With the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old son of King Salman, 84, there’s no doubt about who’s tapped to become king.
When Saudi Arabia was ruled by an aged King Abdullah, half-brother of the current monarch, there was uncertainty about who would emerge as next in line to the throne of the world’s largest oil exporter. That’s no longer an issue.
With the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old son of King Salman, 84, there’s no doubt about who’s tapped to become king. But the crackdown by the prince on his own relatives and other Saudi elites, coupled with last week’s decision to start an oil-price war with Russia, underscores broader concerns about the country’s stability.
On Friday, security forces launched an unprecedented campaign against other royals by arresting senior princes and military officials in a step that seemed aimed at removing any potential obstacles to the elevation of the prince, often known by his initials MBS. Such moves increasingly make Saudi Arabia more akin to a modern authoritarian state than the hereditary monarchy it’s been for almost nine decades.
“MBS has moved Saudi Arabia’s system from one of consensus within the family to one-man rule,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The kingdom will be stable as long as he can maintain his iron grip.”
He doesn’t appear to be taking any chances.
For most of its history, Saudi Arabia’s politics was based on cooperation among the descendants of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. Throughout the reign of King Abdullah, different branches of the Al Saud family maintained control over powerful institutions. Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, for example, headed the once-powerful interior ministry for decades until he died in 2012. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, from another branch of the family, was the face of the country’s foreign ministry for 40 years until his death in 2015.
As they swooped late last week, Saudi authorities rounded up Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the one-time crown prince who was shunted aside when King Salman replaced him with MBS. Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a full brother of King Salman, was also detained on the grounds he and his nephew were plotting a coup, according to a person familiar with the matter. A report on Sunday in the New York Times indicates that the full scope of the latest roundup isn’t yet known.
“There are fewer princes in the cabinet now than was the norm under previous kings, and even the foreign ministry is in the hands of a member of a cadet branch of the Al Saud family, not a direct descendant of the founding king,” said Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University. “That’s a major change for a country where previous kings consulted a range of powerful princes before setting government policy.”
Brought to Heel
Saudi authorities have yet to comment on the reported arrests. The government communications office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
With the shake-up in crown princes in 2017, King Salman turned to a group of the kingdom’s most senior princes called the Allegiance Council for its rubber-stamp approval of making Prince Mohammed heir to the throne. Thirty-one of the council’s 34 members approved the appointment.
King Abdullah changed the succession rules in 2007 to prepare the path for the younger generation of royals. The reform gave the Allegiance Council more power to select a new crown prince. Prince Mohammed is now in line to be the country’s first ruler who’s not a son of the original Saudi king.
The kingdom was founded in 1932 and became the world’s biggest oil exporter by the 1970s, with the Al Saud family ruling under a pact with Wahhabi clerics who maintain some control over social and religious laws. While making it clear that he’ll be taking a different approach to his predecessors, Prince Mohammed is also making it clear he won’t tolerate opposition.
King Salman has largely stayed in the background as the crown prince drives change in the kingdom. As news of the latest arrests circulated, speculation deepened that the king had fallen ill or was preparing to abdicate. Saudi authorities published photos to show he was still around.
The king had been trying to project an image of stability and unity among senior royals. At the time, state television showed footage of Prince Mohammed kissing the hand of his sidelined elder cousin — an apparent effort to lay to rest concerns of a behind-the-scenes power struggle.
But that image has since been replaced with one of ruthless consolidation of power, as members of some of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful families have been detained, stripped of government titles, silenced or held under effective house arrest. Ministries have been combined and once-powerful institutions brought to heel, limiting the number of people with decision-making authority to a narrow circle around the prince.
“The attempt here is to signal to the Allegiance Council that they need to work with the crown prince in a succession scenario,” Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group consultancy. “Over the long term, preventing the system from having its own unique set of release valves presents real instability risks.”