Riyadh rumour mill raises questions over relations between king and crown prince

8th March, Issue 1076. 

Another round of fevered speculation about splits in the most senior ranks of the Al-Saud was set off on 5 March, with a report that King Salman Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud has clashed with his son Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) over the Yemen war, the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi affair and other matters. In the most dramatic allegation, the king’s advisors were said to have changed the personal security team that accompanied the monarch during his recent trip to Egypt, due to suspicions about where their true loyalties lay. 

Well-placed sources canvassed by GSN are divided on how much weight to attribute to the report, which appeared in The Guardian on 5 March. While there have been signs of tension between King Salman and his ruthless son in the past – over the Palestinian file and the Khashoggi case among others – the monarch has also made it clear he supports his crown prince; for example keeping him by his side in trips around the kingdom in November (GSN 1,070/8) and instituting a reshuffle of senior officials the following month to shore up his son’s position (GSN 1,072/1). The two leaders are also said to work closely together and, despite tales of his failing health, GSN understands the king is still involved in decision-making on a daily basis. “MBS has a very broad mandate to help his sovereign,” said one source. “Very little happens that the heir does not clear with his father.”

Even so, those looking for signs of a schism can find things to point to. Unusually, MBS was not at the airport to greet his father on his return from Egypt on 25 February – although his younger brother Khalid Bin Salman (KBS) was in the welcoming party. In addition, while the king was away, the crown prince made some key appointments – with Princess Reema Bint Bandar being handed the job of ambassador to the United States, with the rank of minister, while her predecessor KBS was brought back home to become deputy defence minister. On the other hand, these appointments were hardly unexpected. Princess Reema has long been tipped as a potential successor to KBS and the latter has extensive links to the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

Princess Reema is now the country’s first female ambassador and her appointment is a clear attempt by Riyadh to shift the narrative about the kingdom towards its efforts to modernise – something firmly in line with the reforms King Salman has allowed his son to make. It also fits in with a wider reshuffle of senior diplomatic posts carried out earlier in the month and further changes are in the pipeline(GSN 1,075/1). Reema has plenty of experience in dealing with international audiences and has known the Washington diplomatic circuit since her youth – her father was posted there as ambassador in 1983. However, while the White House of President Donald Trump will prove welcoming, she will face a Congress that is more hostile to Riyadh than it has been for many years. KBS led the delegation to Washington for less than two years and in recent months had become uncomfortably tangled up in the scandal over the murder of Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in October last year; since then he has spent long periods away from Washington (GSN 1,072/3).

The withdrawal of KBS after a relatively short period in post (he was appointed ambassador to the US in April 2017, but only took up the job in July of that year) is an indication that, despite his missteps in handling the Khashoggi case, he is still viewed in Riyadh as a trusted ally of his older brother MBS and someone worth protecting. He was formally introduced to MOD personnel in Riyadh on 24 February, telling them that MBS had assigned tasks to him that will contribute to the Vision 2030 economic reform programme – presumably a reference to developing the domestic defence industry. He has also been given some oversight over the Yemen conflict and, in his first significant action as deputy minister, he visited Saudi forces stationed on the southern border with Yemen on 25 February.

As with Princess Reema, his appointment is unsurprising but still significant. The Al-Salman have been drawing more power into their branch of the family and there are few obvious candidates when it comes to finding a trusted deputy to MBS to run the critical files of MOD reform and the Yemen war. Prior to his appointment to Washington, he had been identified as someone MBS might like to have working for him in the MOD (GSN 1,025/6). KBS also has a background in the military, having graduated from King Faisal Air College in Riyadh and briefly serving in the Saudi Royal Air Force as an F-15 pilot – although he is believed to have crashed one jet and
some observers claim there were doubts about his work ethic while in uniform. Prior to that he had served as an advisor at both the MOD and the Washington embassy.

The importance of the Yemen file was highlighted by another royal order issued on 23 February , alongside the two appointments. The first of the trio of releases that day stated that MBS – described in the official release as the deputy king, rather than with his normal title of crown prince, seemingly because King Salman was out of the country and had delegated his powers while away – had ordered the payment of an additional month’s salary to Saudi armed forces personnel involved in the Yemen war.

Speculation over the relationship between King Salman and MBS is not likely to go away any time soon even if, as one observer puts it, “truth be told, no-one knows what may be occurring at the palace”. But the rumour-mill is not just dealing with how secure the king is on the throne; there continues to be unease about the actions of the crown prince among some royal family members and the country’s business elite, not least because of the wide-scale seizure of assets in the Ritz-Carlton anti-corruption campaign (GSN 1,048/1). MBS is unlikely to face opposition from within the armed forces, who appear cowed by the power he has accrued, but there are occasional signs of disquiet within the Al-Saud. GSN recently heard of one prince who had been an MBS loyalist but who has manoeuvred himself further away from the crown prince, where he feels more comfortable. “Nobody, except the technocrats, really feels that they are safe,” says one source.

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