Is the Saudi Throne Shaking?

, November 7, 2017

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 17, No. 28

Donald Trump with King Salman

U.S. President Donald Trump with King Salman, Riyadh, May 20, 2017. (Official White House Photo / Shealah Craighead)

  • Under the pretext of waging an anti-corruption campaign, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, in concert with his son Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (known as MBS), undertook one of the most dramatic moves in Saudi politics ever taken. They ordered the arrest of 11 royal princes, four former ministers, the chief of the Royal Navy, former heads of the Royal Cabinet, and scores of ex-officials and businessmen, including international financier Al-Waleed bin Talal.
  • Since the ascent of Salman to the throne, the elderly king had been favoring his son, Mohammad, 32, and allowing initiatives that undermined Mohammad Bin Nayef, who served as Crown Prince between 2015 and June 2017.
  • King Salman decided to unite the new crown prince’s court with his own, giving MBS control over who has access to the King. MBS was relatively unknown at the royal court, and nobody could have predicted his incredible ascension. Salman rejected speculation that he himself was considering abdication in favor of his son MBS.1 But, at the same time, MBS was given all the tools needed to run the country with an iron fist.
  • MBS has to deal with both foreign and domestic stability issues that risk shockwaves to the Saudi establishment. Saudi Arabia has powerful enemies, abroad and internally, who would not miss an opportunity to destabilize the kingdom and bring down the House of Saud.
  • The struggle for power has not ended yet. MBS has to secure all ministries dealing with domestic and external security as well as all of the 13 governorships of provinces.
  • The question that remains unanswered is whether MBS will succeed in his quest to remodel Saudi Arabia or will his inexperience and hasty decisions destabilize Saudi Arabia, creating more turbulence in a Middle East already suffering from airsickness.

Under the pretext of waging an anti-corruption campaign, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, in concert with his son Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (known as MBS), undertook on November 5, 2017, a premeditated plan considered to be one of the most dramatic moves in Saudi politics ever taken. They ordered the arrest of 11 royal princes, four former ministers, the chief of the Royal Navy, former heads of the Royal Cabinet, and scores of ex-officials and businessmen, including international financier Al-Waleed bin Talal.

Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, March 16, 2017. (U.S. Department of Defense)

Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, March 16, 2017. (U.S. Department of Defense)

Two heads of important security offices – the Saudi National Guard and the Ministry of Interior (in charge of internal intelligence) – were relieved of duty. The National Guard was blamed for the failure to prevent the launch of a long-range Yemeni/Iranian missile that was fired at Riyadh on November 4, 2017. Mohammad Bin Salman appointed his own candidate to command the 250,000-member National Guard, the Praetorian Guard of the regime.

It was no coincidence that the arrested princes belonged to the rival royal faction that surrounded the late King Abdullah, the half-brother of the present King Salman. They had questioned the Crown Prince’s foreign policies vis-a-vis Qatar and Yemen. Mutaib Bin Abdullah was the minister responsible for the National Guard, a post held by his father for decades.

As a result, the Crown Prince has accumulated the ultimate security powers of the Saudi regime under his wing and advanced himself in his quest to rule Saudi Arabia upon his father’s demise or abdication.

Many Questions

The scope and boldness of the latest developments come as a surprise to most analysts of Saudi politics and illustrate once more the Saudi regime’s secretive characteristics. The House of Saud includes more than 50,000 princes, and nearly all knowledgeable analysts have difficulty understanding where the real power resides. What are the intricacies of the decision-making process? What are the motives behind current or future developments in the Saudi ruling family, the various alliances and factions? Where are the checks and balances according to which the family complies? Who is close to the King and has his attention, and who claims he has the King’s attention but in fact is not really his confidant?

As the latest Saudi tectonic changes show, analysts can estimate the flow of Saudi politics only according to the results on the ground and most of the time as a fait accompli.

Looking Back

One can now see myriad precursory alarm signals transmitted in the last two years since the advent of Salman as King of the Wahhabi Kingdom, which retrospectively point at a potential destabilization process. The warning signs were the intense rivalries plaguing the Royal Court and its poor conduct of foreign and domestic policies.

