The chaotic Middle East seems to be fast retreating in time.
Proof of the retreat? Recently, King Salman of Saudi Arabia took another two steps backward by elevating his son, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), to crown prince, next in line for the throne.
But what does it all mean? The king's move suggests that the hierarchical structure in the house of Al-Saud, which has been in place for decades, is about to change once and for all. The demotion of Mohamed Bin Nayef (former crown prince and King Salman’s nephew) indicates not only the growing power of the young prince MBS (minister of defense, chief of the royal court, chairman of Saudi Aramco supreme council, etc.), but also the oft-unnoticed royal infighting over control of the kingdom. The assassination of King Faisal on March 25, 1975 is a rare example of how such infighting spills over into public view.
The elevation of MBS raises serious concerns politically, economically, socially, and religiously. Politically, the main question is what kind of foreign policy the impulsive, inexperienced MBS will conduct vis-à-vis Qatar, Syria, and Iran, to name but a few hotspots. One does not have to look far to realize MBS's naiveté in global affairs. Consider, for example, his decision to undertake a military adventure in Yemen. His miscalculation suggests a lack of military and diplomatic experience. Two years after the desert kingdom launched its operations in Yemen, it has yet to declare a decisive victory. The underwhelming outcome in Yemen raises serious concerns about how MBS will deal with Iran.
Further, Saudi Arabia, along with its allies, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt, has yet to provide evidence to justify the blockade against its small neighboring country Qatar.
From an intelligence perspective, it will be interesting to see whether MBS will have the kind of cooperative relationship with former crown prince Mohamed Bin Nayef that US intelligence agencies have had with him when fighting terrorism. Given MBS's impulsiveness and inexperience, I question whether he can manage regional security concerns and global crises. The quagmire in Yemen suggests that he cannot.
I am certain that Russia and China will try to woo MBS into their camp given his youth and inexperience. Their success will be a blow to the US. As a result, MBS will have to rethink his geopolitical calculations as Russia's and China's growing presence on the political landscape of the Middle East hastens changes to the region.
Economically, the crown prince is moving forward with his economic and social vision 2030. This vision consists of weaning the kingdom of its dependence on oil. MBS wants to transform the kingdom’s economy from energy dependent to more diversified and increasingly reliant on sources of revenue other than crude oil. Now that oil prices are low and will continue to be for some time to come, the kingdom is being forced to reconsider other revenue sources. Whether MBS will succeed in reducing the kingdom’s lavish subsidies remains to be seen. My prediction is that the population, mainly the youth, might not be at ease with such drastic change. There is currently a social program in the kingdom dubbed the Citizen’s Account, the sole purpose of which is to soften the impact of austerity measures on low- and middle-income Saudis.
The sale of some of Aramco’s assets could be a big mistake. I argued in my previous writings that moving forward with the sale could have serious consequences for the royal family’s survival. Saudi Arabia’s influential role in Middle East affairs is dwindling in the wake of Iran’s emerging power in the region. MBS will have to take care not to take the same approach dealing with Iran that he took in Yemen. Militarily engaging Iran is no small matter. Given MBS's inexperience, the economic devastation to the kingdom would be catastrophic.
Socially: if and when Crown Prince MBS, who belongs to the Sudairi tribe, becomes king, the stage could be set for internal fighting among different sects and tribes along the bloodline within the royal family.
Religiously, it all depends on whether MBS is able to purge the kingdom of misguided religious advisers. The fanatical Wahhabist ideologues, for example, use a twisted interpretation of Islam to justify their ends, whatever those may be. I doubt MBS can control them. He'll step foot on a dangerous path if he seeks to challenge the influence of the Saudi religious establishment.
The Middle East is a powder keg—no place for a reckless, inexperienced, impulsive, chest-thumping prince to be tossing proverbial lit matches into the air.
One thing is certain: Although Mohammed Bin Salman is currently next in line for the throne, there are no guarantees that he will become king. If he survives the internal rivalries within the royal palace, he might have a chance. Ultimately, only his ability to transform his vision into action will distinguish him from his predecessors.