Blood is thicker than water, especially where royalty is concerned. On April 22-23, King Salman quite unexpectedly promulgated 40 or so royal decrees that were designed to strengthen the House of Saud’s Salman branch and its grip on power besides raising the public profile of his son, the 31-year-old deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s strongman.
One of the decrees had the king reinstate the financial benefits for military personnel and civil servants that had been withdrawn as part of the economic modernisation of the kingdom under the deputy crown prince’s Vision 2030 programme. The Saudi middle class, which is largely made up of civil servants, had balked at these curtailments. Surprisingly enough, Mohammed bin Salman got most of the credit for the restoration of the allowances—even though it was he who had sought their removal in the first place. He has an omnipresence on Saudi TV, and makes himself available to foreign journalists to periodically present his “vision” for the future of Saudi Arabia.
Another of King Salman’s sons, Prince Abdulaziz, was a dynastic priority too as he was appointed minister of energy, a key portfolio for the kingdom.
The most spectacular decision though was the replacement of the incumbent Saudi ambassador in Washington by yet another offspring of the king’s, Khaled bin Salman, an F-15 pilot who is still in his 20s. Being related by blood to the monarch is supposed to make up for his lack of experience. With him at the embassy, the Trump administration knows its messages to the Saudi king will be delivered without undue bureaucratic delay.
Among the decrees published during that fateful week-end of April 22-23, was the creation of a new National Security Centre, answering directly to the Royal Diwan (court), and the appointment of a national security advisor, Mohammed bin Salih Alghfaili, whose role is not entirely clear at this stage. What bears noting here is that the Centre is not reporting to the minister in charge of security, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, the current crown prince.
Looking at the general pattern of these decisions, the aim seems to be to further isolate the crown prince, who is the only visible obstacle in his cousin–and deputy–Mohammed bin Salman’s path to the throne. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is the only royal who is not a direct descendant of King Salman’s occupying a top position in government. He has won credit, both at home and in the U.S., for success in his relentless fight against the al-Qaeda, and more generally, terrorism–and has long been seen as Washington’s pick for successor to the throne. But is this still so?
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Washington reached an all time low under Obama: they disagreed on everything–from the significance of the Iranian threat, to the U.S.’s role in West Asia and the Syrian conflict. With the election of Donald Trump, Riyadh was quick to seize the opportunity of a “reset” of their relations, notwithstanding the new president’s professed hostility towards Muslims. His rather more confrontationist approach vis-à-vis Iran can only please the Saudi kingdom.
The first Saudi visitor to the Oval Office after Obama’s departure, though, was not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, but his deputy, Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son, who was bestowed the honour of a private lunch with Donald Trump at the White House mid-March. It is too early to draw definite conclusions from this, but Defence Secretary Jim Mattis did make a successful trip mid-April to Saudi Arabia; and later this month, it’s the destination of President Trump’s first foreign visit.
If Mohammed bin Salman succeeds in establishing direct contact with the Trump administration, he will effectively deprive his cousin and rival of the life support needed to retain his position. This has led most Saudi watchers to believe that King Salman might, sooner rather than later, replace Mohammed bin Nayef with son, Mohammed bin Salman, who will then be nearly assured of becoming the next monarch of Saudi Arabia, a country that has, for decades, been ruled by septuagenarians or octogenarians.
So, what are Mohammed bin Salman’s credentials? He has been associated with two bold, ongoing initiatives: attempting to modernise the domestic economy through privatisation and the creation of a $2 trillion sovereign fund, and confronting Iran externally on all fronts. But the much heralded initial public offering of 5% of the capital of Aramco, the national oil company, is unlikely to take place before 2018, thereby delaying the creation of the fund, the capital for which will stem from the privatisation projects. The investments he announced two years ago have been partially shelved as the oil price fell in 2016 to below $30 a barrel. With the current price around $50, which is unlikely to climb in the years to come, his Vision 2030 seems to have taken a hit and unpopular austerity measures might have to stay in place, despite the recent rollback, even if this risks incurring widespread disapproval.
The war in Yemen, launched two years ago by him, in which at least 10,000 have been killed, according to the UN, has not yielded any visible positive results while being a heavy burden on the kingdom’s budget. Reputed news agencies, including Reuters, estimated in 2015 that the bombings alone were costing Saudi Arabia $175 million per month. The German intelligence agency, Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), characterised it, in an unusually blunt public assessment, as “an impulsive interventionist policy”. Success in its resolution and/or on the economic front will strengthen his chances of bypassing his cousin and becoming the next king.
But even if such a situation does come to pass—and it will be totally unprecedented–the Council of Allegiance, a body in which the 35 branches of the House of Saud are represented and which has been totally sidelined since Salman became king in January 2015, might refuse to confirm Mohammed bin Salman as the new king. Its current silence should not be mistaken for tacit approval of the deputy crown prince’s policies. The most likely scenario will be a return by Saudi Arabia to a more traditional and cautious diplomacy.
Olivier Da Lage is editor-in-chief at Radio France International. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.
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