The Change in Saudi Arabia's Royal Succession Portends Darker Times for the Region

Mohammed bin Salman, 31, the prince behind Saudi Arabia's disastrous war in Yemen and boycott of Qatar, has replaced 57-year-old Mohammed bin Naif as crown prince.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

The appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince of Saudi Arabia and heir-apparent to his 81-year old father – in place of Prince Mohammed bin Naif – has been in preparation for some time, possibly from the moment his father became king in January 2015 and appointed his 28-year old son as defence minister and head of the royal court.

In April 2015, King Salman had abruptly removed Prince Muqrin – the last surviving son of King Abdulaziz (1932-1953) besides the ruler – as crown prince, and appointed Mohammed bin Naif as crown prince and interior minister, while Mohammed bin Salman was named deputy crown prince.

Over the last two years, Mohammed bin Salman has never been out of the news, so much so that he has become the face of the kingdom and its principal spokesman. In this period, through a series of royal decrees, he has gained in power and prominence.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise

Besides holding the defence portfolio, with his chairmanship of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, he is the economic czar of the country and also controls oil affairs, the principal source of the country’s revenues and the basis of its global clout in economic matters. He is the architect of his country’s “Vision-2030”, the nation’s programme to prepare itself for the post-oil era.

Security issues were ostensibly under Mohammed bin Naif, but here again Mohammed bin Salman expanded his role by setting up the national security centre in the royal palace and thus under his control. He then appointed a close confidant, Major General Saud bin Abdul Aziz al-Helal, the Saudi spokesman on the Yemen war, as the new director of the General Security Services, the domestic intelligence service, with the rank of lieutenant general. Both these initiatives encroached on the erstwhile crown prince’s domain and significantly curtailed his authority in crucial areas of national security.

And, then, a few days ago, the deputy crown prince brought criminal affairs under his control: on June 18, the news portal,  Rai Al Youm, said in an editorial: “Interestingly, all the Saudi royal orders and appointments that are being issued these days serve one direction: that of organising the ruling system and its institutions to match the specifications of the next Saudi monarch, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the son of the king and the actual ruler of the country.” The daily was referring to the setting up of the new office of  “public prosecutor”, who would be appointed by the king and controlled by the royal court, thus taking away the crown prince’s control, as interior minister, over criminal investigations.

It also said that the first appointee to this office was Sheikh Saud al-Mojab, who was known to be very close to Mohammed bin Salman. The news portal noted that hardly any powers were now left to the crown prince, and that the only order now remaining was “to appoint Prince Mohammad bin Salman as crown prince, a semi-final step to him taking over the throne.” This was finally done through a royal decree on June 21.

Royal house in disarray

The functioning of the royal house over the last two years is without precedent in recent Saudi annals. Over the last hundred years they have been masters of the desert kingdom after the entry into Riyadh of their scion, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rehman, from exile in Kuwait in 1903, The House of Saud has faced several challenges and crises; these have included: the forced abdication of King Saud in 1964, the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, the attack on the Haram Sharif in Mecca in 1979, and the prolonged illness of King Fahd during 1995-2005.

In addition, the kingdom has confronted serious external challenges, such as: the ideological threat from Nasser and other Arab revolutionaries, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the threat from Al Qaeda and the implications of the 9/11 attacks on the US, the US assault on Iraq, the threat from ISIS, and the domestic and regional challenges posed by the Arab Spring.

The royal house weathered all these challenges primarily because the family remained united and decision-making was generally collegial, following consultations among senior royal family members. Again, every effort was made to ensure that no branch of the sprawling royal family was ignored and its grievances allowed to fester and corrode family unity from within. Finally, though the Al Saud number at least 30,000 if not more, rigorous internal discipline was maintained and debates and differences within family councils were rarely aired in public.

Though family discipline has remained intact so far, what is unprecedented in the present scenario is the extraordinary power – political, military, intelligence, energy, economic – wielded by one young prince, with no attempt being made at consultation and consensus-building within the family. Several senior royals have been ignominiously removed from their positions, including two crown princes, to make way for the designated heir-apparent, who has also superseded some of his own older brothers in his rise to the top.

