By Kristen Smith Diwan for The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
In analyzing ruling family politics in the Gulf, one must rely upon what one can see. Internal deliberations are carefully hidden, and can only be discerned through their tangible results. On June 21, a big outcome was revealed in Saudi Arabia. The Al Saud ruling family has successfully navigated the inherently fraught task of winnowing the lines of power from the sons of the founder to the sons of sons, and selected the face of third generation leadership. King Salman bin Abdulaziz has succeeded in consolidating power under his son: The 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is now crown prince and the future of Saudi Arabia.
MbS’s ascent has been rapid and not without controversy. In charting his course as heir to the throne, traditional customs and practices long respected within the ruling family have been tossed aside. Most notably, the norm of deference to elders has been disregarded, both in the broader Al Saud and within King Salman’s immediate family. The practice of consensus building, especially through the sharing of key ministerial posts, has also been shaken, as the young prince and his father have sidelined rivals and centralized power through the strategic use of technocrats and superministerial bodies.
Whether this outcome is perceived as positive for the prospects and stability of Saudi Arabia and the broader region depends upon individual opinions of the new leader, and appetites for precipitous change. Either way, it is likely the consolidation of his future rule will bring more of the same policies previewed in these first years of King Salman’s rule: an eagerness to project Saudi power abroad, as witnessed in the Yemen war and, most recently, Qatar embargo, and a willingness to challenge power centers at home, over the economy and religious authority. The limits of his reach will be set by the evolving contours of regional and domestic politics and economic realities, not by his own family.
Settling the Competition over Next Generation Leadership
The most potent rival to MbS for next generation leadership was the Saudi minister of interior, Mohammed bin Nayef. When King Salman came to power in 2015, MbN proved too prominent a public figure and royal authority to overstep when setting the line of succession. His appointment as crown prince was buttressed by the respect with which he is held in international intelligence circles, while his position heading Saudi Arabia’s powerful Ministry of Interior gave him access to formidable intelligence networks at home. In the past year, increasing discomfort with MbS’s liberalizing directions provided MbN a potent social constituency in the country’s informal Islamist movements and much of the religious establishment.
Yet coinciding with MbN’s appointment as crown prince, King Salman and his son set about undermining MbN’s power base. The crown prince arrived to his position as it was stripped of its court, depriving MbN of one source of influence and patronage. The establishment of a National Security Center in April and an international center to combat terrorism in May, both affiliated to the royal court, usurped MbN’s traditional base of influence and expertise. Significant levers of intimidation were removed when the Ministry of Interior-supervised religious police had their arresting powers stripped in April 2016, and again this week with the removal of prosecutorial oversight from the Bureau of Investigations, a formidable power held by the Ministry of Interior, not the Ministry of Justice, in Saudi Arabia. Potential allies in Islamist power centers such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth also saw their funding cut, and room for maneuver narrowed.
In the end, the removal of MbN came as a formality, his powers already shifted to other sites and his networks of influence constrained. His apparent acquiescence to his ouster leaves little site of royal resistance, and provides clarity to the future direction of the country.
The appointment of MbS as crown prince comes among a raft of other royal decrees defining new rules for future succession and revealing new royal appointments. Both continue the rather extraordinary trend of empowering third generation princes, which was featured in the last package of royal decrees in May. An assortment of younger princes now hold deputy positions throughout ministries and regional governments, providing MbS with a diverse base of support among young royals. A quick perusal of the appointments suggests relative power centers among the bin Nayef and bin Sultan lines alongside the bin Salman line – all descendants of the Sudairi brothers that dominated second generation Al Saud rule.
Most notably, the Ministry of Interior has been turned over to Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, the 33-year-old nephew of MbN (who does not have male heirs) and son of the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Saud bin Nayef. This maintains these two posts, key to internal security, in the hands of the bin Nayef line. But even here the control of MbS is apparent. Prince Abdulaziz has been working for the past six months under MbS in the royal court and Ministry of Defense. And it is unlikely that the powers drained from the Ministry of Interior and transferred to new institutions under the authority of the royal court will be returned. New appointments within the Ministry of Interior guarantee that effective technocrats and representatives of the bin Salman line are present.
All told this marks an unprecedented centralization of power in Saudi Arabia. In addition to his overarching authority as crown prince and dominant authority within the royal court, MbS holds specific authority over the economy through the Council of Economic and Development Affairs and Supreme Council of Aramco, as well as internal and external defense, through the Ministry of Defense and the new organs of security and counterterrorism.
