Friday, November 4, 2011

Saudi Arabia: Keeping It In The Family

By Jane Kinninmont

The New Saudi Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud

The naming of Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud as Saudi Arabia's new crown prince was no great surprise, but has nonetheless highlighted ongoing questions about the generation gap in Saudi Arabia, and about the capacity for the country's political system to evolve in a changing Middle East. Prince Nayef, who has been the Interior Minister since 1975 and who was appointed to the second deputy prime minister in 2009, had long been seen as the most likely successor to the previous crown prince, Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud. After King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, Prince Nayef is the most senior of the surviving sons of the country's founder, King Abdel-Aziz, who passed away in 1953. Saudi Arabia has had six kings since then, all brothers. Of course, this generation is aging; Prince Sultan was at least 83 when he died and Prince Nayef is 78. One of the biggest questions about Saudi Arabia's future is how it will manage the transition to the next generation of princes. King Abdel-Aziz had 37 sons; the grandsons are far more numerous.

As interior minister, Prince Nayef already has a significant power base; his ministry oversees most of the well-funded internal security, paramilitary, and intelligence forces, including the public security forces, civil defense, border guards, the special security forces, and the religious police. However, authority over the security forces is divided, preventing anyone from having total control and thus reducing the risk of a coup; there is a regular army that reports to the Ministry of Defense, and a separate National Guard that reports directly to the king. The interior ministry also has extensive patronage networks because it is a major employer with a large budget. Indeed, one sign of Prince Nayef's growing power came in March when the king announced that 60,000 new jobs would be created in the interior ministry as part of a massive program of new government spending that was estimated by the Saudi investment advisory firm Jadwa to be worth SR 500 billion ($133 billion) over several years. This boost to the number of people on the interior ministry payroll can also be seen as an expansion of Prince Nayef's personal patronage network and power base.

Despite the scripted succession, a wide range of reformist groups, including women's rights campaigners, liberals, human-rights campaigners, and activists from the country's Shia minority are concerned about the growing power of one of the country's most politically conservative princes. For instance, Mohammed Al-Qahtani of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association said Prince Nayef does not have reformist qualities and that the country would lose out by appointing a hardliner.

This concern may be warranted. Crown Prince Nayef has said in the past that he does not see the need for women to vote, and he has recently blamed unrest in the Eastern province on foreign intervention, ignoring the longstanding domestic grievances around the political marginalization of the Shia population there. Nayef's supporters in Western capitals suggest that as king he would adopt a less conservative approach than is required by an interior minister, but this is likely wishful thinking.

The consequences go beyond Saudi Arabia. The country could become increasingly out of sync with a changing Arab region. While seniority remains extremely important in Saudi politics, other Arab countries are being dramatically altered by new youth-led social movements. Recalling that Prince Nayef became interior minister before Hosni Mubarak even came to power in Egypt,  the vast majority of the population in Saudi Arabia is less than half the age of Prince Nayef. The Arab monarchs that currently hold out the most promise of political reform -- those of Morocco and Jordan -- are men in their forties who both came to power in 1999. Almost no one of Prince Nayef's generation remains in top positions in the Arab world; the exceptions include the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Sayed Al Sayed, who came to the throne in 1970, and the prime minister of Bahrain, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who assumed his position upon Bahrain's independence in 1971.

Indeed, there is a widespread view in Bahrain that Prince Nayef was a key force behind the Saudi intervention there earlier this year. The entry of Saudi (and UAE) troops to Bahrain in March was officially part of a GCC drive to protect the ruling Al Khalifa against a foreign plot. It was also a clear demonstration that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate people calling for a republic in the GCC, and as such was a warning to Saudis as well as to Bahrainis. However, the groups calling for a republic in Bahrain were a minority. The mainstream opposition sought a constitutional monarchy with a stronger parliament -- and an elected prime minister. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain did not just support the ruling family. It directly protected the prime minister from the risk that the opposition would strike a deal with some of the ruling-family reformists to remove him from power as a step towards a new political era. Such a move would have set an unwelcome precedent from the point of view of a senior Saudi prince such as Nayef, poised to take the crown prince title.

