Thursday, 11th May 2017

Saudi Arabia: Dynastic manoeuvres

The appointments made via dozens of decrees late last month sent Saudi-watchers of varying degrees of sophistication into overdrive (GSN 1,035/1). The moves have undoubtedly strengthened the camp of King Salman Bin Abdelaziz – but, at the same time, they have left analysts pondering, and speculating, over a problem which has long plagued the House of Saud: alleged rivalry between princes.

Most prominent are questions about what the latest manoeuvres mean for the standing of Crown Prince and interior minister Mohammed Bin Nayef (MBN), who is seen to have been losing power for over a year. Some even suggest the prince could be pushed aside. With the April decrees MBN saw two Al-Salman sons appointed to senior positions, Khalid as US ambassador and Abdelaziz as junior energy minister. Two key allies of the king and his ambitious son, Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), Fahd Bin Turki and Major General Ahmed Assiri, were appointed to top defence and intelligence roles, apparently undermining MBN’s authority in the sector where he established his substantial reputation.

It seems likely that MBN was not forewarned about the appointments. “It is a slap in the face for him, an apparent demotion”, said one close observer. Counting against MBN is his lack of sons to appoint to his fiefdom, “his biggest weakness” according to one source close to the Al-Saud. Another perceived negative is his occasional episodes of ill health, which mean he periodically disappears abroad, most usually to Switzerland and Algeria, to recharge his batteries and overcome what are widely believed to be bouts of depression.

Key for MBN’s standing will be his relationship with Donald Trump’s administration in the United States. It is not clear how he is viewed there; the prince’s longstanding relationship is with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – which awarded him a medal in February in recognition of his counter-terrorism work (GSN 1,032/6). Trump takes a dim view of the intelligence community, branding US intelligence officers as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘politically motivated’. Most media coverage considers him to be at war with his own agencies. On the positive side, Trump’s election has allowed Salman to recalibrate Saudi-US relations. If MBN’s usual allies are having a tough time in Washington DC, the Al-Salman and other Gulf rulers are feeling much more comfortable now Barack Obama, his human rights agendas and detachment from the region have departed.

Debate persists over whether MBS’s recent trip to Washington was a success. But with the appointment of 20-something former Royal Saudi Air Force pilot Prince Khalid Bin Salman as ambassador to the US, MBS has his younger full brother entrenched in Washington. There will be plenty of opportunity for high-level bonding when Trump visits the kingdom later this month. The two men share similar views on Iran. In contrast to MBS, MBN has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with the UK, built around intelligence ties. MBS has little interest in this – some British companies in the defence sector are struggling to secure appointments with his team.

MBN can be seen as calculating and even Machiavellian. Last year he bided his time, as MBS became mired in the Yemen war and emerged as the figurehead of unpopular economic reforms. His role in defeating Al-Qaeda has given MBN a positive public image, while his greatest strength remains his control of the kingdom’s best-trained forces, the special security forces which sit under the Ministry of Interior. For all the speculation, most likely MBN will carry on as crown prince. To remove him would cause massive upset to a populace which wants a smooth handover of power and its leaders to have considerable experience. MBS is unpopular in quarters and, for conservative Saudis, he is seen as rising too fast. “The usual scenario is they will muddle through”, the close observer concluded.

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