The Kingdom and the King
Is a Palace Coup Brewing in Saudi Arabia?

Deep discontent within the Saudi monarchy has burst to the surface for the second time this year. The Times of London has obtained three letters circulating among the royal family that call for the removal of King Salman and his two anointed successors, his son Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his nephew Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. The letters suggest that King Salman is suffering from dementia and is under the sway of the two princes:

“It is no secret that the most serious problem in his health is the mental side, which has made the king fully subject to the control of his son Mohammad [bin Salman],” said the second of two letters, written by a grandson of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.[..]

It calls on the 13 surviving sons of Ibn Saud — naming three princes, Talal bin Abdulaziz, Turki bin Abdulaziz and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz — to instigate a coup. “They have to isolate the powerless King Salman, the excessively arrogant, reckless Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef [and] the one who devastates the homeland, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman,” it states.

A third letter, obtained by The Times, was written by another prince and grandson of Ibn Saud. It says that most of the sons and grandsons of the state’s founder were in favour of the letters and were glad that “someone took the initiative”. It was released after the haj stampede in Mecca last Thursday, in which at least 769 pilgrims died. Two weeks before that a crane crashed through the Grand Mosque, killing more than 100.

Vague rumors had emerged from the normally secretive Kingdom earlier this year that family members were unhappy with how Mohammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old defense minister, had been prosecuting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The letters flesh out these feelings: “How have we accepted to enter into uncalculated military risks…” one of the letters asks. “And how did we accept that our fate depends on the whims of adolescents and the visions of the reckless? And how have we accepted the massive bleeding of state funds, including more than doubling spending in the past years?”

But the war in Yemen is not the only problem Saudi Arabia faces. The letters surfaced in the wake of a stampede in Mecca that killed more than a thousand people, and Crown Prince bin Nayef is currently serving as interior minister and is head of the hajj committee. Oil prices are well below the break-even price, and while some of that is due to market realities outside Saudi Arabia’s control, Riyadh has make things worse for itself, choosing to fight U.S. shale producers for market share rather than reduce production to set a price floor. Expenditures, conversely, are high, due to the ongoing efforts against ISIS, the war in Yemen, and attempts to limit Iranian influence across the region.

If the letters are genuine, they are a real surprise. But there are also very clear reasons why this would be happening right now, and the conditions that led to the coup talk are unlikely to abate of their own accord soon. Iran continues to press its advantages regionally, the world is awash with cheap oil, and so on. One thing to watch for: If the Kingdom’s Yemeni proxies mess up the upcoming attack on Sana’a and Yemen is reduced to a quagmire, then Saudi Arabia is in real trouble.

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