Mohammed bin Nayef’s Debutante Ball

This Marc Lynch post on America’s Saudi problem is worth reading for its discussion of how our uncritical support for Saudi Arabia undermines our efforts in the Middle East.

America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region. A Saudi exception certainly makes things such as coordinating the containment of Iran easier for diplomats on a daily basis. But it sustains and perpetuates a regional order which over the long term is costly to sustain and clearly at odds with American normative preferences.

It’s also notable because it remains one of the few commentaries I’ve seen to mention Mohammed bin Nayef’s trip to DC from 10 days ago.

For instance, the symbolism of President Obama’s unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.

As this release from the Saudi embassy lays out in detail, MbN was in DC from January 14 through 16. There were a few explicit orders of business. Hillary Clinton and MbN renewed the Technical Cooperation Agreement (which would have expired in May) providing US support to protect Saudi critical infrastructure, especially its oil facilities. MbN signed Memoranda of Understanding with Janet Napolitano on cybersecurity and a trusted traveler program. As Lynch noted, he was granted a private meeting with President Obama, which resulted in the following readout.

Today, President Obama met with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, in the Oval Office. They affirmed the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and discussed security and regional issues of mutual interest. The President congratulated Prince Mohammed bin Nayef on his appointment to Minister of Interior and asked him to convey his best wishes to King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud.

But in addition to that, MbN had a series of meetings with almost every major major player in our security establishment.

Prince Mohammad also met with a number of senior U.S. officials throughout his visit, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Robert Clapper, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Robert Mueller, and Director of the National Security Agency General Keith B. Alexander.

This leaves out only DOD and CIA (though even before he was nominated to be CIA Director, we could assume former Riyadh station chief John Brennan heavily influenced Saudi ties to CIA).

Given such a high profile visit, I have been expecting someone to discuss what merited the full coming out party (aside from MbN’s November appointment to be Minister of Interior, but MbN has been serving as our counterterrorism liaison for years). But I’ve seen little reporting to explain the trip.

And there are a few more reasons why I would really like to know what MbN discussed with almost the entire national security establishment.

There’s Turki al-Faisal’s call for “sophisticated, high-level weapons” to be sent to Syria (not to mention the recent release of a purported April 2012 Saudi directive releasing Saudi death row prisoners to fight jihad against Bashar al-Assad).

Then there’s the escalation of drone strikes in Yemen since MbN’s visit, attacking targets that have no apparent tie to America’s stated targeting criteria there–a threat to American interests. Yemen-based journalist Adam Baron has observed that the drone strikes–as opposed to overflights–have been unusually concentrated in northern provinces.

interestingly, drone uptick has been concentrated in northern provinces: 2013 has yet to see one reported in shabwa/abyan/hadramawt.

Add in a bit of confusion over the reported scope of the new drone rulebook. The WaPo’s report describes that only Pakistan is exempted from the rulebook, yet some have suggested that the CIA’s drone program in Yemen, too will be exempted.

Then there’s the role that MbN has played in the past. In addition to being the key player on the roll-out of the TCA (more on that below), he created Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program, which this March 2009 WikiLeaks cable ties closely to the TCA renewed on the trip. At least two former Gitmo detainees who went through the program ended up serving as infiltrators into AQAP. This Saudi-US Relations Information Service release actually points to the toner cartridge plot revealed by deradicalization graduate Jabir al-Fayfi along with the recent UndieBomb 2.0 plot–which was created by a third infiltrator directed by the Saudis–in its coverage of MbN’s visit, suggesting he may have had a role there, too. Should we expect similar operations in the near future? Note, while he is understood to have been a genuine recidivist, another graduate of Gitmo and then MbN’s deradicalization program, AQAP’s number 2, Said al-Shirhi, was reported on Thursday to have died from wounds suffered in a November counterterrorism strike.

