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Al-Mukhabarat al-'Amma

In all Arab countries, intelligence agencies play a key role. Their importance is directly proportional to the type of regime they watch over: the more ruthless or authoritarian the dictatorship, the larger their contribution to its stability and, of course, the greater and more brutal their power. Since authoritarian regimes are widespread in the Middle East, it is worth evaluating how efficient intelligence agencies are both domestically and internationally.

In Saudi Arabia the primary intelligence agency of the kingdom is General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), also known as al Mukhabarat al 'Amma al Mamlaka al Arabyah Saudihya. This is a crucial institution for the survival of the Saudi monarchy. When King Salman came to power in 2015, among the first measures he took was the removal of the head of the agency, Prince Khaled bin Bandar, whom he replaced with someone he deemed more trustworthy: retired General Khaled bin Ali bin Abdullah al Humaidan, who was the deputy of investigations (madahith) at the Ministry of Interior.

Khaled bin Bandar is a Lieutenant General who took part against in the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1991 and against the Houthis in Yemen in 2009. After being removed from the GIP he was named an advisor to King Salman. With the appointment of al Humaidan, for the first time the Saudi king has chosen to assign a great responsibility to an individual outside the Royal Court.

The tasks and structure of the agency

The agency is tasked, like many others across the globe, with national security. So mainly with espionage, counter-espionage and analysis. It provides the ruler with information and strategic evaluations. It is, foremost, the most accredited advisor to the king. It being the most important intelligence agency in the country, the GIP coordinates and plans the activities of other agencies, such as the ones at the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the National Guard and the Ministry of Interior. It also presides over the bilateral relationship with foreign intelligence agencies.

The Director of the GIP is supported by a deputy. The current one is Ahmad Hassan Mohammad Asiri, who is also the former controversial spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. An Inspector General for protocol, an office for External Relations and an Office for the Presidency complete the staff at the summit of the organization.

At a lower level there are a series of branches under the command of a number of assistants to the Director: Department for Financial and Administrative Affairs, Department for Communications and Tapping, a Technical Department, a Training and Planning Department, an Operations Department in charge of coordinating domestic stations and the ones abroad, an Analysis Department that is sub-divided on the basis of different themes: political, terrorism etc. Not all branches are located in Riyadh, but also in Jedda and Taif.

Overall, the GIP is well staffed, well organized and relies heavily on IT.

Khaled bin Ali bin Abdullah al Humaidan
Khaled bin Ali bin Abdullah al Humaidan

The Saudi intelligence community

The Saudi intelligence community – i.e. all those structures tasked with watching over national security – report to the king. Not just the GIP, but also the National Guard, the Ministries of Defense and Aviation, Interior and Foreign Affairs. The ruler presides over these organisms as the Commander in chief.

The National Guard, basically the army, can count on 250 thousand men including its reserve. From 2010 until 2015, it was led by Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the previous ruler and who was part of the recent anti-corruption sweep. Miteb was replaced by Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al Muqrin. The National Guard is of crucial importance in Saudi Arabia as it provides the link with the tribal militias that protect the House of Saud. It is both a tool for war and social cohesion. The command of the National Guard was recently turned into a ministry of its own, independent from the Ministry of Defense.

The Ministry of Defense and Aviation is ruled by Mohammed bin Salman, the current crown prince and strongman of the kingdom. The Ministry has its Informations and Security department which reports to the Chief of Staffs. It is tasked with policing and military intelligence.

The Ministry of Interior was led by former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. He was removed from the ministry to be replaced by a man loyal to the new king, and good friend of the new crown prince, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud. The Ministry has its own domestic intelligence agency in charge of the fight against terrorism.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs acts as the go-between Saudi and foreign intelligence agencies and provides analysis and evaluations on regional affairs. Now more than even, given the number of crisis in the Middle East, this ministry is playing a crucial advisory role for Saudi national security.

The chiefs of these institutions were part of the National Security Council that king Salman has dissolved in 2015 and transformed into a Council of Political and Security Affairs. The move was part of the wider power struggle. By dissolving the National Security Council, the ruler got rid of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the US and Secretary General of the Council for over a decade.

The President of the new Council is the Minister of Defense and thus the all powerful crown prince and son of the king, Mohammed bin Salman. He has replaced the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who presided over the old National Security Council. In conclusion, the move was just a pretext to concentrate more power in the hands of the young Mohammed bin Salman.

After all, the latest purges carried out by the Saudi king have ridden the security agencies of all those individuals that could pose a threat to the rise of the ambitious heir to the throne. This underlines how crucial these intelligence or security positions are to the kingdom. Those targeted by the purge also include Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who gave up competing for his position as crown prince despite being the late ruler’s smaller brother, but who was still perceived as a menace because he ran the GIP from 2005 until 2012.

bandar bin sultan
Bandar bin Sultan

The relationship with the United States

The purges and the removals have involved all centers of influence and power in Saudi Arabia. These include those personalities who had a privileged relationship with the US. This is the case of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former ambassador to Washington between 1983 and 2005. When King Salman came to power, one of the first measures he took in 2015 was to remove Prince Saud bin Feisal, who had been in charge of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for over 30 years.

Saudi Arabia is well known for its strong security and political ties with the United States: the cooperation between intelligence agencies is very strong, Washington is the main supplier of weapons and technology, the stability and defense of the kingdom is directly or indirectly guaranteed by the US. This is why also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is part of the larger Saudi intelligence community. And by removing those who can count on a privileged relationship with Washington, the Saudi king is yet again paving the way for the rise of his crown prince.

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