Saudi Interior Ministry: “A State within a State”

The appointment of Prince Mohammed Ibn Naif in early November 2012 as head of the most powerful and feared Saudi institution, the notorious Ministry of Interior, has greater significance than King Abdullah’s explanation that he was simply relieving Prince Ahmed from his position, as per his request. Personally, King Abdullah has been waiting for the day when he could bring the Ministries of Defense and Interior under his control since he took over the day-to-day business of running the country in 1996.

The King had never been a favorite of the late Interior and Defense Ministers, Princes Naif and Sultan whom he had to struggle with since he was appointed Crown Prince in 1982. Their deaths in 2012 and 2011 respectively presented the King with an opportunity even he never thought would occur, given the fact that he is older than both of them and has not been in good health for a long time.

Prince Ahmed, whom Prince Mohammed recently replaced, is one of the surviving politically active brothers of the powerful “Sudairi Seven” (seven brothers from the first Saudi king’s favorite wife), which includes Princes Sultan and Naif. These Sudairi Seven have been accused of “monopolizing power and blocking reform,” including King Abdullah’s cosmetic initiatives. It has been reported that when Abdullah was Crown Prince, he had to seek the approval of Naif regarding any security concerns. A former official admitted that the Ministry of Interior had become “a state within a state.”

Like his brothers, the recently deposed Prince Ahmed is said to insist on continuing his predecessor’s policy which King Abdullah and other members in the royal family have been waiting to restructure to ensure that the ministry will focus on security and submit to the King. Saudi analysts who are familiar with Prince Mohammed say that he supports King Abdullah’s measured reform initiatives while Ahmed does not.

Additionally, Western powers prefer to see Prince Mohammed in charge of the Interior Ministry because he is perceived to be progressive, educated in the West, and a supporter of the King’s reforms. More important, Prince Mohammed, unlike his father, is said to cooperate with Western intelligence agencies in pursuing terrorists both inside and outside of the Kingdom.

Under its former heavy-handed and insubordinate Minister, Naif, the Saudi Ministry of Interior oversaw and controlled all aspects of the state’s internal security apparatus, including layers of civil defense agencies, land and sea borders, airports, drug trafficking control, all domestic intelligence and informant agencies, religious police, regular police, customs, prisons and passport agencies. The Ministry also exerted substantial influence on the sectarian Saudi judicial system and the religious establishment.

The Ministry is reported to employ about 100 thousand people, a figure which was documented prior to King Abdullah’s decision in March 2011 to authorize 60 thousand additional security personnel. These figures put the Interior Ministry significantly ahead of the regular armed and National Guard forces. This is unlikely to change since the monarchy’s first and foremost concern is its security and continuity.

Furthermore, it is feared, and rightly so, that after the passing of the last two of the well-recognized and traditionally respected first generation of Saudi rulers, King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman, the second and third generations will be vying for power based on education and achievement records as opposed to seniority, tribal loyalty and family ties.

Unlike the sons and daughters of the founding Saudi patriarch, King Abdul Aziz, the younger royals are less cohesive, more educated and many of them are from foreign mothers who raised their offspring differently than their fathers and mothers were raised. Many of the younger royals have more in common with many in society than with their parents. The majority of second and third royal generations grew up and trained in non-Saudi schools including Nuns Missions. This reality can spell trouble for the country and its Western allies, particularly the US.

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The Saudi Interior Ministry’s central mission is to ensure the continuity of the Al-Saud family’s hegemonic rule over all aspects of the Saudi people’s lives and livelihood. Given this fact, no one should assume that King Abdullah or any monarch will attempt to undermine the Ministry’s dominance over the royal family’s security. However, Prince Mohammed has an opportunity to humanize the Ministry since he is a reformer and different from his unpopular father.

Prince Mohammed can restore the public trust in his Ministry by eliminating the role of the most hated group in his ministry, the religious police. He can put an end to arbitrary arrests of political reformers and stop throwing them in Saudi prisons without charges or trial for months and years. Prince Mohammed can stop torture in Saudi prisons and open them to Saudi and non-Saudi human rights groups to find out how prisoners are treated. He can insist on expeditious and open trials for political prisoners and ensure access of prisoners’ families at all times. These steps are humane, feasible and politically prudent, if indeed King Abdullah and his nephew Minister Mohammed are truly reformers and care for their suffering citizens as they claim.

Finally, smooth succession to the Saudi throne is likely to be disrupted once the second and third generations of Saudi princes begin to compete for power. When this occurs, as many Saudi analysts suspect it will, it could plunge the country into political turmoil and even civil strife, which would necessitate the US, as Saudi Arabia’s major super power ally, intervention militarily to protect Saudi Arabia’s and other Gulf Arab states’ oil fields, production and shipping facilities. America is the only superpower that is capable and acceptable to producers and consumers to secure the flow of oil without which the world economies could collapse.

However, the US is more likely to pay a very high price if it were to intervene militarily to ensure the flow of Arabian oil through the explosive Persian Gulf. Even though Arabs and Muslims will suffer immensely from major disruption of oil production and sales, the majority of them will turn against the US and accuse it of being anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.

In order to avoid this eventuality, Washington is in a position now to exert pressure on the Saudis and other Gulf Arab rulers, privately and publicly, to embark on tangible political reforms that will give their populations a stake in the safety and security of their countries, as a country can only be truly secure and stable if its own citizens are its defenders.

It’s not too late for the US to inform its oil rich Arab allies that the time for real change is overdue.

Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.