Salman became king after the death of his half-brother Abdallah on January 23, 2015. While all previous kings and crown princes had been sons of the kingdom’s founding father, King Abdul Aziz, Mohammad Bin Nayef (known as MBN) was the first of the founder’s grandsons to be put in line. He was nominated as Crown Prince or next in line to succeed him, and Salman’s son, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), became the second next in succession.2

Mohammad Bin Nayef, 57, had all the “ingredients” to be the next king and successor to the ailing 81-year-old monarch Salman.3 Indeed, MBN served as Minister of Interior for almost ten years and successfully quelled the al-Qaeda campaign to destabilize the kingdom. However, Mohammad Bin Nayef may have suffered from severe trauma after a suicide bomber detonated a bomb hidden in his rectum in close vicinity to MBN in 2009.4 As a consequence, Mohammad Bin Nayef underwent long medical rehabilitation and suffered from a post-trauma syndrome which left him mentally unstable and reportedly addicted to painkillers.5 Under the circumstances he was unsuitable to lead the kingdom.

Muhammad Bin Nayef with Hillary Clinton

Muhammad Bin Nayef with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, January 16, 2013. (State Department photo)

In 2016, Mohammad Bin Nayef spent a family vacation in Algeria at the family villa near Algiers. Many noted that the prince was “different.” He stayed for weeks, cut off from communications with his entourage and even refusing to answer queries from Saudi and American officials, including the CIA director, John O. Brennan.6

Mohammad Bin Nayef’s forced resignation brought little surprise. Since the ascent of Salman to the throne, the elderly king had favored his son, Mohammad, 32, and allowed initiatives that undermined Mohammad Bin Nayef’s authority. King Salman’s decision to unite the crown prince’s court with his own gave MBS control over who had access to the King. MBS also announced, impromptu, the formation of an alliance of Islamic countries to fight terrorism, a function which had been under Mohammad Bin Nayef’s exclusive responsibility. In the new alliance, neither Mohammad Bin Nayef nor his Ministry of Interior was to be involved.7

On the night of June 20, 2017, without any prior notice and nearing the end of the holy month of Ramadan and its subsequent festivities, Mohammad Bin Nayef was summoned to the royal palace in Mecca where he was forced to abdicate his right to the throne, The New York Times reported.8 By dawn of the following day, the diabetic Mohammad Bin Nayef bowed to the Royal “request,” and the Kingdom woke up with Mohammad Bin Salman as the new crown prince. Following his resignation, Mohammad Bin Nayef was confined to his palace in Jeddah, which he has not left, contrary to the statement issued by the Royal Court which claimed that the former “successor” was conducting his normal routine.

According to The New York Times, General Abd el Aziz Al-Huwairini, a close adviser to Mohammad Bin Nayef, was also confined to his home. Both were major actors and crucial to the security relationship with the United States. Mohammad Bin Nayef’s position as Minister of Interior was immediately filled by his nephew Prince Abd el Aziz Bin Saud Bin Nayef, 33, who was his uncle’s adviser but seems to be closer to MBS.

What were the motives for the elimination of Mohammad Bin Nayef? Were the motives linked to his health condition, was it his opposition to the embargo enforced on Qatar, or very simply, did the King conclude that Mohammad Bin Salman was a better choice to lead Saudi Arabia for a long period, assuring the stability of a long reign (MBS is 26 years younger than Mohammad Bin Nayef)? King Hussein of Jordan nominated 37-year-old Prince Abdullah as his successor just days before his death in 1999, instead of the King’s only brother, Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal, who served as the successor for many years.

The Jordanian precedent is apparently parallel. Like King Hussein in Jordan, Salman concluded that Saudi Arabia would be better off in the long term with MBS rather than Mohammad Bin Nayef as king.

Was It the Right Decision?

MBS was relatively unknown at the royal court, and nobody could have predicted his incredible ascension. MBS, 32, was born on August 31, 1985, to Salman’s third wife, Fahdah Bint Falah Bin Sultan. Unlike his cousin Mohammad Bin Nayef, MBS did not fill any official position until his nomination as second deputy crown prince in April 2015. MBS has followed the steps of his father since he was 12, and in 2009 was promoted as his personal adviser when Salman was Governor of Riyadh province.9 MBS’ brothers have brilliant careers: Sultan was the first Arab astronaut, Abd El-Aziz served as deputy minister of petroleum, Faysal has a Ph.D. in political science and serves as Governor of Medina. MBS did not study abroad, is not fluent in English, holds a bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University in Riyadh, and filled a few posts in the governmental administration.

To the total surprise of the royal family, MBS was nominated in 2015 to be the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense (the youngest minister of defense in the world), two nominations which catapulted him over most of his brothers, cousins, and rivals to become the most powerful person in the kingdom after the King. MBS was also responsible for the royal cabinet and was the chairman of the counsel for economy and development, a structure meant to bypass the Ministry of the Economy. MBS was also made responsible for ARAMCO, the mammoth national oil company. MBS was put in charge of the ambitious “Vision 2030” plan meant to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil by improving and modernizing sectors of the economy.

