RIYADH (Reuters) - Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, born in 1953, headed the Saudi Arabian National Guard, an elite internal security force originally based on traditional tribal units that was run by his father for five decades.
As the Sandhurst-trained preferred son of the late King Abdullah, he was once thought to be a leading contender for the throne.
He was also the last remaining member of Abdullah’s Shammar branch of the family to retain a key position at the top of the Saudi power structure, after brothers Mishaal and Turki were relieved of their posts as governors in 2015.
That run in power ended on Saturday, when he was relieved of his post at the National Guard by a royal decree.
Miteb had been in effective command of the force since his father became the country’s de facto leader in 1996, when King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke, but was only officially named as its commander in 2010.
“He’s very pragmatic. I think he’s a lot smarter than people think he is. And he’s very ambitious,” said a diplomatic source in the Gulf.
His position was consolidated in 2013 when the National Guard was given its own ministry and he was named as minister.
The guard formed a power base for King Abdullah for decades as a sort of parallel army, serving as a bulwark against any possible military coup and providing the country’s powerful tribes with their main link to the government.
Its origins can be traced back to the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who led white-clad “Ikhwan” tribal warriors in conquering much of the Arabian peninsula in the first three decades of the 20th century.
After Ibn Saud’s death, Saudi authorities transformed the Office of the Jihad and Mujahideen, which managed the Ikhwan and other tribal forces, into the National Guard.
It remains administratively distinct from the other two pillars of the Saudi security architecture, the ministries of interior and defense.
The National Guard today runs military academies, housing projects and hospitals, and is a prodigious source of revenue for U.S. military contractors who train its some 100,000 active members and 27,000 irregular volunteers.
The Vinnell Corporation, now a subsidiary of Northrup Grumman, has held contracts to modernize the institution for nearly four decades.
“Miteb is well-liked by tribal leaders and, more important, by recruits who benefit from his largesse,” wrote scholar Joseph Kechichian in his book Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies.
“In less than fifty years, the Guard transformed a segment of the Saudi population from destitute tribal elements into well-off, well-armed, and well-trained recruits.”
As commander, Miteb also inherited from his father the responsibility for the annual Janadariyah festival, which draws millions of Saudis each winter to celebrate the traditions, architecture and folklore of the kingdom’s various regions.
For many Saudis, the festival is a major expression of national pride, safeguarding a cultural heritage that is fast disappearing in the kingdom’s rapidly modernizing society. It is politically beneficial to be associated with it.
Prince Miteb’s business interests are thought to include ownership of the prestigious Hotel de Crillon in the center of Paris, which the French newspaper Le Figaro reported that he bought in 2010 for $354 million.
His father specifically instructed him to distance himself from excessive commercial activities, according to Kechichian’s book.
He is married to a daughter of Saleh Fustock, who hails from a Lebanese family and whose sister was one of King Abdullah’s most important wives. Fustock owns Arab Builders for Trading, the local partner for Vinnell at the National Guard.
The prince is an avid equestrian and his son Prince Abdullah was part of the bronze-medal-winning Saudi equestrian team at the London Olympics in 2012.
Reporting by Katie Paul; editing by Andrew Roche