FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at a summit of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Hadeel Al Sayegh
DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi King Salman on Thursday decreed the consolidation of counter-terrorism and domestic intelligence under a new body, in a major overhaul of the security apparatus weeks after the interior minister was ousted from the royal succession.
The string of late night royal decrees also ordered a shakeup of senior personnel, replacing the head of the elite royal guard and elevating the head of the newly created Presidency of State Security, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed al-Howairini, and his deputy to the rank of ministers.
The moves inside the world's biggest oil exporting nation centralises authority in security matters to the king and his young son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has made a rapid rise to the pinnacle of power at the expense of his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
The decrees published by the state news agency said the changes were made in order "to face all security challenges with a high degree of flexibility and readiness and the ability to move quickly to face any emergency".
The move removes important authorities from the Interior Ministry, which was run by Mohammed bin Nayef, also known as MbN, until last month when he was stripped of his positions and removed as crown prince.
MbN has long been considered a steady partner for security cooperation with the West as the kingdom sought to quell Islamist militant groups al Qaeda and Islamic State both domestically and abroad.
Thursday's orders also raised the head of Mohammed bin Salman's personal office to the rank of minister.
A Saudi analyst described the move as a long-overdue reform that would benefit the state but said it "clips the wings of the Interior Ministry and bolsters the powers of the king".
The elevation of 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, ended two years of speculation about a behind-the-scenes rivalry with MbN over who will eventually take over from King Salman, 81.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that the king had asked MbN to step down citing an addiction to painkilling drugs that were clouding the latter's judgement. A senior Saudi official denied the account, calling it "a complete fantasy worthy of Hollywood".
The high-stakes power grab has placed sweeping powers in the hands of MbS and appears designed to speed his accession to the throne, though he still has to win over powerful relatives, clerics and tribesmen.
A Saudi official compared the new agency to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and said the move was aimed at streamlining security services and making counter-terrorism efforts directly accountable to the king.
"The Ministry of Interior is such a massive bureaucracy," he said. "The purpose is that you want to create new efficiencies for both entities and elevate the work especially in counter-terrorism."
Saudi Arabia crushed a campaign of al Qaeda attacks in 2003-06 but has been hit by Islamic State bombings in the past two years. Saudi security police closely monitor Saudis with suspected connections to militants and have detained more than 15,000 suspects in the years since al Qaeda's campaign.
The official said Howairini was a "known quantity" who had worked in the Interior Ministry for 30 years including on the U.S.-Saudi counter-terrorism partnership.
MbN's removal had unnerved some officials in Washington who saw him as a steady hand that had put down the al Qaeda bombing campaign and kept close ties to the U.S. intelligence community where he had a reputation as safe and reliable.
As part of Thursday's decrees, the king also appointed Mohammed el Kuwaiz head of the Saudi Arabian Capital Markets Authority (CMA), which regulates investments in the kingdom.
(Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi and Yara Bayoumy; Writing by Stephen Kalin and Noah Browning; Editing by Alison Williams)