Saudi Implosion: Succession, Hubris And An Obsession With Iran

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) speaks with members of the royal family during an allegiance pledging cer
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) speaks with members of the royal family during an allegiance pledging ceremony in Mecca, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2017.

In 2015, upon becoming the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz took a decision that cracked the foundation of the House of Saud. He discarded his tribe’s long-held rule of succession and appointed his 30-year old favorite son, Prince Mohammad, to the position of Deputy Crown Prince, and the effective day-to-day ruler of the realm ahead of numerous more senior princes in the line of succession. Then, two days ago, he elevated this favorite son to the position of Crown Prince, a promotion that in retrospect would appear to have been his intention all along and we predict the King’s early abdication in favor of his son to better assure his succession.

Why has King Salman’s decision doomed the House of Saud?

Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, had 36 known surviving sons to reach adulthood from numerous wives; seven full brothers, the Sudairi (their mother’s family name) brothers, have been the most powerful. To maintain family unity, Abdul-Aziz secured the promise of his sons to follow the simple rule of age for succession among his sons (leaving aside the issue of succession to the next generation). Many of his sons had reputedly feared the monopolization of power by the Sudairi brothers but they realized that their father’s directive was in the long-term interest of family rule. While there have been family frictions, it seemed that succession and power sharing would survive.

While King Salman’s decision to elevate his young son is effectively a soft coup to make his direct descendants the rulers of the realm, it threatens the House of Saud because of (i) the elevation of his direct descendants over more than 10,000 other princes, and (ii) the character, judgment and qualification of the son he has chosen to succeed him.

One does not have to be a psychiatrist to recognize a simple facet of human nature. No family member relishes being pushed aside by a patriarch, especially if the favored family member is much younger, less educated and inexperienced and has manipulated an aging patriarch to promote his elevation. Now if there were a few family members, then we could see how they might be co-opted or neutralized, but here there are more than 10,000 male relatives in the House of Saud! You don’t have to be a devotee of Shakespeare to expect one or more of the 10,000 to try to right the wrong. There will undoubtedly be a struggle to depose Mohammad bin Salman now or in the future. The House of Saud will be rendered asunder. King Salman may try to prevent this by his early abdication, but even this move is unlikely to restore harmony to the House of Saud.

As important in all this is Price Mohammad’s character, judgment and actions since his father became king. He embarked on a program of much needed economic reforms. An integral part of this plan was a reduction of the lavish subsidies afforded to the Saudi public that had been a part and parcel of the Al-Saud pact with the citizenry—stay out of politics and we will provide for you. But with low oil prices and the gloomy outlook for the future, something had to be done. So Prince Mohammad decreed that Saudis would receive lower benefits. This might have been acceptable if everyone was asked to make an equitable sacrifice. But this was not so. Prince Mohammad had a 258-foot yacht, Pegasus, which was valued at about $125 million. In 2016, while holidaying in France, he saw a 440-foot yacht, Serene, that he just had to have! Reportedly, that same day, he dispatched his man to buy this yacht from its Russian owner for a whopping $550 million! What judgment! He tells the people to do with less while he buys a bigger yacht; and most important, all this with money that comes from oil revenues in the national treasury, oil that in Islam belongs to all the people of this and future generations. This is not a future ruler but a spoiled child in a toy store.

This ambitious young man, enjoying Trump’s military backing and full of hubris, has adopted policies that could embroil Saudi Arabia in conflicts for years to come.

Over the last two years, he has expanded the conflict in Yemen with troops and indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Although he has garnered the support of the Trump Administration in this war effort, this is a surrogate war with Iran that seems to be going nowhere. But one thing is for sure; the killing of thousands of Yemeni civilians is getting Saudi Arabia thousands of potential enemies.

He has placed an embargo on Qatar that threatens the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, a regional security arrangement). This arrangement (in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution) among five sheikdoms and Saudi Arabia is being torn asunder. After the ultimatum today to Qatar, demanding its total subservience and the payment of an unspecified sum of cash, the possibility of a military confrontation with Turkey (that has a base in Qatar), Iran (with a treaty with Qatar) and Iraq looms large.

Prince Mohammad’s obsession with Iran will only increase conflict in the Persian Gulf and endanger the future of Al-Saud rule. His verbal barrage against Iran, accusing it of terrorist acts and plans to dominate the Islamic World while he proclaims Saudi Arabia’s selfless guardianship of Islam rings hollow and exposes Saudi Arabia to closer scrutiny. In recent years, the Al-Sauds have demolished most of the historical sites of Islam in Mecca and have replaced them with structures and highways where homes of Prophet Mohammad’s companions and sacred buildings once stood. During Hajj, all Muslims are presumed to be equal, but in recent years inequalities are increasingly on display. Al-Sauds have built palaces overlooking the Kaaba; and rich pilgrims can enjoy luxurious living in $3,000-a-night rooms that overlook the Kaaba while poor Muslims get by with minimal accommodations. When pilgrims become so unequal—where equality is to be supreme—Muslims know all that they need know to confirm the illegitimate rule of the Al-Sauds.

For the more than 10,000 Al-Saud princes the issues are two. First, there has been a coup that has upended the tribal pact that was the rule of succession. Second, Prince Mohammad’s behavior and actions endanger Al-Saud rule and with it all the benefits that they now enjoy. There is only one solution—undo what has been done!