Prince’s meteoric rise steers S. Arabia in uncertain direction

June 22, 2017

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Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  — Reuters
Prince Mohammed bin Salman. — Reuters

KARACHI: With the removal of Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince from the Saudi line of succession on Wednesday, the decks have apparently been cleared for King Salman’s young, ambitious son Mohammed bin Salman to one day assume the throne of the desert kingdom.

While palace intrigues and court politics are part and parcel of all the world’s remaining monarchical systems, when there is a shake-up in the Saudi line of succession, people take notice for two particular reasons: firstly, whoever controls the Saudi throne controls access to Makkah and Madina, Islam’s two holiest sites. Secondly, as Saudi Arabia is a hydrocarbon powerhouse, the world keeps its eyes glued to Riyadh to see what the likely impact on petrol stations from New York to Karachi will be.

While the declaration of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince was long the subject of rumour mills, it was not expected to happen so suddenly. However, few would argue that bin Salman’s rise in the Saudi pecking order has been anything short of meteoric, ever since his father assumed the throne in 2015 following the death of King Abdullah. Before 2015, many outside — and perhaps even within Saudi Arabia — would have had trouble identifying bin Salman from amongst the thousands of princes of the House of Saud. Today he is widely considered the eminence grise of Saudi Arabia, the real power behind the throne. Wednesday’s royal decree has just consolidated his position.

All is not well in the House of Saud as official opposition to new appointment does exist

Public reaction to the move has, of course, been well-coordinated. In a video released after the announcement, bin Salman can be seen kissing the hand of his elder cousin bin Nayef, the man he just superseded. In Arab culture this is seen as a sign of deference to elders. However, it appears that all is not well within the House of Saud as far as the rapid ascension of the young prince is concerned. For example, as per the Saudi Press Agency, 31 out of 34 members of the royal Allegiance Council backed the king’s move. This means that while it may be miniscule, there is official opposition to the swift changeover.

Back in September 2015, an unnamed Saudi prince had also shared an open letter to Salman in The Guardian, critical of the new king and stating that there was disquiet in the royal family over the way things were headed in the kingdom.

To understand the significance of these events, we must realise that ever since it was founded in 1932, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by its founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, or one of his sons. Today, as nature takes its course, the sons of the founder are few and ageing, hence the need to open up the line of succession to the next generation. Salman took the first step by replacing his half-brother Prince Muqrin, who had been appointed crown prince by King Abdullah, in 2015 with his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, signalling the generational shift away from the gerontocracy of Ibn Saud’s sons to his younger grandsons. However Wednesday’s move by the king puts an even younger generation in power, as bin Salman is said to be in his early thirties.

While youth is a much-needed quantity in the Saudi monarchy, some would argue that recklessness that can accompany youth may pose a danger to the survival of the House of Saud. While the older generation of Saudi kings and princes played their cards carefully especially where regional ties were concerned, the new generation, symbolised by bin Salman, has been characterised as impulsive and lacking experience. Add to this the fact that there is much power concentrated within the hands of the new crown prince.

Ever since his father’s rise to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman has become his country’s economic czar, head of the royal court as well as its defence minister. It is in the last capacity that his decisions have been most controversial. For example, the Saudi-led war against the Houthi-Saleh combine in Yemen is not going as planned and what was depicted as a swift operation has been transformed into a quagmire. Intra-Gulf Cooperation Council relations are also at a low ebb, with the Saudi-UAE campaign against Qatar showing no signs of abating. And as for arch-nemesis Iran, bin Salman has adopted an increasingly aggressive tone, telling an interviewer last month that the battle would be taken to Iran.

These tough stances on the international front, coupled with the threat religious militancy poses to the Middle East as well as the financial woes Saudi Arabia has been suffering since oil prices plummeted, pose an extraordinary challenge to the Saudi leadership. The octogenarian King Salman is reportedly in poor health, which means that more and more of the matters of governance will now be decided by his young son and crown prince. Time will tell whether Mohammed bin Salman turns out to be a quick learner on the job and works to calm tensions in a combustible region, or if he decides to raise the temperature further with tough talk and questionable decisions.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2017