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…