Prince Nayef is also seen as a leading force in Saudi policy towards Yemen. Traditionally, Prince Sultan had led on Yemen policy, but his illness had been limiting his role for some time. Meanwhile, the interior minister has been concerned with the possible risks that Yemen could pose to Saudi national security, particularly through the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula militants based there. One of these militants, a Saudi national, tried to assassinate Nayef's son, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the assistant interior minister, in 2009. Prince Nayef approaches Yemen mainly through a counterterrorism lens -- not unlike the U.S.

Additionally, there remains the question of who will succeed Prince Sultan in his other role as the minister of defense. This is one of the top ministries in the country and represents a major power base for whichever prince heads it. One option would be the long-serving vice-minister of defense, Abdulrahman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, a brother of Prince Nayef and half-brother of the king. Alternatively, media reports on Monday claimed that Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, a half-brother of King Abdullah and Prince Nayef, and the current governor of Riyadh, would be the next defense minister. Prince Salman is regarded as more liberal, is said to be popular among younger princes, and is himself relatively young by Saudi government standards, being merely in his sixties.

Another option might be to elevate one of Sultan's sons, Prince Khaled, who is already the assistant minister of defense. Such a move would be an important transfer of power to a next-generation prince. But this would place added pressure on other senior princes, including Prince Nayef, to seek further advancement for their own sons. Another of Prince Nayef's sons, Prince Saud bin Nayef, formerly ambassador to Spain, joined the interior ministry in July as an advisor to his father.

To help manage the complicated transfer of power to the next generation, King Abdullah has set up a council of senior princes to advise on the succession in the future. According to a 2006 law, this Allegiance Council will ultimately have the right to reject the king's nomination for crown prince and to suggest an alternative if a majority of its members are agreed. Legally, it also has the power to remove a king if an independent team of medics finds him to be incapacitated. The law establishing this council stated that it would not come into effect until after the current king. The Saudi state media reports suggest that it was briefly consulted on Prince Nayef's succession, but it seems not to have had any lengthy debate; presumably there was already sufficient consensus.

In the future, given the advancing age of the current generation of senior princes, the council's ability to remove a king for medical reasons could be an important tool. But overall, the Al Saud family has a big incentive to maintain consensus and avoid damaging splits over succession issues -- lest this encourage their growing young population, who have been watching the regional developments on satellite TV and YouTube, to challenge the entire concept of family rule.

Jane Kinninmont is the Senior Research Fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a UK-based policy research institute

Thursday, November 3, 2011

You Say You Wanna Bomb Iran? Take A Number And Stand In Line

By Tony Karon

Ballistic missiles are paraded past a podium from which Major General Hassan Firoozabadi and other military commanders observe a parade commemorating the 31st anniversary of Iran-Iraq war on September 22, 2011 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Yes, you heard right: Britain  is preparing to bomb Iran. Well, that's if the latest reported leaks from the British government are to be believed. The Guardian -- not known, like some of its British rivals are, for frequent breathless front-page claims of imminent military strikes on Iran -- reported Wednesday that Britain's Defense Ministry has stepped up plans for military action against Iran. Not that the Brits would kick things off, of course; their contingency planning is ostensibly geared towards playing a largely symbolic support role (think "Coalition of the Willing")  should the Obama Administration "decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities."

Beneath the attention-grabbing headline, the story is a familiar one:  British officials believe that while President Barack Obama "has no wish to embark on a new and provocative military venture before next November's U.S. election ... the calculus could change because of mounting anxiety over intelligence gathered by Western agencies, and the more belligerent posture that Iran appears to have been taking."

The Guardian's sources create the impression of dramatic new developments and a ticking clock, although the consensus among the  world's intelligence agencies that Iran remains some years away from having  nuclear weapons, and has not yet decided to actually build them even though it is assembling the means to do so. But the alarmist messaging certainly jibes with an Israeli diplomatic campaign launched to persuade reluctant governments to impose tough new sanctions on Iran if they hope to avoid a potentially catastrophic war. Israel underscored the point, Wednesday, announcing it had successfully tested a missile capable of reaching Iran -- at the same time as Israeli papers were filled with stories claiming that  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking cabinet approval for bombing Iran.

