- On Saturday, June 17, I gave a talk on Saudi Arabia in lovely Kennebunk to the Maine Chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). The following is an excerpt from the latter part of the talk: (Incidentally, I would like to thank my friend and longtime colleague from the CIA, the Arabist Sam Wyman, who agreed to look at the text and made some important suggestions).
Efforts have recently been made to change the peculiar succession system in Saudi Arabia, in which the inheritance went from brother to brother instead of the usual father to son in monarchies. This has made for, in effect, a gerontocracy.
In January of this year, Saudi Arabia shifted from a cautious, lethargic foreign policy to a much more dynamic one. The occasion was a change of rulers. The new King, Salman bin Abdal Aziz, 79, very conservative and very powerful, proceeded quickly to make a number of significant changes. Taking power in January 2015 on the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah, and hardly crowned, Salman withdrew the title of crown prince from his brother, Muqrin bin Abdal Aziz and conferred it on his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef., the son of a former Interior Minister, Nayef bin Abdel Aziz. It was the first time a crown prince was excluded from the succession and the first time a grandson, rather than a son, of the founder, King Ibd Saoud, had been put in line for succession to the throne. (Note: he founder of he state is known generally in the West as Ibn Saoud and in the Arab World as Abdal Aziz.) King Salman named his own son, 30-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, vice crown prince. Since the death of the founding father, King Ibn Saoud, the throne was held by his sons according to age and to the position they held. The new King also made Mohammed bin Nayef, as Interior Minister, the in-charge of the Saudi intelligence agencies. In addition, the new King named his own son ,Mohammed bin Salman, Minister of Defense, the in-charge of the national Saudi oil company, Aramco, and the head of the Economic and Development Council. Mohammed bin Salman had spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia and does not speak fluent English, although he appears to understand it.
Additionally significant is the fact that the first crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, will be 60 years old in 2019 and has no male heirs. Assuming he succeeds Salman as king, and Salman is in uncertain health, being subject to occasional memory lapses, Mohammed bin Nayef too will eventually pass away. He has diabetes and suffers from the lingering effects of a jihadist assassination attempt against him in 2009, in which the attacker detonated a bomb that he had hidden in his rectum.
When the first crown prince does pass away, the kingship should fall to Salman’s son, the deputy crown prince Mohammed ben Salman.
But that is not the whole story. Mohammed bin Salman is an extremely dynamic and fast-acting man. He has made a couple of high profile purchases, a 440-foot yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon, and the villa of Silvio Berlusconi in Sardinia. It is he as Defense Minister who took charge of the Saudi campaign in the Yemen against the Houthi rebels, a non-Sunni group aligned with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s mortal enemy. He did this without full coordination with all elements of the military, especially the National Guard.
Mohammed bin Nayef is a respected figure in Washington, with many contacts. He is credited with smashing the al Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia about a decade ago. However, with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, a number of Washington figures have become uncertain as to who is going to come out on top in Saudi Arabia and have begun reaching out to Mohammed bin Salman.
Recently King Salman has taken a number of steps which would seem to favor his own son. Firstly, he merged the court of Mohammed bin Nayef, with his own, leaving Mohammed bin Salman in control of access to the King. Secondly, Mohammed bin Salman announced the formation of a military alliance among Islamic countries for the purpose of fighting terrorism. Counter-terrorism has long been the purview of Mohammed bin Nayef.
Early this year, Mohammed bin Nayef left the kingdom for an extended stay in his family’s compound north of Algiers, where he remained incommunicado, giving rise to rumors that he felt he was losing out to the much younger Mohammed bin Salman. However, he did return and went to New York to address the United Nations. He also met with President Obama in Washington during the same time.
The succession outcome is probably the most fraught issue in Saudi Arabia today. The first crown prince has largely stayed in the shadows.. The second crown prince has worked to remain in the spotlight, visiting foreign capitals and giving interviews to foreign journalists. He is close to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Shaykh Mohmmed bin Zayed al Nuhayan. The latter is well thought of in Washington, although he has a history of difficult relations with the Saudi No. 1 crown prince, Mhammed nin Nayef.
Mohammed bin Nayef has one key asset: he is the Number One crown prince. Theoretically, he could remove Mohammed bin Salman on becoming king..
Among the various scenarios concerning the succession, two emerge as the most likely. One, the first crown prince, when he succeeds the ailing present king, could himself change the succession, naming someone else as crown Prince. This would not be easy, given the manifold roles that Mohammed bin Salman has taken on. A second scenario would be that the present king could change the succession again, removing the present No. 1 crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef and replacing him with the No. 2, Mohammed bin Salman. This would seem to be difficult, given the relative youth of the second crown prince, and the jealousies he has aroused. However, the Saudi royals seem acutely aware of the fact that should dissension in the royal family break out into the open, the prestige and credibility of the family would be damaged.
It is a truism that the Saudi monarchy likely will survive as long as the Saud family remains united. Once family feuds break into the open, there will be trouble. King Salman’s nephew, Muhammad bin Nayif is the half first cousin of Muhammad bin Salman. These two half-cousins – Muhammad bin Salman and Muhammad bin Nayif – do not like each other and eventually their mutual enmity will be the decisive factor in succession politics. How these two and their respective lines/supporters in the Saud family handle this will dictate one way or the other the continued health of the Saud monarchy. The importance of this competition cannot be overemphasized. There is increasing talk of the “Salman Branch” of the royal family, which could be a premonition of obstacles to Muhammad bin Nayef’s succession. Fueling this premonition is that King Salman recently appointed Muhammad bin Salman’s younger brother, Khalid, a Saudi Air Force pilot who has flown combat missions in Yemen, as ambassador to the U.S. Given Muhammad bin Salman’s ambitious and limelight-attracting “Vision 2030”, his prescription for lessening Saudii dependence on oil, the fact that he is his father’s favorite son and that his younger full brother Khalid is in Washington, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef risks being outflanked by his younger cousin the Deputy Crown Prince. Muhammad bin Salman is playing to the younger generation in the Kingdom both within and outside the royal family. Whether the House of Saud will withstand Muhammad bin Salman’s ambition and preserve Muhammad bin Nayef’s succession is the key question.
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On Tuesday, June 20, I awakened., turned on my iPhone, and discovered that King Salman had moved his own son up to the Number One Crown Prince position and removed his nephew from that spot. Whatever the outcome of this fateful decision, I can only say that, from my point of view, the timing was exquisite. The talk had been in preparation for weeks. And judging from the extended embrace on TV by the new Number One Crown Prince to the departing one, it can be said that the Saudi version of “omerta” is still operating