All this takes place against the background of unrest in Saudi Arabia (which Lynch describes at length). While Lynch disagrees, Bruce Reidel has been warning–and hawking a book–about a possible revolution in Saudi Arabia. To the extent the unrest represents a serious threat, it would put MbN, as Minister of the Interior, at the forefront. Interestingly, as part of the TCA renewed on this trip and led by MbN, the US helped Saudi Arabia develop a 35,000 person strong Facilities Security Force, which includes a paramilitary function, which would be crucial in the Eastern Provinces experiencing the most real unrest (the same day MbN came to the US, King Abdullah put MbN’s older brother in charge of the Eastern Province). When you couple that with the cybersecurity cooperation MbN discussed with Janet Napolitano–remember the fear-mongering around the technically simple but executed by insiders ARAMCO hack–and it suggests the US may be more worried about the Eastern Province than Lynch.

So maybe MbN’s visit represents real concerns about unrest in the Kingdom (which would play into our pressure on Iran), not least because the Saudis blame Iran for the unrest among its Shia population. Or maybe MbN’s visit represents a further expansion of our already significant counterterrorism and other covert operations.

I sure would like to know, though.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. Jeffrey Kaye says:

    “America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region.”

    Let us at least start out with a different assumption than Lynch, one that your own analysis points overwhelmingly towards, viz. the U.S. has no interest in or is in fact hostile to the “popular aspirations for change in the region.” In fact, the alliance with the Salafist monarchists of Saudi Arabia is proof of that.

    Everything flows from an anti-imperialist POV, and then it all makes sense, otherwise, you are left asking endless questions: why why why Obama, Clinton, US, etc. do this or that re Saudi Arabia (or other reactionary regimes). Otherwise, you fall into occasional observations that strain for understanding, but end up providing a different effect upon the reader than you may in fact intend. This occurs when you note the absence of CIA from the meetings with MbN. You conclude that Brennan’s presence may in fact have in essence filled in for that. Whether that is true or not, the CIA connections with Saudi Arabia are of long standing, and continue, one can be sure, on a daily basis. MbN meets the CIA regularly, you can be sure, at the doors of or even inside the torture chambers. In fact, keeping the CIA out of the meetings is one way to protect those programs and operations. Your observation makes one believe that if Brennan wasn’t there, or a conduit to the CIA then somehow the CIA would have been frozen out. In fact, nothing of substance really happens at those meetings; the real decisions are made elsewhere.

    Much more likely than Brennan’s role, or in addition to it, you can be sure that the Public Affairs department at the Saudi embassy doesn’t like to publicize any secret meetings with CIA. If they did not meet with current officials of CIA (and not just Brennan), then I would truly eat my hat.

  2. joanneleon says:

    @Jeffrey Kaye: I didn’t get the sense that Marcy was saying or implying that that CIA was frozen out. I assumed that if Brennan was there, CIA was represented.

    I did think it was kind of interesting that the Sec. of Defense was not there.

    And what the heck… all those meetings. I’m completely creeped out and now waiting for some kind of false flag operation to happen.

  3. What Constitution? says:

    I wonder if there’s some way to find out how many disbursements to personal nominees or accounts this guy authorized during the period two weeks before to two weeks after this trip. Looks like a late Christmas on the Potomac. Nah, such things never could happen. Then again, what’s HSBC been doing, or have we agreed to stop looking for X months?

  4. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: To be fair, not much point for MbN to meet with the outgoing SoD. There was a dinner at the Embassy–I’m sort of curious whether Hagel went to that. And he might have met with General Mattis, but he is being pushed out of CentCom.

    So no DOD.

  5. CTuttle says:

    Honestly, folks, I’d label Qatar as the worst perpetrators, more so than the Sauds…! With the Qataris squelching the Message, thru Al Jazeera…!

    And the Qataris have been the main Financiers of the Salafists, throughout the MENA…! 8-(

    I just posted a new diary on the Mali miasma…!

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