Thursday, 1st October 2015

Mohammed Bin Salman provides a focus for Saudi disquiet

Even before the disaster in Mecca that killed at least 769 people on 24 September, a “definite sense of disquiet” was apparent across Saudi Arabia, as one analyst based in the kingdom put it. A variety of sources have spoken to GSN about growing unease among Saudis over the military intervention in Yemen and a perceived lack of urgency in tackling the dual challenges of Islamic State (IS, or Daesh) and low oil prices. While many in the kingdom will agree with Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Bin Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh’s view that the stampede of Hajj pilgrims was “beyond human control”, many Saudis are apprehensive about wider political developments during 2015. These concerns have been given a public face following the concentration of power in the hands of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), who has accumulated the defence and other key strategic portfolios since January (GSN 986/1).

MBS made waves, rising as his then crown prince father’s most ambitious, assertive and active heir in 2013 (GSN 942/1), before emerging – with his older Sudeiri first cousin, interior minister Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef Bin Abdelaziz (MBN) – as the face of generational change, promoted in decrees issued by King Salman Bin Abdelaziz in the weeks following King Abdullah’s death. The young prince’s influence is being felt across multiple sectors, but it is his central role in the Yemen campaign that has attracted most attention. Al-Salman family history suggests his rise, among the eldest of King Salman’s second group of children, is not quite as meteoric as first seems: his cause was actively pushed by his mother, Fahda Al-Hithlain; from an early age, MBS was attending meetings presided over by his father – an adored younger son being promoted for greatness (not unlike the less talented Prince Abdelaziz Bin Fahd).

Sources suggest his father’s indulgence has allowed MBS to drive the Yemen campaign, despite his polarising (some analysts suggest authoritarian) tendencies. This prominence leaves him politically exposed, with senior princes as well as a sceptical public exhibiting concern that an outright victory could prove beyond the Saudi-led coalition, despite its intensive use of aerial bombardment (see Defence and security). The war in Yemen, wider regional unease and economic problems are starting to bite – as is recorded by social media, whose now intensive use the authorities are hard-pressed to control.

While MBS has taken a lead in Yemen, interior minister MBN – the senior Al-Saud most listened to by western and other allies – has been notably quiet. Some reports have talked of a coming putsch to sideline MBN in MBS’ favour – a move that could potentially stir dissent across the ruling family, and widen unease in Washington and other capitals.

While the Al-Salman have concentrated power in their hands, Saudi-watchers say MBN is maintaining warm relations with the late King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz’s only son to remain a full minister, Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) commander Prince Miteb Bin Abdullah. The Al-Abdullah lost out from a series of decrees issued on 29 January that reshaped government responsibilities and reshuffled officials (GSN 986/5). Sources suggest MBS wanted to sideline Miteb and ‘degrade’ the SANG, but the National Guard (staffed by vast families like the Al-Qahtani, whose reach stretches from the Nejd to Iraq) remains deeply loyal to Miteb; any effort to subsume SANG into the military structure headed by MBS could be strongly resisted.

Miteb has been very visible of late, on 9 September laying the foundation stone for King Salman Bin Abdelaziz Specialist Hospital in Taif along with a strong SANG delegation, including deputy minister of National Guard Abdulmohsen Bin Abdelaziz Al-Tuwaijri. An anticipated inspection of SANG troops on the northern border is seen as what one analyst based in the kingdom calls “a clear message from him” that Miteb understands Saudis’ concern at the IS threat, as does his ally MBN. It is always dangerous to second-guess Saudi dynastic politics, but given the multiple challenges facing the kingdom, it would be wrong to ignore the threat of internal divisions.

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