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Could Mohammed bin Salman's power grab unravel Al Saud rule?

MbS has made a mess of Saudi foreign and domestic policy. What will happen if Trump isn't around anymore to back him up?

Analysis | Middle East

Mohammed bin Salman’s March 6 arrests of his uncle, his cousin, and several other senior princes on the charge of conspiring against him have re-energized the debate about the future of the country’s stability and the fate of the Al Saud rule. The detentions of the senior royals are evidence of MbS’s power grab and unmistakable descent into dictatorship.

The draconian measures he has taken against his father’s younger brother Ahmad bin Abdulaziz and his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef and other princes, including Saud bin Nayef and his son Abdulaziz, violate every principle which the Al Saud family has followed to help it rule and survive the regional tumult for nearly a century. MbS in effect has accused his relatives of treason based on the unproven claim that they were orchestrating a coup to topple him. The ruling family seems to be seriously fracturing.

In the past, MbS used his so-called anti-corruption campaign to justify the detentions of senior royals. In the current detention campaign, he has invoked the fear of a possible coup. If this charge is rejected as spurious and unbelievable by the Saudi public and internationally, he could easily invoke the threat of the coronavirus pandemic to justify the royals’ continued isolation.

The detentions and the simmering tensions within the ruling family point to the crumbling of a key two-legged pillar of Saudi stability, namely consensus, or ijma’, and allegiance, or bay’a. It works this way: The family council selects the king by consensus despite some grumbling among mildly dissenting royals. Once the king is selected, the entire family declares allegiance to him. In extreme cases of malfeasance or incompetence, the family council removes a king from office, as was the case with King Saud ibn Abdulaziz in 1964.

Over the years, regional scholars have identified several other factors that have underpinned the Al Saud rule. They include: a collective acceptance within the family council on the succession to the throne; a quietist foreign policy and functioning neighborly relations; and a symbiotic partnership between AL Saud and the Wahhabi-Salafi religious establishment in which Al Saud would rule as they please, but that the Salafi clerics would drive the moral compass of society.

The special security relationship that Saudi Arabia and the United States forged during World War II under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz established an enduring understanding that the United States, primarily because of its need for Saudi oil, would protect the security of the Saudi state against external threats.

That relationship was a state-to-state, not person to person. In a major shift, Mohammed bin Salman has reduced the decades- old relationship to a personal one between him and President Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Before MbS was given the levers of power by his father, the ailing King Salman, Saudi Arabia generally refrained from bullying its neighbors or starting a war against them. Border and tribal disputes that existed between the Saudi Kingdom and some of its neighbors in previous decades rarely developed into shooting wars. The Al Saud often viewed themselves as the first among equals in regional councils, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but rarely attempted to dominate the smaller tribal family-ruled states in such a vulgar manner as MbS has done in the past five years.

Internal Saudi stability was always maintained through collective rule at home, acceptance of the selected king according to established traditions, and respect for the founder, his children, and generally the elders of Al Saud more generally. Yet, in his attempts to ascend to the throne even while his father is still alive, MbS has undermined the country’s internal stability and the Al Saud rule.

In the past decade, some scholars of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have projected the fall of these monarchies. For example, Professor Christopher Davidson of Durham University, wrote in his 2012 book “After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies,” that domestic opposition, modernizing forces, Arab Spring upheavals, and rising poverty and repression could force a regime change in Gulf family-run tribal societies.

The anticipated collapse did not occur because of regime repression, massive arrests, ubiquitous security services, and economic patronage. These monarchies remain in place today, albeit more brutal and autocratic. Saudi Arabia, because of its massive oil revenues and a very large and cohesive ruling family, at the time was not considered by experts a serious candidate for regime collapse.

Future historians will likely judge that MbS’s actions and policies — grounded in inexperience and poor knowledge of regional and international power configurations — have undermined the Al Saud family unity and cohesion, upended the succession process, jettisoned the consensus and allegiance formula, rejected the kingdom’s traditional quietist foreign policy, and undermined the key drivers of domestic stability. His rise to power has in effect destabilized his country and by extension the Al Saud control.

MbS’s ongoing five-year unwinnable war in Yemen, his manufactured confrontations with his neighbors, especially Qatar, his oil war with other OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers and the subsequent  sharp drop in oil prices, and his disregard of the ruling family traditions have made him a pariah within his own family. The brutal murder of journalist and dissident Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a year and a half ago — orchestrated and carried out under his direction — has tarnished his international standing.

Last week the Turkish government indicted 20 Saudi suspects for killing Kashoggi. Although none of the suspects are expected to stand trial in Turkey, two of them — Ahmed Asiri and Saud al-Qahtani — were very close aides to MbS. Such a plot could not have been planned or carried out without MbS’s knowledge or that it was a “rogue” operation, as claimed by the Saudi regime.

Ironically, what Professor Davidson and others predicted a few years back about the Gulf monarchies’ collapse could come to pass over the next five years primarily because of MbS’s actions, not because of mass protests and upheavals. If the ruling family recognizes the danger that MbS is posing to the country and to the Al Saud regime, it could push the family council to remove MbS from power and appoint another king in his place. Such an action, although unlikely at the moment, could save the Al Saud monarchy and preserve its rule.

Ben Hubbard, The New York Times’ Middle East correspondent, wrote in his 2020 book “The Ruthless Prince” that MbS’s deep knowledge of Saudi society and tribal dynamics — for example, unlike his brothers and cousins, he did all his studies inside Saudi Arabia and did not receive any post-secondary education abroad — helped him become his father’s favorite son and ultimately his heir. He has tolerated no dissent and does not hesitate to order the arrest of any Saudi — commoner or royal — to advance his power grab agenda.

Thousands of peaceful, pro-human rights advocates still languish is Saudi jails. MbS has used his brutish intelligence operatives and advanced technologies, which he has purchased from foreign suppliers, notably including Israel, to track Saudi dissidents in Canada, Europe, the United States, and other countries.

If, in the face of impending threats to his rule, MbS turns to Trump and Kushner to save him, the United States should not come to the rescue. Because of the changing regional geopolitical and economic realities of the Middle East and the region’s diminishing significance in American strategic calculus should make Washington reluctant to save his throne. Will the Trump administration allow Mohammed bin Salman to drag it yet once again into another endless war?

President Donald Trump meets with Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and members of his delegation, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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