Saudi Arabia: Bin Salman’s Latest Game of Risk
Federica Zoja 8 April 2020

The prince of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, Mohammed Bin Salman is now facing the most severe test for his leadership; not only due to the Coronavirus epidemic, which is growing in the kingdom, but perhaps more importantly because of the latest crash in oil incomes. For the regent’s internal enemies, this could be the moment to question his succession, which is still uncertain.

In fact, MbS (this is the acronym employed by the press when referring to the son of King Salman) is now first in line in the event of his father’s death, who is old and ill, but things could rapidly change.

The sultanate’s law foresees a horizontal succession, from brother to brother. This is how it was until 2015 when King Salman ascended to the throne after the death of his brother Abdallah. But two consecutive twists revolutionized traditions: the first was the nomination of his nephew, Muhammad Bin Nayef, as crown prince. Bin Nayef is highly regarded by western governments for his dedication to the fight against terrorism. Then, in 2017, he “spontaneously” renounced his title, which was followed by the meteoric rise of MbS to the vertices of power.

Some observers of dynamics in Gulf believe, however, that the traditional horizontal succession could be reinstated: not all Salman’s brothers are dead, and many are older and wiser cousins of MbS.

In the meanwhile, the consensus around the strong man of Riyadh suffers highs and lows.

The aggressive security policy pursued by MbS (he was the architect of the armed intervention in Yemen, which was revealed to be a failure and he was also responsible for leading the country to the brink of war with Iran), his risky economic plan in the name of diversification (Vision 2030), the ruthless crackdown against his opponents (of which his assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the 2nd of October 2018 was only a small piece) have led numerous prominent members of the family to turn their backs on him. Dissent meanders, there are even those that dare speak to the press in critical terms, though shielded by anonymity.

Thus, the Prince, who is also vice-prime minister, continues to “prune” the branches of his family tree that are not to his liking: according to American media outlets, during the health crisis, he has mandated the arrested three or four of the court’s top figures. There are no official confirmations, but the names that circulate more insistently are those of his uncle Ahmed Bin Abdul Aziz, 78, the younger brother of King Salman and thus a possible heir to the throne; that of his cousin Muhammed Bin Nayef, 60, still considered one of the most influential men of the court even though he has been under house arrest since 2017 (when, as mentioned earlier, he was induced into taking a step back) and his younger brother Nawaf Bin Nayef. It is possible that also Nayef bin Ahmed was arrested by guards faithful to Mbs. Bin Ahmed is head of the Saudi intelligence services and son of Ahmed Bin Abdul Aziz. Some analysts are asking themselves if MbS’s ascendency is imminent, perhaps at the conclusion of Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 at the end of the year. These aggressive moves, however, could also be an alarm bell of plots that have been intercepted and foiled before they could be achieved.


Fragile giant

The crown prince is also opposed on the regional level: aside from the Yemeni ‘quagmire’, which has put the alliance with the sovereigns of other emirates in crisis, recently the decision to close Islamic holy places to contain the Coronavirus contagion created great discontent within the Umma (the community of Muslims). A strict curfew has been imposed in Mecca and Medina and all non-essential manufacturing and commercial services have been suspended. Of all the decisions adopted by the regent in the last month, perhaps the one that may cost Saudi Arabia, and its aspiring sovereign, the dearest is the 10% cut in the price of crude oil, conceived as a reprisal against Moscow that had refused to sign an agreement with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for a reduction of production. Due to the spread of Covid-19, the global demand for oil dramatically diminished: a cut in the supply could help buoy prices, and consequently, the economies of the major producers. But Vladimir Putin’s Russia has other plans, with strong assets also in the gas sector.

Currently, the energy war unleashed by Mohammed Bin Salman seems to penalize his kingdom primarily, whose stock market lost more than 10% after the reduction in the cost per barrel.  So also, is the case for the national oil company, Aramco, the Saud’s golden goose: MbS has staked all his chips on the success of the partial privatization of Aramco, which began in December. Numerous subjects who purchased packages of securities, expect rich profits. If this were not to be the case, the 35-year-old MbS would lose, in one fell swoop, both the billions of dollars needed to finance the planned economic transition as well as the popular support for his ostentatious policies.

A strategy allergic to any rule characterized also by periodic ‘purges against corruption’: the most famous operation was perhaps the one that led to the kidnapping of 300 members of the royal family in November 2017, confining them inside the luxurious Ritz resort. All were released after having paid large sums of money: a sort of ‘security deposit’, explained to the public as a restitution of capital and assets that had been allegedly stolen from the state deceitfully.

However, in mid-March this year, hundreds of government employees and officers of the Armed Forces were investigated and arrested as part of an investigation into the embezzlement and theft of 100 million dollars-worth of public funds. This time, the Saudi press gave the story ample coverage. How it has also done for cultural events open to the community such as concerts, plays and exhibitions, organized in Riyadh at the behest of the Prince, starting at the end of 2019. Events that are also open to women, having been the center of social and political expansions in the last two years.

Women are however still the victims of a disconcerting political myopia: activists Loujain al Hathlou, Samar Badawi, Naseema al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani are still in prison two years after their arrest. They are accused of treason and of subverting the stability of the realm, two crimes that could carry the maximum sentence. They were supporters of women’s right to drive, finally grated in 2018, though this has not changed their ‘subversiveness’ under the law.

This is the schizophrenia of the contemporary political course that confuses Saudi Arabia’s allies: the unknowns surrounding the hothead, Mohammed Bin Salman, remain too many, in an increasingly restless regional context.



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