One new change plays against this historic power grab. The amendment of the basic law prevents the monopolization of power of MbS and his descendants, by requiring the king and the crown prince to come from different branches of the ruling family – present formation excepted. This means a future crown prince may not come from the bin Salman line, a nod to fears of exclusion under a rapidly consolidating power center. This appears to be a concession to fears of royal exclusion, and may have played a part in winning royal acquiescence to MbN’s replacement by MbS. It was reported that 31 of 34 royals on the Allegiance Council, which was created by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to determine future successions, offered their support. Were this change in Saudi Arabia’s constitution to hold, it might presage a system of future power sharing between the bin Salman line and perhaps the bin Nayef line resembling the alteration of lines long practiced in Kuwait. Still, there is little to prevent an emboldened and secure future King MbS from again altering the basic law. At 31, he is set to be in power for a long time.
The Future of Saudi Arabia
With power consolidated under MbS, Saudi Arabia is likely to see a continuation of the more assertive policies witnessed under his influence. These policies are shaped by both ruling inclination and regional and domestic circumstances. MbS has consistently demonstrated a willingness to seize the regional opening created by collapsing governments and the relative retrenchment of U.S. power in the region, informed by the perceived need to counter Iranian gains. These power projections have been accomplished by a remarkable partnership with the United Arab Emirates – probably the most significant development in Gulf politics in the past five years. This pairing has expanded the reach of Gulf influence in Egypt and Yemen, and in the recent jarring actions to neutralize Qatar as a regional competitor.
Emirati influence is also evident domestically, as the newly appointed crown prince draws upon Emirati expertise and example in diversification of the economy, and the construction of a new nationalism. The Emirati model makes for an imperfect fit in the kingdom, which has fewer resources to create new industries and a greater reliance on religion as a power base and cornerstone of legitimacy. Still the step toward a more nationalist posture, informed by Sunni leadership, is clear in the new national and transnational organizations crafted under MbS. Over time these may serve as a new vessel for Al Saud authority, diminishing their reliance on informal Islamist networks and to some degree even the religious establishment for legitimacy. Equally momentous will be the challenges of transitioning the economy outlined under Saudi Vision 2030, including the unprecedented step of privatizing part of Aramco – a move viewed anxiously by the conservative technocrats overseeing the Saudi economy.
In navigating these transitions internationally and domestically, MbS hopes to build on the traditional U.S.-Saudi partnership. He has built strong personal ties with both U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner. MbS will be able to manage the relationship from Washington through the recent appointment of his brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, as ambassador. Yet he will not hold the carte blanche trust in the special relationship, nor perhaps will he enjoy the comfort level U.S. policymakers had with his older predecessors.
The Saudi Public Watches
The Saudi public awoke to the momentous shift in power orchestrated behind closed doors while they slept. They then watched a well-orchestrated rollout of the new order, highlighted by the young prince modestly accepting the allegiance of the retiring crown prince, and videos of the late King Abdullah predicting the young heir’s future rule.
Social media now affords a new vehicle to voice allegiance to the new order but offered few signs of dissent over the transition. Notably, even prominent figures from the Islamist camp least happy with the policy direction of MbS, dutifully wished the king and MbS well, and voiced hopes that his rule will be wise and serve the people and country. They, along with prominent media sheikhs who likewise tweeted their support and good wishes, were assailed by negative comments from abroad, voicing disappointment in their lack of independence. Other followers expressed confidence in the Islamic leadership of MbS.
Still considerations of public opinion cannot be neglected, especially by a new generation monarch with a keen sense of modern media. The ascension of MbS came accompanied by the restoration of back wages cut in recent austerity measures along with an extension of Eid holidays for military and civil servants. A key constituency of Vision 2030, the private sector, was left out of the festivities.
The declaration of MbS as crown prince marks less a change in direction than the removal of a check on his power, and the potential for a significant turnaround in policies had MbN risen to power. For the moment, MbS is in the driver’s seat without any notable internal opposition to deter him. He will join the crop of ambitious new generation royals in the Gulf region who have overseen the impressive expansion of Gulf wealth and influence, along with the discord sown by competing Gulf agendas across the Middle East.
Kristin Smith Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.