Saudi Analysis: The Sands Are Shifting — Can the Monarchy Survive?

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PHOTO: Rivals for power: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman


Umer Karim of the University of Birmingham writes for EA:

The sands of time are shifting in the House of Saud and Saudi Arabia. Old and tradition are giving way to youth and modernity, and the Kingdom is on the verge of a major transformation. The near-faith dependence on oil is shaking, and the age-old custom of rule by one of the many sons of King Abdul Aziz, the Saudi founder, is in its last throes.

The disorder of the political status quo, which started with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, has been compounded by Iran’s challenge to Saudi Arabia in the region. Meanwhile, a large educated and youthful population is looking a better lifestyle and employability. The Saudi state has reached such the threshold where even those staunchly against any change are now debating the nature and extent of transition and how to meet its challenges.

The ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015, following the death of King Abdullah, has been followed by the re-calibration of decision making and power within the Saudi monarchy. Power has returned to the Sudairi branch of the royal family, after the 10-year rule of Abdullah, with Salman eventually — maybe soon — handing the throne to a new generation.

The Contenders

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, presides over internal security and counter-terrorism, while Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the King’s son, is in charge of defense and leads the plans for Saudi economic transformation and a new oil policy. Both the senior princes have built a strong constituency in their respective centers of power.

Mohammad bin Nayef was integrated into the Saudi internal security apparatus when his father, the late Prince Nayef, served as Interior Minister from 1975 to 2012. The elder Nayef enjoyed an excellent relationship with the US as he revamped Saudi counter-terrorism strategies. Under his command, the Al-Qaeda network inside the kingdom was purged and dismantled.

Under Mohammad bin Nayef, the mega-complex of internal security has become synonymous with his name. He is not a high-profile public figure, but made his presence felt through decisive action — for example, the January 2016 execution of the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and more than 40 alleged Al Qa’eda members.

Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Mohammad bin Salman has been in the spotlight since he was appointed Defense Minister when his father took the throne. Weeks later, he oversaw the start of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni civil war, and he continued Saudi support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria.

With the interventions, Mohammad bin Salman became the face of the stepped-up Saudi challenge to Iran in the region. He cemented his position with his uncontested hold over policymaking for the economy and development. This has come primarily through his brainchild Saudi Vision 2030, a master plan that aims to transform an oil-centered economy into one in which services, trade, and mining are more significant, with increased incentives for foreign direct investment into public-private projects and private enterprises.

But Vision 2030 faces huge challenges. Major projects need money which the government lacks. Foreign direct investment will take a long time to bear fruits: the proper mechanisms to integrate such ventures into the Saudi economy need to be developed. Desperately-needed jobs might not come in numbers large enough to satisfy the majority of Saudi youth. In case of failure to achieve ambitious goals, the Prince may have to bear political consequences. Conversely, failure would strengthen the political situation of Mohammad bin Nayef, possibily fueling a tussle for power.

Crisis Ahead?

But at that point, even the prospect of a battle within the monarchy might be secondary to widespread question of “What to do now?” over the Saudi economy. If Vision 2030 is unsuccessful in modernization and transformation, there is neither an alternative blueprint nor anyone else to embark on the challenge. Moreover, by the time of the failure to achieve the most important goals, it may be too late for remedial action. The question will no longer be who takes power, but whether House of Saud still rules.

Meanwhile, the short-term wild card is the health of King Salman. While he still is on the throne, the rivalry between senior princes will still be within the semblance of stability. And if that situation is maintained for more than five years, the line of succession will probably confirmed. Problems with Prince Salman’s ambitious plans may only cost him a reduction in his powers and not an ejection from office; if he is offering prospects of advance, his political clout will be strengthened but he may be content to reach a succession deal with Mohammad bin Nayef.

However, if the health of King Salman deteriorates sharply in the near-future, the vacuum of authority removes the stabilizing factor in Saudi politics. The jostling for power could be in the open, with all the players making move to push out their opponents from any significant position.

That, combined with the uncertainty at home and abroad, could be the crucible for unprecedented change in the Kingdom’s 74-year history.

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