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The Future of the Kingdom
Rumors Swirl Around the Saudi Throne

Unnamed U.S. diplomats are said to be speculating that the Saudi King Salman will abdicate in 2016 in favor of his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the current Defense Minister. The Sunday Times (of London) reports:

At present Salman, 80, is due to be succeeded by his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 56. A report by the Washington-based Gulf Institute, supported by Saudi dissidents, claimed last week that the king could change the rules and install his son.

Suggestions of the change — which the institute claimed could be within weeks and US officials have said is more likely to be in the summer — have unsettled advisers to Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MbN, the interior minister.

It has alarmed American officials, who fear it could trigger further instability in the Middle East, especially as Saudi Arabia already has tense relations with Iran.

If true, this would be a revolution: the Saudi succession has gone from one septuagenarian to the next in a ritualized pattern for decades. Putting a young and vigorous 30-year-old in the top spot would change the way the country works and, potentially, would make the new king one of the most powerful people in the world.

U.S. officials are clearly hoping this doesn’t happen. The defense minister has been associated with the recent line of Saudi policy that has been shaking up the region, and it is predicated on a belief that, with the U.S. no longer a reliable ally, the Saudis have to take their destiny in their own hands.

In the opaque world of Saudi politics, it’s quite possible that these rumors are being floated by diplomats and others in the hope of forestalling the change. Among other things, the change would sideline the current Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef (56), who the Americans seem to favor—to the degree that the London Times story can be believed. He and his allies would be unlikely to sit on their hands while power in Saudi Arabia was snatched from under their noses.

In any case, this is one more sign pointing to massive upheavals inside the KSA. Obama’s Iran diplomacy is destabilizing the country that for decades has been the keystone of American strategy in the Gulf. As the oil price falls, Iran reaps the rewards of the nuclear deal, and the sectarian war heats up across the Middle East, a pillar of geopolitical stability that presidents going back to FDR have seen as a cornerstone for American policy is beginning to shake and sway.

Given this administration’s record at anticipating and managing political developments in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that the White House has a clear vision and a solid plan for dealing with the new situation.

We do indeed live in interesting times…

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  • Nevis07

    If Andrea Rossi’s cold fusion device is proven to work at the end of next month (a big if), I think we’ll see the end of oil dependent nations. Those nations leaders, such as the King of SA, will suddenly become powerless and you’ll see revolutions throughout the region.

  • Fat_Man

    Saudi Arabia is not a nation. It is a family possession. The family is that of ibn Saud, the man who put the kingdom together. Ibn Saud died in 1953. Since then the King has been one of his sons. Salman is the last son eligible to be king.

    There must be a transition to the grand-sons, or even younger generations. The family is enormous, but, the transition must be handled in a way that does not precipitate the War of the Roses. I guess that elaborate negotiations about that transition have been ongoing.

    This rumor is probably one proposal that somebody floated, but I doubt that it is anywhere near final. Everyone in the family must be aware that the failure of a peaceful transition would lead to war and the collapse of the Kingdom. Nonetheless the stakes are enormous and negotiations can fail. Read Shakespeare’s history plays if you want to learn what is happening.

  • Episteme

    From what I’ve previously read, it’s been understood that bin Nayef doesn’t seem terribly interested in the throne (he’s the Saudi version of a policy wonk) and is handicapped by not having any children of his own, while bin Salman and his brothers are seen as the vanguard of a new generation – with MbS having been named “Deputy Crown Prince” upon his father’s ascension as effectively the real (long-term) heir while his uncle bin Nayef serves in the ‘Vice President’ role that is Crown Prince.

    Mohammed bin Salman is indeed a major (if not the major) voice involved in rising responses against Iran’s regional hegemony – and distrust of America’s ability to contain that. However, he’s also the major voice leading his father into detente with Israel (he was the first Saudi Defense Minister to have a public meeting with his counterpart from the Jewish state and he and his brothers have apparently been playing a major role in coordinating Israeli interactions with King Salman’s new Sunni alliance, alongside especially some of the younger officers in the al-Sisi government in Egypt). It’s telling that Salman, MbN, and MbS as a trio have reoriented the Saudi relationship with Israel, Palestine, the US, and Iran: Salman’s first act was basically to cut out Hamas, tell Fatah/PA to shape up, and reorient Saudi contributions to the Palestinians to focus on direct aid to local agencies (coordinated by MbN) to minimize graft while his sons took over the geo-political defense situation.

