by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 7, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1436)
“Uneasy lies a head that wears the crown” is a phrase that was coined in Europe when it was engulfed in internecine conflict among warring knights as well as kings facing rebellious barons during the Dark Ages. Some, like Charles I (1649ce) and Louis XVI (1793ce) ended up on the chopping block. The French king’s wife, the Austrian-born duchess, Marie Antoinette faced the guillotine nine months after her husband’s public execution. Today, the monarchy is little more than an expensive piece of decoration to keep the European masses amused and to divert their attention from the drudgery of life.
While Europe has largely discarded the monarchical system — the monarchs that remain no longer determine policy or interfere in the day-to-day running of government — it still plagues some parts of the Muslim world, especially the Muslim East (aka the Middle East). There is nothing “royal” about the clowns that occupy obscenely expensive palaces. Almost all of them are a British creation and installed on the throne to serve British colonial interests. With Britain’s decline as an imperial power at the end of the Second World War, these regimes transferred their allegiance to the US.
Of the myriad regimes — in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, etc. — the one in the Arabian Peninsula is the most troublesome. It has caused immense damage to the world of Islam by its disruptive policies and obscurantist ideas. But digging holes for others is risky business. There is more than an even chance of falling into a dug hole. This is what is happening to the Najdi Bedouins of Bani Saud.
The takfiri terrorists that go by various brand names — Da‘ish, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) — are the product of Wahhabi obscurantist thinking. Extremely narrow-minded and possessed by the demonic notion of branding other Muslims they disagree with as “kafirs” and, therefore, considered legitimate targets for killing (there is no sanction for such conduct in the noble Qur’an or the Sunnah and the Sirah of the noble Messenger – r), the takfiris have started to attack the Saudi regime as well. Hitherto, they exploded themselves in masjids frequented by Shi‘i Muslims or in crowded supermarkets but they have now turned their wrath on the Saudi regime and its minions as well.
The most recent attack occurred in a masjid in Abha, southern Saudi Arabia close to the border with Yemen. According to Saudi state television, al-Ekhbariya, 12 elite troops were killed in the August 6 suicide bombing. This came in the wake of the arrest of hundreds of takfiris in different parts of the Kingdom. The takfiris were clearly sending a message that their strength had not been affected by the large-scale arrests. In an internet statement, the takfiri-affiliated group “al-Hijaz Pro-vince” said it carried out the attack by detonating an explosive vest. The Saudi Interior Ministry said the suicide bomber was a Saudi citizen dressed in the elite SWAT team uniform.
The takfiris have been spawned and supported by Wahhabi preachers and businessmen to target other Muslims who do not subscribe to the Wahhabis’ obscurantist ideas, especially in Syria and Iraq but also in “Saudi” Arabia itself. Shi‘i Muslims in the Eastern part of “Saudi” Arabia have been repeatedly targeted in terrorist attacks. In May, the Imam ‘Ali Masjid in al-Qadeeh village in the Eastern Province was targeted killing 21 Shi‘i Muslims in the masjid. The takfiri-affiliated group calling itself “Najd Province” claimed responsibility for that attack. A week later, another Shi‘i masjid in the Eastern Province was targeted killing four people.
The Abha masjid attack is worrying for the Najdi Bedouin rulers of the Arabian Peninsula for several reasons. First, the monsters they have created ostensibly to target people outside the Kingdom have now started to attack them inside the Kingdom. Second, the attack targeted elite Interior Ministry troops indicating penetration of the supposedly secure areas and elite troops in the country. Third, the Najdi Bedouins have launched a vicious attack on Yemen and killed thousands of innocent people in the impoverished country but achieved few of their political or military objectives.
Failure in Yemen has added to the ruling family’s woes already bedevilled by problems of legitimacy and demands for reforms. There are two people in key positions that are most worried: Crown Prince and Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Muhammad bin Salman. Of the two, the older “royal” — Muhammad bin Nayef — has a lot more to lose. Here is why.
He has already escaped four assassination attempts. In the third attempt on his life on August 27, 2009, he was slightly wounded when a suicide bomber linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) gained access to his palace by tricking the ruling family. Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri originally from Yemen’s Ma‘rib province used the Kingdom’s rehabilitation program to gain access to Muhammad bin Nayef’s palace in Jeddah.