In a seeming stroke of a magic wand and as the outcome of deep, intense conflicts, Salman succeeded in June 2017 in his pre-designed plan to turn MBS into the next king of the Wahhabi Kingdom. Salman rejected speculations that he himself was considering to abdicate in favor of his son MBS.10 But, at the same time, MBS was given all the tools needed to run the country with an iron fist.

Since Salman’s “putsch,” MBS has been omnipresent in Saudi Arabia. He is responsible for several crucial decisions that left their impact on Saudi Arabia’s stature in the Middle East. MBS concentrates in his hands most powers and de facto rules the country. He has monopolized relations with the Trump Administration and with Putin. The same is true with other nations and especially in the Arab world, with an emphasis on the Gulf States, Egypt, and Sudan.

King Salman with Russian President Vladimir Putin

King Salman with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow, October 5, 2017.
(Kremlin photo)

MBS has been at the center of structural reforms in the domestic scene (including selling parts of the crown jewel – ARAMCO – the state oil company, through an IPO). MBS has tried to project an image of a Spartan prince, modest and caring for the people. MBS has initiated huge state budget reforms, cut salaries of ministers and high-ranking government officials, all parts of austerity measures adopted to cope with the oil crisis. But, on the other hand, when MBS vacationed in the French Riviera, he saw a 440-foot yacht he liked so much that he paid 500 million euros the next day to buy the “Serene” from its owner, a Russian oligarch. The yacht was transferred to MBS immediately.11

A Mixed Record of Achievement

Judging from where Saudi Arabia stands today regarding its foreign and domestic policy, it is not certain that MBS has been successful. Indeed, in a series of ill-fated decisions, MBS has put Saudi Arabia on the defensive12 rather than being on the offensive as it was on the eve of crowning King Salman:

a. Lebanon: In 2015, Saudi Arabia was pushing for the nomination of a Lebanese president and successfully countered Hizbullah in its efforts to do so. Two years later, Saudi Arabia was confronted with Michel Aoun, a Hizbullah-imposed Christian president, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni, who chose to join the Hizbullah camp despite their murdering his father, Rafik Hariri. However, in a surprise reversal, on November 5, 2017, Saad Hariri chose to return to his Saudi sponsors after being informed of a Hizbullah/Iranian plot to assassinate him. In Riyadh he announced his sudden resignation, thus bringing Lebanon to the very edge of a renewed religious civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.

b. In 2015, the Saudi-sponsored and armed rebel factions fighting the Assad regime were on the verge of toppling the Alawite regime. Two years later, the rebels lost most of their terrain fighting a formidable Iranian-Russian-Hizbullah-Assad coalition.

c. Yemen: In March 2015, Saudi Arabia, at the initiative of MBS, launched a military campaign which began with massive air attacks against the Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels who had toppled the Yemenite regime. The Saudi goal was to restore the legitimate regime in Yemen and to distance the Houthi threat from Saudi borders. Considered an outstanding achievement in the beginning, the Saudis succeeded in organizing a pan-Arab force made up of forces from Sunni regimes, which included Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, and some of the Gulf States. The campaign came as a surprise to Prince Mutaib Bin Abdallah, the Commander of the National Guard whose troops were engaged in fighting the Houthis. Mutaib was abroad when the first strikes began.13

Unfortunately, as happens in short, concentrated military offensives, the enemy did not yield. What the Saudis had begun with great expectations developed into a never-ending war which has been draining Saudi finances. Moreover, the war put Saudi Arabia in a confrontation with the then-Obama administration, which forbad the export of sophisticated weaponry because of disproportionate attacks against civilian targets in Yemen. Even though the Trump administration has renewed arms shipments, Saudi Arabia is still being accused of war crimes and creating a huge humanitarian crisis in Yemen.14 Finally, the cement that used to bond the different parts of the coalition began to disintegrate, especially between the Emirati contingent and the Saudis.

Mohammad bin Salman aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt

Mohammad bin Salman aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, July 7, 2015. (U.S. Navy Photo)

d. Iran: The last two years have been characterized by a sharp rise of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The execution in January 2017 of a Shiite cleric, together with 46 other individuals accused of terrorism, resulted in the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashad, and the consequent rupture of diplomatic ties between the two countries.15 The rivalry between the two escalated as the two regional powers fought one another via proxies in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon. Relations had been already tense following the stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia, during the September 2015 Hajj, in which more than 464 Iranian pilgrims were crushed to death together with prominent political and religious figures who took part. Adding insult to injury, the body of the former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon and member of the Iranian intelligence services was not found, while the Saudis claimed at first that he was not present at the Hajj.16

The situation was exacerbated because Obama administration policies preferred Iran to Saudi Arabia, downgrading the traditional American-Saudi partnership. Saudi Arabia’s irritation was so high that it did not refrain from open criticism of the Obama administration, and as an act of defiance it began a “rapprochement” with Russia, resulting in 2016 in multi-billion dollar deals in the economic and defense fields.

