Following his surprise appointment as crown prince back in June, 32-year-old Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud has been thrust into the spotlight. The events surrounding his rapid rise to power sound like something straight out of Hollywood, involving secretive plots and political intrigue, however, the consequences of his dramatic ascent to power could be very real for Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole.
Tensions within the extensive network of royalty have existed for decades, yet, up until recently, have been kept relatively under control. Stability and gradual change were seen as key in maintaining the complicated structures of Saudi Arabian society and politics. In a region wracked by war and turmoil stability and survival were emphasized. This all changed in 2015 when the 90-year-old King Abdullah died of pneumonia and King Salman succeeded him.
In a flurry of cabinet changes which aimed to consolidate his power, the King appointed his experienced and respected nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince and his young, relatively unknown son, Mohammed bin Salman, as his deputy. In Saudi Arabia the crown prince, as well as being the heir to the throne, is incredibly powerful, possessing almost total responsibility for the Kingdom’s economic and security policies.
In the months following his appointment, it became clear that the ambitious deputy crown prince had been trying to solidify his position and increase his powers with the support of his father. Many expected him to eventually rise to the position of crown prince, however, the audacious power grab he carried out this June, and subsequent moves to further consolidate power, nonetheless, came as a surprise, sending shockwaves through the Kingdom and the wider region.
While these reports haven’t been verified and have been denied by Riyadh, sources close to the king allege events unfolded as follows: During what Mohammed bin Nayef believed was a standard meeting, the King used the pretext of concerns over the crown prince’s rumoured drug addiction, which he allegedly had developed as consequence to injuries sustained from a failed assassination attempt, to force him to relinquish his titles as crown prince and interior minister. This cleared the way for deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to take over, which was done in a ceremony broadcast on state television where the former crown prince and key members of the royal family publicly pledged their support and allegiance. Since then Mohammed bin Nayef has supposedly been placed under de-facto house arrest.
This move has put Mohammed bin Salman in an incredibly strong position. Keeping his roles as defence minister and president of the Council of Economic and Development affairs, and with no new deputy crown prince appointed, not only is he next in line to the throne, he is now perhaps the most influential man in Saudi Arabia. While Saudi’s system of absolute monarchy means the King is legally the highest authority in the Kingdom, bin Salman has been granted unprecedented control of the state’s domestic and foreign policies by his ailing, octogenarian father, ostensibly making him the real power behind the throne.
Thus far, there has been little direct opposition to this change. Domestically, the crown prince’s control of internal security forces has allowed him to consolidate his power through a string of arrests targeting prominent government ministers, business men, clerics and rights activists. While many in Riyadh are nervous about his aggressive ambitions, it seems unlikely that anyone within the Saudi hierarchy will be in a position to challenge bin Salman in the near future.
Internationally, while American-trained Mohammed bin Nayef was a favourite of the US and enjoyed close links with intelligence officials, who saw him as a key figure in the fight against Jihadi terrorism, any US opposition to his sudden fall from grace is extremely unlikely. The Trump administration’s hard-line policy on Iran has further increased the importance of Saudi Arabia’s position as a key ally. Now, more than ever, the US cannot afford to risk damaging this vital relationship by interfering in the Kingdom’s internal affairs. Bin Salman has also worked hard to cultivate a good relationship with the Trump administration, travelling to Washington to meet the President back in May and staging multiple meetings with Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner. These efforts appear to have been successful, with Trump recently praising Bin Salman’s latest series of arrests on twitter.
Given that it looks almost certain that the crown prince will be able to maintain his position, at least in the near future, the question arises: how will he use his ample powers?
It is already apparent that bin Salman is not one to shy away from aggressive policies both at home and abroad. On a positive note his liberalisation efforts, which include finally allowing woman to drive and promises to shift towards a more moderate Islam, are a much-needed step in the right direction for a Kingdom where extreme and reactionary implementations of Islamic laws have for far too long restricted and repressed the basic rights and freedoms of its people. His ambitious attempts, through the proposed 2030 vision plan, to diversify the overtly oil dependant Saudi economy also appear sensible.
These domestic reforms, however, are not without risks. Maintaining a balance between the need for liberal reforms and the demands of the deeply conservative and reactionary forces which exist in the country has long been the backbone of Saudi stability. The rapid nature of bin Salman’s modernisation efforts is likely to upset this balance and may generate a significant backlash. While the crown prince has already shown that he is capable of using his political influence and Saudi Arabia’s extensive security apparatus to stifle any political competitors, the real risk lies in the possibility of a violent reaction.
The Islamic terrorist group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), already enjoys a degree of sympathy and support from elements of the Saudi population. While they have struggled to maintain a presence in the Kingdom following government crackdown, the Jihadi group has recently benefited from the Saudi led war in neighbouring Yemen. Instability and lawlessness have allowed AQAP to establish strongholds in the south and east of this war-torn state, which could potentially be used to plan and carry out attacks on the Saudi side of the border. Discontent brought about by bin Salman’s reforms may boost their support and increases the risk of further attacks occurring, with potentially disastrous results for the stability of Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole.
Internationally, the hawkish prince appears to favour aggression and warmongering over diplomacy and compromise. One of the driving forces behind the gulf states’ war in Yemen, a conflict which has led to mass civilian casualties and a disastrous humanitarian crisis, Mohammed has also pushed aggressive rhetoric on Iran and helped engineer the economic blockade of Qatar over supposed links to terrorism. While Riyadh has denied its involvement, there is speculation that bin Salman was behind the surprise resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, announced from Saudi Arabia on November 5th. If bin Salman was involved, it suggests that he is willing to risk upsetting the delicate balance of power in Lebanon and the whole region by challenging Iran and its Lebanese allies Hezbollah. These efforts to increase the Kingdom’s influence in the region have been characterized by dangerously sectarian undertones and have heightened tensions on an already unstable Arabian Peninsula. Any continuation down this path and further escalation could plunge the region into war, resulting in unspeakable humanitarian consequences.
Whatever happens, the near future is likely to be one of significant change and upheaval. Given Saudi Arabia’s extensive regional influence, the repercussions of its game of thrones will reverberate far beyond the Kingdom’s borders.