
Assad and the rebel groups closest to al Qaeda.
As the man behind Saudi efforts to crush an al Qaeda uprising last
decade waged by veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Prince
Mohammed is acutely aware of the dangers posed by Saudi militants
who have fought overseas.
That campaign was so successful that al Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula sent an assassin to kill the prince in 2009, posing as a
would-be defector before detonating a bomb hidden in his clothes.
Prince Mohammed narrowly survived that attack and was named interior
minister in November 2012, inheriting a role held by his hardline
father, the late Crown Prince Nayef, for 37 years.
The al-Saud family is now slowly transferring power to a younger
generation, although it will probably be a decade or so before the
interior minister or one of his cousins becomes king.
Unlike in European monarchies, the Saudi succession does not move
from father to eldest son, but down a line of sons of the state's
founder, King Abdulaziz, of whom only a few remain.
In a family that prizes experience and seniority, Prince Mohammed is
already well placed, running a ministry that gives him a say in most
big government issues and puts him in charge of the regional
governors, who are all princes themselves.
It will be his generation that will have to tackle major challenges
looming for Saudi Arabia, such as overhauling an unsustainable
economy built on state handouts while managing social and political
reform in a deeply conservative society.
While his views on such issues may prove pivotal to the kingdom's
future, Prince Mohammed keeps them close to his chest, according to
people who have spoken with him.
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"Everybody thinks he is a good friend. Both liberals and
conservatives will say 'I sat with Mohammed bin Nayef'. He cannot be
labeled as one thing or another," said Jamal Khashoggi, head of a TV
news channel owned by a Saudi prince.
One clue to his approach lies in a dingy suburb of eastern Riyadh,
behind high sandstone walls topped with razor wire: the Prince
Mohammed bin Nayef Centre of Counseling and Care.
Better known abroad as Saudi Arabia's controversial rehabilitation
program for militants, the center is the only institution named for
Prince Mohammed in a country where senior royals wear their
attachment to favored causes with pride.
It blends Western techniques such as psychiatry with lectures by
clerics from the kingdom's official Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam,
who do not dispute the virtues of waging jihad, but who insist it is
the prerogative of the state.
"He understands the connection between education, faulty religious
teaching and extremism," said Jordan, the former ambassador, who
said he spent many nights sitting up with Prince Mohammed discussing
such issues after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United
States, in which 15 Saudis took part.
"His approach was to counter the source of those fraudulent and
erroneous interpretations and to explain, using Koranic principles,
the way extremists were twisting things," he said.
By showing mercy to militants, he was also working to show Saudis
that the government was not the dictatorship al Qaeda had painted it
as. The program has not been an undiluted success, with some of its
alumni fleeing to Yemen to resume the struggle.
For all his close connections with the West, liberal activists see
Prince Mohammed's security-focused approach as a danger to civil
liberties, and point to his ministry's record of locking up
dissidents for criticizing the ruling family.
Since he became interior minister 15 months ago, several prominent
dissidents have been jailed.
His critics see him less as the Western-educated fan of Hollywood
action films described by foreign officials, and more as the heir to
a steely security apparatus built up by his conservative father
Prince Nayef, who was interior minister from 1975 until his sudden
death in 2012.
"He has been in the role of dealing with terrorism violence for
almost all his political life. He doesn't strike me as someone who
would be able to listen to a reform agenda," said Madawi al-Rasheed,
a critic of the al-Saud family and author of A History of Saudi
But Mustafa Alani, a Gulf-based security analyst who has worked
closely with the Saudi Interior Ministry and knows Prince Mohammed,
disputed this view, describing him as "one of those who supports
reform: ready to listen, and who thinks that people have the right
to express their opinion".
However, as interior minister, the prince was bound to uphold Saudi
laws banning protests or overt criticism of senior royals and
clerics, Alani said, adding: "You're talking about the most
sensitive job in Saudi Arabia. It controls everything from criminal
issues to political security. To manage this and still enjoy a
degree of popularity and trust is not easy."
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Alistair Lyon)
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