Several days prior to the attack, al-Asiri spoke to Ibn Nayef who then served as Assistant Interior Minister and was in charge of the Kingdom’s counter-terrorism program in the ministry. At the time the interior ministry was headed by his father, Prince Nayef ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. In his conversation with Muhammad bin Nayef, al-Asiri expressed the desire to turn himself in as part of the country’s terrorist rehabilitation program. This was the assistant interior minister’s pet project.
He allowed al-Asiri into the palace who had lined up with others to “greet” the prince. The suicide bomber had planted a bomb in his body cavity that he exploded when he came close to Muhammad bin Nayef. The latter was slightly injured, cushioned by the body of the bomber. Following the explosion, Muhammad bin Nayef appeared on state television with a bandage around two fingers of his left hand. He said, “I did not want him to be searched, but he surprised me by blowing himself up. However, this will only increase my determination to fight terrorism in the Kingdom.”
Perhaps but a year later, there was another attempt on his life from which he barely escaped unhurt. Muhammad bin Nayef is a marked man. He faces threats from two different sources. The takfiri terrorists cum al-Qaeda have marked him for assassination because he is leading the campaign against them. Both the US and Britain have praised his efforts to confront the terrorists. He was trained by the American FBI (1985–1988) as well as the British Scotland Yard (1992–1994). Thus, he is a product of their training and their man in the Kingdom. This as well as the fact that he was the son of the Kingdom’s interior minister made him a natural choice to be appointed Assistant Interior Minister in 1999. His specific duty was to deal with the threat from al-Qaeda, at the time led by Osama bin Laden.
Upon the death of Prince Nayef in July 2012, another “Saudi royal,” Ahmed ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was appointed Interior Minister but King Abdullah elevated Muhammad to the position of Deputy Interior Minister. Within a few weeks (November 5, 2012), however, Prince Ahmed was relieved of his responsibilities and the ministry was handed over to Muhammad bin Nayef as Interior Minister.
Soon thereafter, Prince Muhammad embarked on highly publicized visits to Britain and the US. In both places, he received elaborate protocol. British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed him at his official residence at 10 Downing Street in January 2013. A few days later, on January 14, 2013, US President Barack Obama laid out an official dinner for him at the White House, a privilege usually reserved for heads of state. It was a strong endorsement of the up and coming “Saudi royal” that enabled his elevation to the rank of Deputy Crown Prince in January 2015 when King Abdullah died. This was but a prelude to his appointment as Crown Prince when King Salman unceremoniously dismissed Prince Muqrin in April of the same year.
His rapid rise, however, should not be equated with popularity or with the fact that he is an automatic shoe-in to become king. Saudi “royals” are notorious for backstabbing. There is a body of opinion in the Kingdom that views Muhammad bin Nayef’s elevation as Crown Prince by replacing Prince Muqrin as a stepping stone for Muhammad bin Salman to become the Crown Prince sooner rather than later. King Salman has established a precedent by dismissing a “Crown Prince.” He does not need one, as he did with Muqrin, but now he can dismiss another Crown Prince (Muhammad bin Nayef) to elevate his own son, Muhammad, to the second most important slot and eventual assumption of the Kingdom’s throne.
The idea is not as far-fetched as it may sound. In the desert Kingdom, fathers look after their own progeny; nephews can wait. After all, as soon as Salman became king on January 23, 2015, he dismissed two of Abdullah’s sons from important positions and appointed his own son, a young lad barely 29 years old, as Defence Minister. Within months, he then dismissed the Crown Prince to make way for his own son’s elevation to the post of Deputy Crown Prince. It cannot be ruled out that Salman might arrange for Muhammad bin Nayef’s elimination so that his son Muhammad can take over when Salman goes to his grave.
The king is very old (79 years) and in poor health. He would like to position his son in a commanding position before the angel of death comes calling. And it could be any day. Thus, what will come first: Muhammad bin Nayef’s killing by the takfiri terrorists or Salman’s dismissal of him? By all accounts, Muhammad bin Nayef is destined for a rude shock. There is another interesting aspect about him: he has no male children so he cannot transfer power to his own son even if he were to become king. It seems Salman is taking no chances. Were Ibn Nayef to become king, by no means a certainty, he would not find it smooth sailing because of the raw ambitions of an army of cousins not to mention uncles that are chafing at being bypassed.
Perhaps we can add a twist to the old saying, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” by adding “uneasy lies the head that carries the title of Deputy Crown Prince.” Interesting times lie ahead for Bani Saud. Will they still be in power by the time Salman goes to his grave?