That, too, is an old story warmed over, and former Israeli intelligence chiefs have publicly denounced the idea of a military strike on Iran as misguided and potentially disastrous for Israel -- it could at best only succeed in delaying Iran's program (and ensure that it pursues a nuclear deterrent) but it would unleash a protracted regional war that Israel couldn't win, warned former Mossad chief Meir Dagan earlier this year. But regardless of its real intentions, dangling a threat to bomb Iran has been a central part of Israel's strategy in recent years.

President Obama's point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, had written before joining the Administration that if governments reluctant to impose harsh measures on Iran believed the alternative was Israel starting a war, they would be more inclined to back new sanctions. And there's certain a new sanctions push in the works, right now. The "intelligence" being cited by the Guardian's sources to suggest a new urgency is hardly new -- it's material collected some time ago by Western agencies that purports to show that Iran has been doing theoretical work on designs for a nuclear warhead. What's new is the fact that the U.S. has been pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to include those allegations in its latest report on Iran, scheduled for release later this month. The IAEA has questioned Iran's intent and  raised questions about many of is activities, but it has not until now accused Iran of running an active nuclear weapons program. A Western official told the Guardian that revelations about bomb-design work will be a "game-changer" that forces Russia and China to get on board with U.S. sanctions efforts.

It's not clear, though, whether those charges will  make it into the IAEA report -- China and Russia are lobbying against what they see as an attempt to enlist the nuclear watchdog in the service of a U.S. agenda --  but even if they're in the report, Moscow and Beijing are unlikely to join the sanctions push. It wouldn't be the first time the U.S. had assumed  that  some new 'gotcha' piece of intelligence would change the game, only to be disappointed.

Indeed, former Bush Administration national security staffer Michael Singh argued in Foreign Policy this week that the only way to change China's position on sanctions would be to prepare for a military attack, which, if it went ahead, would disrupt China's energy supplies. A familiar argument, that one.

As to the claim by the Guardian's sources  that Iran had lately adopted a more belligerent posture, the evidence offered  was the bizarre Saudi embassy bombing plot, which much of the international community remains to be convinced was actually an official Iranian effort.

For the rest, there's not much new: Iran is restoring its uranium enrichment capability damaged by the Stuxnet computer worm and protecting it in hardened facilities. But none of that provides anything close to a casus belli that might be deemed credible by most of the international community. The chances of getting legal authorization for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities from the U.N. Security Council right now are slender, at best.

The Guardian piece, in fact, deflates its own alarmist premise when a government source notes that there has been "no acceleration toward military action by the U.S. but that could change." Well, yes, although it's hard to imagine why a government source would require anonymity for sharing a truism. There's no obvious reason for the urgency of the timetables suggested by the officials briefing the Guardian -- they suggested Obama would have to make a fateful decision next spring -- other than the fact that the Iranians haven't changed tack,  despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions plus a raft of additional measures adopted unilaterally by Western powers, and considerable saber rattling by the Israelis. The urgency would need to be politically generated, however, because of the  assumption that Iran wins the long game absent some dramatic game-changing action on the part of its adversaries. And then there's the fact that the U.S. is entering an election year.

In a companion piece to its UK preparations for military action story, the Guardian notes that despite Obama's reluctance to drag the U.S. into another Middle East war with potentially disastrous consequences, he enters his reelection year under pressure from Israel over Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu could even force Obama's hand by initiating an attack on Iran that the U.S. might feel compelled to join in order to ensure its success. (The Israeli leader has certainly shown a willingness to defy Obama on issues where he believes he has the support of Capitol Hill, and attacking Iran would certainly be one of those.) Obama is no closer to persuading or pressuring Iran into backing down on its nuclear program than when he ran for office four years ago, promising the engagement he said had been missing from the Bush approach. Washington hawks say engagement was tried and failed, and it's time to ratchet up the pressure. Doves argue that engagement wasn't given a serious go or was disrupted by Iran's internal power struggle, and should be resumed.

Electoral calculations, however, would more likely prompt Obama to toughen up his stance. The problem, of course, is that a harder line appears no more likely to persuade Iran to back down than a softer one, but more bellicose rhetoric from Obama could have the unintended effect of narrowing his options. A U.S. military strike on Iran would not mark the first time in history that a country had found itself marching to war without having really intended to do so.

-This commentary was published in Time on 02/11/2011