Saudi Arabia’s effort to flood the market with oil to “ruin” Iran backfired. The Saudi regime had to counter a situation – a first in the kingdom – of a drop in revenues, which led to a deep cut in expenditures and a radical change in the economic order of priorities.

The Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel Al-Jubeir, summed it all up in one sentence: “Iran is a country that’s on a rampage. It’s the number one state sponsor of terrorism….Iran is a huge threat to all of us in the region, and unless it changes its policy, our region will always be troubled.”17

e: Qatar: In the course of 2017, the Saudis, who were accustomed to their neighbor’s “different” approach to politics, expressed that they would no long tolerate falsehoods and criticism in the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera network aimed at the Saudi regime. Moreover, Qatar had become the haven of suspects accused of subversive activities in Saudi Arabia.

In an unusually hostile act, Saudi Arabia, together with its allies (Bahrain, Egypt, and the Emirates – all victims of seditious Qatari activities), issued a 13-point ultimatum to Qatar in the Gulf’s worst diplomatic dispute in decades. The 13 points included demands that Doha close the Al-Jazeera network, reduce cooperation with Iran, remove Turkish troops, who were based in Qatar since 2014, and, most importantly, end contact with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Muslim organizations. Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a blockade on Qatar. Rumors spoke of a Saudi intention to invade Qatar, which was stopped at the last moment by the Trump administration.

f. Terrorism has been present in Saudi Arabia for a long time. Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef had successfully dismantled the al-Qaeda network during a campaign that lasted almost ten years. However, with the advent of the civil war both in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia became a source of manpower for the extremist Jihadi organizations. The 2,500-strong Saudi contingent of volunteers was second only to the North African one. Those who came back from the battlefield became operatives and cell organizers remotely activated by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremist organizations. Their areas of choice were the concentrations of Shiites in the eastern part of the country, while targeting governmental, military, and intelligence facilities or prominent figures inside Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the Saudi regime announced a 15-day amnesty period for those who would quit their subversive activities. The regime named the different organizations that were outlawed and those included, inter alia, Hizbullah in the Arabian Peninsula and other Iranian-related proxy organizations. One hundred and twenty-eight terrorist acts were reported in Saudi Arabia during 2016 (more than in Israel in the same year), with more than 1,147 people killed and injured.18

g. Finally, in the course of the last two years and facing internal opposition in the royal house by factions who see themselves bypassed by the young MBS, the Saudi regime has shown to be excessively sensitive to domestic stability. Therefore, it is no surprise to see harsh measures undertaken by the regime vis-a-vis dissent, opposition, and terrorism. All are punishable by the toughest punishments, with no hesitation concerning capital punishment. Unprecedented in Saudi Arabia, a young prince accused of murder was executed, to the complete horror of the royal house.

In November 2017, as mentioned earlier, 11 royal princes, ministers, officials, and international financiers were put under arrest. Coupled with internal opposition to the royal house, any dissent or subversive activity is unbearable to the regime. In September 2017, Saudi Arabia arrested a group of clerics, academics, and businessmen, some of whom, according to the Saudis, had ties to Jihadi organizations and were funded by foreign countries. Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir declared: “When we expect others to have zero tolerance for extremism, and terrorism, and incitement, we ourselves will live by this.” “The individuals who were detained were pushing an extremist agenda. They were inciting people, and this was not going to stand.”19 One thing is definitely apparent: under MBS the already limited freedom of expression and the almost zero tolerance for criticism that existed in Saudi Arabia are being considerably reduced and repressed, leaving room only for those who align themselves with the new monarch, guessing his expectations.20

To sum up: These developments in security affairs are directly linked to MBS policies and cannot be ignored nor underestimated. The last two years of Salman and MBS’s reign in Saudi Arabia have not been a great success. Of course, one can always claim that Saudi Arabia under MBS has adopted an activist policy and has engaged openly in areas where his predecessors would have chosen to remain behind the scenes and act covertly. Saudi Arabia has very clearly defined its enemies and allies. There has been a shift in internal policies, and the kingdom is advocating a more liberal approach to its citizens. However, the clouds of uncertainty are there, and while struggling to remain at the crest of the royal family, MBS has to deal with both foreign and domestic stability issues that risk shockwaves to the Saudi establishment. Saudi Arabia has powerful enemies, abroad and internally, who would not miss an opportunity to destabilize the kingdom and bring down the House of Saud.