    I’m torn about the idea here. I honestly ‘like’ MbS as much as I can like any Saudi prince (at 35 myself, I appreciate seeing new generations of leadership arise), and I don’t see (from previous readings) bypassing MbN as King meaning that MbN would be out of governance (since it seems that the man never wanted to be king, but rather the sort of vizier to family). I would rather see a young prince wait a few more years before taking the throne, especially amidst crises in Syria, Yemen, and growingly out of Iran, but it might be a situation of the Saudis wanting to have the future lined up (with Salman still alive in retirement when he steps aside for his son and his brother there as primary advisor for the king, who would be the start of a new ‘generation’ of the al-Saud dynasty. So, it makes sense, particularly given the role that the two play in regional issues and questions of how future events might even further complicate succession. So, we’ll need to see…

    • Andrew Allison

      Thank you for this. The last sentence of the post is to kind: It’s virtually certain that the White House is as clueless about developments in Saudi Arabia as it is about foreign policy in general.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Last night I had a chat with a friend of mine well placed in Foggy Bottom, and your (excellent) analysis mirrors what I heard from him. Sadly, he is not terribly sanguine that our own ‘leadership’ has any real understanding of what is going on, nor the will to help shape events.

      • Room_237

        The question is though will he reform Saudi government, fight corruption, and open up decision making?

        • f1b0nacc1

          I would be surprised if he did any of those things. Oh, he might do a bit of trimming around the edges, but the idea that he is going to be making any significant changes in the structure of the Saudi state strikes me as unlikely. As FatMan comments elsewhere on this thread, Saudi Arabia is a family possession, and is likely to remain that way.
          The failure to ‘fix’ the state may be a long-term problem, but the long-term is just that….the short term problems are far more pressing, and that is where the focus will be

          • Room_237

            And FatMan is correct in that. But at some point something has to give. The Wahhabi imams long ago promised to provide religious backing for the Saudi state if the Saudis followed up with support for the immans. How long can that continue — I think the civil war happening in the middle east is showing the cracks.

          • f1b0nacc1

            We agree, but my point is that while those cracks my appear (and widen) over time, it is a matter of short term vs long term. I don’t see the KSA collapsing soon, though I agree with you that it will likely do so eventually. Right now, however, we have bigger fish to fry…

    • Nick

      The Saudis realize that now is not the time for the oldsters to continue their game of succession. Something must be done against the Iranians, and probably they feel, against the radical Sunnis too. Its not hard to imagine that this gives our Dear Leader heart burn, since he was hoping for Iranian Hegemony, with ISIS causing disruption for the rest.

      2017 can’t come too soon.

    • jacknine

      Appreciate the summary and additional nuance

  • Kevin

    This is a very common feature in this sort of succession. In theory it goes from the dynastic founder to his sons (more if less in order of their birth/seniority) and then on to the next generation (grandsons if the dynastic founder) in order of seniority. However it almost always breaks down in this generation. The younger sons of the founder favor their sons over the sons of the founder’s elder sons. Given that the founder’s younger sons are in power, and because of this their sons often have better access to resources of power than their elder cousins, they usually have the resources to mount a credible challenge to overturn the (informal) succession rule. Everyone realizes that whichever group of brothers in the grandson’s generation manages to gain the throne will almost certainly exclude their cousins from succession and limit future succession to their brothers, sons and nephews. Thus, as we see developing in Saudi Arabia, the transition of power from the sons of the dynastic founder’s generation to the grandsons’ generation almost always leads to civil war or other brutal struggle for power. In a society (like Saudi Arabia) where there are many sons in each generation due to polygamy or concubinage, the number of contestants is of quite large. (The Turkish Sultans used to save this problem by the new Sultan killing all of his brothers and half brothers as soon as he ascended to the throne.)

    Of course this is all being dressed up as policy disputes, etc., but fundamentally it is a biological dispute over which line of the dynastic founder will control the throne.

  • Brett Champion

    Salman has already tossed out one crown prince, why not another?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “Given this administration’s record at anticipating and managing political developments in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that the White House has a clear vision and a solid plan for dealing with the new situation.”

    Oh my! Does Via Meadia really think Obama is the “Worst President in American History” as I do?

  • jeburke

    Of all the irresponsible, naive, short-sighted and just plain stupid things about Obama’s feckless foreign policies, none is more fraught with danger to the Middle East and the world than his abandonment of 70 years of strong American support for the Saudi regime (a century of Western support if you count from the British post-WWI settlement). However off-putting it may be to line up with the royal house and its hundreds of oil rich sheiks, if the House of Saud were to fall, calling into question who in the Muslim world is to act as caretaker for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina — the role assumed by the Sauds in the wake of the final breakup of the Ottoman Empire and an end to the Turkish caliphate — then, I’m afraid we would see a series of wars in the region with global spinoffs that woulc make thd troubles of recent years look like small potatoes.

  • Room_237

    “We do indeed live in interesting times”

    Screw interesting times. I want to live in boring times.

  • Diggsc

    Having a hated next door neighbor with a nuke and a US President in their pocket can shake up most dynasties. While adolescent Lefty Obamabots may still believe that Obama’s support for Iran’s nuclear program will stabilize the region, apparently the House of Saud understands that it is nothing short of a disaster for most nations, with them first in line to feel the sword of the 12th imam.

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