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Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef Rises Amid Syria Turmoil

Posted by on Monday, February 24, 2014, 10:10
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Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, perhaps the most powerful younger prince in the ruling al-Saud family, is shaping Riyadh’s new emphasis on protecting the kingdom from a fresh wave of militancy inspired by the war in Syria.

Mohammed bin Nayef

Mohammed bin Nayef

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.

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