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New interior minister ‘well-respected’ among Saudis

Prince Mohammad described as more receptive to reform and has built relations with liberal Saudis

Gulf News

Riyadh: A March 2009 US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks described Prince Mohammad as already being the de facto Interior Minister and said he was “held in high regard by Saudi King Abdullah... and well respected by the Saudi populace”.

Although Prince Mohammad’s father, the late Prince Nayef, was seen as a staunch conservative with close ties to clerics of the kingdom’s Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, his son has also built relations with more liberal Saudis.

“I would assume he’s from the second generation of princes who are more receptive to ideas of reform. But he is good at making everybody think he is in their camp. That’s what makes a successful politician,” Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi said.

Best known inside Saudi Arabia for spearheading the campaign to crush an Al Qaida uprising from 2003-06, Prince Mohammad narrowly survived an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber sent by the militant group in 2009.

Embassy cables over several years revealed that Prince Mohammad worked very closely with U.S. security officials to mitigate the danger of an attack by Al Qaida or Iran against Saudi infrastructure.

“He is perceived as progressive, efficient and result-oriented,” Saudi columnist Hussain Shobokshi said.

A main element of his strategy to rout Al Qaida from the kingdom was the introduction of “rehabilitation centres” where former militants discussed their views with traditionalist Wahhabi clerics and American-trained psychiatrists.

Although some graduates from the centres have since re-emerged in Yemen fighting with Al Qaida, Prince Mohammed himself described the true role of the centres as winning over Saudi public opinion.

“[Prince Mohammad] shared [with us]... that if the Saudi people saw that the government had offered these extremists a helping hand which they slapped away, instead of a clenched fist used against them, then their families, tribes and the Saudi nation as a whole would view the government as ‘the benefactor’ and these unrepentant extremists as ‘deviants’,” the US embassy cable said.