MBS himself has been the target of sharp criticism. According to some press reports, MBS is described as an irresponsible, spoiled child who makes hasty decisions that endanger the country without analyzing their consequences. Some even ridicule him as the “Prince of the Vision.”21 Unshaken by his critics, MBS has been talking to his entourage and foreign visitors about his country in the first person as if he was already the ruling monarch.

One thing is sure: As long as Salman and MBS succeed in keeping the royal house bonded together, the chances of change remain minimal. However, Salman has made a very daring bet by choosing his son, MBS, to succeed him, to the detriment of other parts of the royal family who feel betrayed and bypassed. By doing so, he has put Saudi Arabia through a “generational succession,” which if unsuccessful, could degenerate into a chaotic and uncontrollable situation.22

The struggle for power has not ended yet. MBS has to secure all ministries dealing with domestic and external security as well as all of the 13 governorships of provinces. He will staff them with princes whom he trusts and can work with without fearing a sudden reversal of allegiance to a potential competitor. It would not be a wild guess to state that MBS is in the process of creating this group of followers. Judging from the results of the last two years, MBS must watch his back and flanks. After all, intense confrontations and power struggles among the Saud royal family represent the greatest threat to Saudi Arabia’s political structure and stability.

At this time, it does not seem that the Saudi regime is in danger. However, an accumulation of setbacks in foreign policy, a military retreat without honor from Yemen, accompanied by a serious deterioration on the domestic scene, could lead to a revolt from those who today have sworn allegiance to the king and his son. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars in purchasing sophisticated weapon systems and lucrative economic deals with the United States and Russia will not help Saudi Arabia face its challenges. Accordingly, the question that remains unanswered is whether MBS will succeed in his quest to remodel Saudi Arabia, or will inexperience and hasty decisions destabilize Saudi Arabia, creating more turbulence in a Middle East already suffering from airsickness.

* * *

Notes

1 https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-09-21/saudi-minister-says-detainees-were-pushing-an-extremist-agenda

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/world/rise-of-saudi-prince-shatters-decades-of-royal-tradition.html

3 http://www.lepoint.fr/monde/mohammed-ben-salmane-l-impetueux-prince-d-arabie-21-06-2017-2137231_24.php; https://www.straight.com/blogra/812751/does-saudi-arabias-new-king-salman-have-alzheimers-disease; http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/209679

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman.html

5 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-nayef-mohammed-bin-salman.html

6 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/world/rise-of-saudi-prince-shatters-decades-of-royal-tradition.html

7 Ibid.

8 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-nayef-mohammed-bin-salman.html

9 http://www.lepoint.fr/monde/mohammed-ben-salmane-l-impetueux-prince-d-arabie-21-06-2017-2137231_24.php

10 https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-09-21/saudi-minister-says-detainees-were-pushing-an-extremist-agenda

11 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/world/rise-of-saudi-prince-shatters-decades-of-royal-tradition.html

12 see for instance an interesting overview: https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21711529-kingdom-has-experienced-diplomatic-reverses-all-fronts-after-year

13 http://www.presstv.com/DetailFr/2017/07/26/529784/Saudi-Salman-coup-national-guard-Mutaib-bin-Abdullah-Nayef; https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/world/rise-of-saudi-prince-shatters-decades-of-royal-tradition.html

14 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-saudi-blockade-specialreport/special-report-in-blocking-arms-to-yemen-saudi-arabia-squeezes-a-starving-population-idUSKBN1CG16C

15 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/03/saudi-arabia-cuts-diplomatic-ties-with-iran-after-nimr-execution

16 http://jcpa.org/article/saudi-military-intervention-yemen/

17 https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-09-21/saudi-minister-says-detainees-were-pushing-an-extremist-agenda

18 http://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2016/11/01/Interactive-History-of-terror-attacks-in-Saudi-Arabia.html

19 https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-09-21/saudi-minister-says-detainees-were-pushing-an-extremist-agenda

20 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-11/saudi-revolution-from-the-top-has-little-room-for-critics

21 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/world/rise-of-saudi-prince-shatters-decades-of-royal-tradition.html

22 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-11/saudi-revolution-from-the-top-has-little-room-for-critics

About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.