Prince Mohammed’s wars

In spite of his flamboyance and media-savvy nature, Mohammed bin Salman’s two years in power have seen very few achievements. Within two months of his father’s accession, the prince initiated the war in Yemen against the Houthis and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Optimistically named ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, this  war has ground to a stalemate, but in the process at least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed, most major towns have been devastated, and millions face a serious humanitarian crisis.

The indiscriminate bombing of civilians has led to accusations of war crimes from some US congressmen. Observers have noted that the devastating Saudi bombardment has generally spared positions controlled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose cadres have fought the Houthis as allies of the Saudi-led coalition.

In Syria, the prince is said to have put together the Salafi militia, Jaish Al Fatah, a grouping that has worked with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra. The Syrian conflict shows no sign of a military settlement, though half a million people have been killed, cities destroyed, and millions rendered homeless.

The prince’s efforts on the diplomatic side have also not been particularly remarkable. Irked by the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran on the nuclear issue, the prince announced the setting up of an “Islamic NATO”, a largely Sunni military force made up of battalions from a wide variety of Islamic countries. The participating countries were named, but many of them indicated they had not been consulted earlier, and expressed reservations about the vague plan.

Later, in December 2015, as part of an anti-terrorism initiative, some nations from the Muslim world did send troops to participate in exercises in Saudi Arabia, but no details of the participants have been revealed officially, nor is there any indication that a permanent force has been put in place. Iran, Iraq and Syria are not part of this alliance.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been particularly vociferous against Iran. There was already political and strategic competition between the two Islamic giants before the prince assumed authority in his country. But, he was blamed for the death of over 2,000 Iranian pilgrims in September 2015, due to his convoy ploughing through the throng. More seriously, he is believed to have ordered the execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, the firebrand Shia cleric from Qaseem, the kingdom’s Shia-majority province, which inflamed passions in Iran, led to an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the break in diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Recently, in an interview with MBC, the prince explained why it was impossible to engage with Iran – by framing the bilateral contention in largely sectarian terms. He made repeated references in the interview to the Shiite ideology of the Iranian state, and said it was impossible to have dialogue with an entity that believes its policies are divinely-guided to prepare conditions for the return of the Imam Mahdi – whom Twelver Shiites believe will return from hiding before the end of times and establish just rule across the world. Prince Mohammed asked rhetorically: “How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology … which [says] they must control the land of Muslims and spread their Twelver Jaafari sect in the Muslim world?”

He ended the interview with a threat: noting that Iran’s ultimate aim was to wrest control of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, he warned: “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia… Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

The alliance with Trump

There is little doubt that the prince’s close ties with the Trump administration, particularly with the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, have facilitated his latest elevation as crown prince. Kushner is said to have facilitated the prince’s meeting with Donald Trump in March this year, which was attended by US vice president Mike Pence, Kushner, chief of staff Reince Priebus and strategist Steve Bannon. It is believed that this interaction was founded on Saudi promises of major defence contracts.

Following this meeting, and possibly with the full approval of the White House, Prince Mohammed got rid of the incumbent Saudi ambassador in Washington and nominated his 28-year old full brother, Prince Khaled bin Salman, to the post, thus ensuring a direct line to Kushner and the presidency. This camaraderie then led to Trump’s high profile visit to Riyadh in late May, his first foreign tour as president.

In Riyadh, the Saudi-US military and political partnership was affirmed in terms of the nascent “Trump Doctrine”, which sought to put in place a “Sunni Military Alliance”, ostensibly against jihadi terrorism but in effect against Iran. The doctrine also envisages Israel joining this Sunni front against Iran at some point, while effectively burying the peace process.

The relationship was lubricated by defence contracts valued at $ 110 billion, with further increases over the next ten years to $ 350 billion. While Trump triumphantly announced his diplomatic achievement and the assurance of a few million US jobs, some US commentators have noted that these figures are highly exaggerated: they include several contracts from the Obama era and many other letters of agreement which will evolve into contracts only much later. Some observers have also raised doubts about whether the kingdom has the funds to support this extravagant expenditure.

