The recent terrorist attacks in the holy city of Madinah have alarmed royal family watchers, who worry the long term stability of the Kingdom could be threatened if the extremist campaign intensifies. With the choice of such a sensitive target, Da'esh (the Arabic name for the Islamic State group) aimed to thrust a dagger into the heart of royal family legitimacy itself. A key pillar of Al Saud rule is their claim to custodianship of Islam's holy places, undertaking the responsibility of providing for the safety and security of the millions of pilgrims who make the journey to Makkah and Madinah each year. Chaos provides fodder for those (like Da'esh, as well as regional foes such as Iran) who can then claim that the royal family is unfit, by virtue of their inability to fulfill their responsibilities, to claim sovereignty over the sites. Despite the minimal damage and loss of life, the terrorist group was therefore able to claim a small victory in their struggle against "illegitimate" Al Saud rule, as well as cause acute embarrassment to the Interior Ministry, led by the crown prince, which was unable to prevent the attacks.
Muhammad bin Nayif inherited Interior from his late father, and oversees the Kingdom's fearsome security apparatus. Saudi counter-terrorism capabilities have been honed over the last decade in the struggle to defeat al-Qa'ida in the peninsula, largely as a result of the programme put in place by Muhammad, with it's mixture of citizen surveillance, aggressive police action and convict rehabilitation. But in the aftermath of the current strikes, he has been strangely absent, while his rival, the up-and-coming son of King Salman has stolen the limelight once again. Part of this is due to bin Nayif's natural reticence and disinclination for publicity; Interior prefers to work in the shadows, of course. Furthermore, the effort to defeat Da'esh is international, and as Defense Minister, Muhammad bin Salman would be expected to represent the Kingdom. But there is another dynamic at play, which, in light of the succession battle playing out concurrently, must be examined as well.
bin Salman has only just returned from a well-received trip to the United States, which gave him a chance to establish his credentials with Saudi's American ally as someone who should be seen as a "deputy" in name only. It was clear from his audience in Washington and New York that he spoke for the king, and was not simply there to drum up enthusiasm for Vision 2030, the ostensible purpose of the visit. Whatever doubts the Americans had (it was not even certain at the start that he would meet the President, or whether he was being deliberately shunned) were quietly put to rest. It has long been accepted wisdom that US officialdom preferred to deal with bin Nayif, someone with whom they had enjoyed years of intelligence-sharing and co-operation (the information he relayed to his American counterparts about an explosives package contained in a FedEx package thwarted a planned al-Qa'ida attack in 2010), and were eager to see him installed as king. He was seen as someone they could "work with", whilst the deputy crown prince was an unknown quantity, by all accounts rash and impetuous. The fears now seem to have been at least partially laid to rest after the reassuring Washington trip.
On the July 20 trip, bin Salman attended a counter-IS Defense Ministerial conference, and met with US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, discussing the fight against Da'esh and the coalition's recent results, as well as Saudi's current military capability. He also met with the French and British Defense Ministers, yet another opportunity to increase his public profile. More and more, his is the face of the Kingdom abroad, and increasing familiarity with his foreign counterparts will continue to breed confidence. Coincident with his enhanced status, too, one hears less talk of his rashness and overreach.