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With King’s Death, Younger Generation of Saudis Near Power

The death of King Abdullah has a younger generation of Saudis moving into the top echelons of power.

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AMMAN, Jordan — Jawad Anani still remembers the first time he met Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. It was 1997, and the Saudi monarch was trying to coax then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and then-Jordanian King Hussein to reconcile their longstanding differences about the direction of the Arab world. As Jordan’s foreign minister at the time, Anani got to observe Abdullah up close — and found a man steeped in what he referred to as the blunt, straightforward attitude of a Bedouin.

“You know the way he talked to King Hussein, he was like the chief of a tribe,” Anani said, briefly slipping into Arabic to imitate the style. “He struck me as a very sincere person. But in the complex world of politics — his way of thinking was as straightforward as his language.”

Abdullah never succeeded in his effort to reconcile the two men, and with his death, a new generation of Saudi leaders are stepping to the forefront of a Middle Eastern political arena beset by crisis. While newly-minted King Salman Bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz are familiar faces at the top echelons of the Saudi government, the shakeup has brought a new generation of Saudi leaders to the forefront — and gone a long way to resolving questions about the kingdom’s line of succession in the coming decades.

Two figures exemplify what, for Saudi Arabia, could be considered a youth movement. Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, was appointed deputy crown prince Friday, placing him second in line for the throne. If the succession goes as planned, Prince Mohamed would be the first grandson of the kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud, to ascend to the throne. Perhaps more astonishingly, King Salman’s son Mohammed bin Salman, 34, was appointed Saudi defense minister and chief of the royal court.

“In some ways, Salman has made [Mohammed bin Salman] the second most important person in Saudi Arabia,” said F. Gregory Gause, a scholar on Saudi Arabia and professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University.

The appointment of such a young defense minister in a country that typically prizes experience, Gause said, could raise hackles among older royals who might have expected to win that high-profile position. It is even more surprising, Gause said, as Mohammed bin Salman is the king’s son — the Saudi royal family usually spreads high-profile positions among different branches of the family, so each has a stake in the system. This appointment, however, concentrates power in the hands of Salman and his son.

While the conventional wisdom has been that King Salman will be a cautious ruler, the appointment offers at least one suggestion that he could be willing to take more risks than had previously been believed.

“Salman’s reputation is as a pretty conservative guy, and not someone who would take big initiatives,” Gause said. “But who knows? He has been, I think, quite decisive in these appointments. And whether that reflects a family consensus, or whether he is kind of forcing a family consensus, is something that outsiders are really not going to be able to tell.”

Mohammed bin Nayef, meanwhile, is a known quantity in both Riyadh and Washington. His focus on countering jihadist threats to the kingdom makes him a logical choice to head the next generation of Saudi rulers. As assistant interior minister, the prince was one of the architects of the kingdom’s counterterrorism policy. As a result, he was the target of a failed assassination attempt by an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula suicide bomber who had hid an explosive device in his body and detonated it when Mohammed bin Nayef approached him.

Mohammed bin Nayef’s strategy to defeat al Qaeda involved both close cooperation with the United States, and an information campaign designed to discredit the jihadi movement. In a November 2008 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, the prince described how an upcoming trial of more than 900 Saudis would “transcend the individuals being tried, and serve as a trial of the takfiri al Qaida ideology,” referring to the Arabic term for apostasy.

Mohammed bin Nayef suggested the Interior Ministry release classified information to discredit those indicted. At the same time, he said that he had orders to “completely open the security cooperation channel” with the United States.

This attitude, unsurprisingly, has won Mohammed bin Nayef more than a few friends in Washington. When he visited the U.S. capital in December, he met with a who’s who of U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry. Obama “expressed appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s important role in upholding regional peace and security” in the meeting, according to a White House statement.

While Saudi Arabia has apparently sorted out its succession issues, the new faces in Riyadh must now grapple with several crises in the Middle East, from chaos in Libya to a cold war with Iran. For Anani, the former Jordanian foreign minister, the real question is whether this new generation of Saudi royals is up to that task.

“I think for the next 30 years, the major challenges will not come from within the family,” he said. “Instead, they will mostly come from the region itself.”

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

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