The remarks of the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, questioning the rationale of this alliance inevitably drew Prince Mohammed’s ire and, in association with Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, he has initiated the diplomatic, economic and communications boycott of Qatar, a fraternal neighbour and partner in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Here again, Prince Mohammed appears to have over-reached himself. Iran and Turkey, major Shia and Sunni countries in the region, have rushed to Qatar’s aid and have ensured that the island nation does not suffer the full consequences of the Saudi-initiated sanctions. Confronting the Saudi-led “Sunni” alliance is now a new cross-sectarian grouping that also has close ties with Russia. This group, working together on the peace process in Syria, will try to ensure that Saudi plans for regime change in Damascus, in which the new crown prince has invested so much of his country’s prestige and resources, are stymied.

Prince in a quagmire

The appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince and his close alliance with the Trump administration are likely to promote uncertainty and instability both within the kingdom and in the region. The prince’s elevation is based on the ouster and public humiliation of distinguished royal family members. In fact, to justify the removal of Mohammed bin Naif as crown prince, it is being whispered in Riyadh that he was close to Sheikh Tamim of Qatar.

To complicate matters, the ousted crown prince has been close to Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of the former king and head of the powerful National Guard, the country’s parallel security force made up of specially selected personnel from different tribes. This force was headed by former king Abdullah from 1962, and played a major role in supporting Faisal in ousting Saud from the throne in 1964. On his accession, King Salman removed most of the former king’s appointees but did not touch Miteb, possibly taking into account his own and his immediate family’s influence with the National Guard.

What position Miteb adopts in this family crisis will reveal whether the transition King Salman has put in place is peaceful or marked by intra-family contentions. Though not witnessed in the 20th century, we could now see a repeat of family feuds that wrecked the House of Saud a century earlier when internecine conflict had led to fierce fighting, executions, external interventions and exile.

Again, while the kingdom’s proxy wars against Iran in Syria and Yemen remain military failures, they have inflamed sectarian passions which have been fully exploited by jihadi forces to wreak death and destruction across the region, including in Iran itself very recently, when its iconic monuments were attacked by ISIS-affiliated militants. The fact that unnamed GCC officials have told academics in the region about their plans to stir unrest among Iran’s Sunni minorities – Arab, Baluchi, Kurdish and Turcoman – in different parts of the country has fed Iranian paranoia, so that some of its officials have even blamed Saudi Arabia for instigating the attacks in Tehran.

Prince Mohammed’s hostility to the ruler of Qatar and the implementation of wide-ranging sanctions is astonishing to say the least, and foreshadows the aggressive posture the crown prince will adopt in the face of regional competition, even if it means the gradual demise of the GCC and the emergence of a much narrower alliance of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – of course backed wholeheartedly by Trump.

The price the kingdom will pay is quite high. Besides the lucrative defence contracts, Saudi Arabia has had to placate Trump by agreeing to the implementation of its own peace plan in the Israel-Palestine dispute: the plan had called on Israel to move forward on a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories, which would be followed by normalisation of the Arab states’ ties with the Jewish state. Israel seems to have persuaded Trump to reverse the order, so that the Arab states normalise ties with it first, after which it will take up the peace process. Saudi acceptance of this approach will be a betrayal of Palestinian aspirations and will almost certainly be received with considerable hostility across the region.

In time, Prince Mohammed may find that his affinity with Trump is a poisoned chalice. Not only is the president unreliable in terms of his views and postures, he is also under domestic pressure – which could weaken him politically. The relationship is presently founded on the Saudi ability to deliver on defence and other commercial contracts. If the kingdom reneges on these assurances, Trump could turn nasty and allow the full flow of his Islamophobia, that was in evidence through the election campaign and still shapes many of his domestic pronouncements.

Trump’s visceral anti-Iran and pro-Israel stance, the macho-posturing of Prince Salman and the absence of moderating counsel in both Washington and Riyadh suggest that war clouds in the region will become darker. The American writer William Hartung has warned, Trump’s shift in favour of Saudi Arabia “could, in the end, destabilise the Middle East in ways not seen in our lifetime (which, given the growing chaos in the region, is no small thing to say)”.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune and is Consulting Editor, The Wire.