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Salman vs Nayef: Rumours and ramblings in Saudi's game of thrones

Whispers abound about power grabs, comebacks and plots in the Saudi royal family. If they happen, they will have serious repercussions beyond the kingdom

Editor's note: On 21 June, Saudi King Salman named his son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince, relieving the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, of all of his duties.

Mohammed bin Salman’s sudden and unexpected rise to eminence under his father’s umbrella is still intriguing many observers inside and outside Saudi Arabia, with rumours circulating that he is plotting to jump the queue to kingship and oust his cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, with the approval of King Salman.

When he became king in 2015, Salman completely ignored the Committee of Allegiance, established by the late King Abdullah to regulate succession, and the latter’s wish that Salman respect the succession plan that he had put in place before he died.

With no legal restrictions on royal prerogatives in an absolute monarchy, Salman reshuffled the royal household with no challenges, but this prompted ramblings and rumours about current royal rivalries.

Rumour has it

One rumour focuses on the rivalry between the two Mohammeds. It states that Mohammed bin Salman is about to oust his cousin, bin Nayef, in a bid to ensure that he inherits the throne immediately after his father’s death.

This rumour draws on the sudden rise of 33-year-old bin Salman, who is currently consolidating power and achieving global visibility through a series of interviews in respectable international media and regular visits to the US. The rumour capitalises on some facts and amplifies them, thus adding a political dimension to the power struggle among senior royalty.

A second rumour is woven around the disgruntled brothers of King Salman, amongst them Princes Ahmad and Talal. Their complete marginalisation is often interpreted as a sign that they are plotting a sinister comeback, defying the king’s wish to secure the throne for his nephew and son.

Talal was critical of Nayef when he became crown prince in 2005 and declared that he was not obliged to offer the oath of allegiance to him should he become king. Talal’s age and current ill health removed him from the spotlight, but the rumour persists.

A third rumour revolves around the second-generation princes. This includes above all the half-brothers of Mohammed bin Salman, Mitab, the son of King Abdullah, and Abd al-Aziz, the son of King Fahd, in addition to lesser-known junior and marginalised princes, some of them the sons of King Saud.

Those who know 

With the advent of social media, Saudis will either applaud if Mohammed bin Salman ousts his senior cousin while his father is still alive or simply remain oblivious spectators to the royal drama. But they will continue to circulate rumours about angry and marginalised princes.

With so many powers now in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman, including the soft power of the Saudi media and the global outreach of the public relations companies he employs, it is difficult to forecast any real challenges to his inauguration as the future king. Mohammed bin Nayef can only hope to become an honorary king, very much like King Khalid (1975-1982) who resigned himself to real decisions being made by powerful Prince Fahd who ran the kingdom as his fiefdom until 2005. 

Saudis cannot openly discuss or speculate about succession rivalries without incurring the royal wrath

But Saudis seem to be more detached today from this alleged power struggle between the two Mohammeds. Should a power struggle erupt after King Salman dies, it is certain that it will represent a serious blow to dynastic rule in the kingdom and the future of the house of Saud. Also such a struggle will inevitably precipitate a legitimacy crisis.

The crisis will be acute since any power struggle at the top can no longer be discreetly contained within royal circles. Although the House of Saud has eliminated all pressure groups and circles of influence that can mediate leadership contests, rivalry at the top will be seriously disruptive. 

King Salman and his son Salman have made many senior royals redundant, for example the king’s full brothers Ahmad, Talal and Muqrin. They are now part of the past not the present or future of the kingdom.

The king also marginalised senior religious clerics who had occasionally been consulted in the past, especially during princely rivalries such as that which erupted in the early 1960s power struggle between King Saud and Crown Prince Faysal. 

Under Salman, dissidents and civil society activists have been put in prison and nascent civil society and human rights organisations have been eradicated by successive waves of repression and detention.

Saudis attend a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the creation of the King Faisal Air Academy at King Salman airbase in Riyadh in January 2017 (AFP)
In the absence of durable institutions beyond the royal house, and now only the two Mohammeds, a power struggle or vacuum will usher unpredictable outcomes that will have serious repercussions beyond Saudi Arabia.

Cut off from the inner circles of royal politics, Saudis resort to rumours about these intrigues to insert themselves into the political narrative of this hidden drama, albeit they remain marginalised as mere spectators of palace intrigues. 

Many Saudis are happy to repeat a Saudi saying: "Those who know the intrigues of the royal succession don’t talk and those who don’t know make a lot of noise." Yet this parroted statement is often promoted by regime loyalists to confirm the marginality of more than 28 million people under an absolute monarchy that does not think they are worth being consulted, let alone allowed to talk and discuss future political uncertainties surrounding the highest political posts in the kingdom. 

The rising star and the prince of darkness

The Saudi people cannot get in the way of ambitious Mohammed bin Salman, who swiftly reached stardom thanks to his father promoting him at the expense of not only his other siblings, but also a wide circle of aspiring princes. Saudis cannot openly discuss or speculate about succession rivalries without incurring the royal wrath.

Neither Salman’s remaining brothers - Ahmad, who is the only one who seems to count at the moment as the others are either too old, like Talal for example, or marginalised like Muqrin - nor his other senior sons can understand the bold move that promoted the junior prince at their expense.

Salman boldly dismissed this large pool of aspiring old and young princes when he chose his own junior son to be the face of the kingdom 

All Salman's other sons are now placed in important but less high profile posts, while the vast pool of eligible second and third-generation princes, such as Mutaib, minister of the National Guard and the son of deceased King Abdullah, are out of the picture.

Other princes include the sons of deceased King Fahd who had enjoyed high profiles during their father’s kingship as heads of royal court, or governors of oil-rich provinces. They are now without government posts, but with lots of wealth.

Salman boldly dismissed this large pool of aspiring old and young princes when he chose his own junior son to be the face of the kingdom domestically, regionally and internationally.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef with deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman during the opening session of the kingdom's Shura Council in December 2016 (AFP/Saudi Royal Palace)
This new concentration of power in young Mohammed prompted speculation about the tension between him and nobody other than his boss, cousin, and senior, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The latter has made few media appearances and has remained in the background since March 2015.

But Mohammed bin Nayef still holds the strings of the deep state - he controls the infamous ministry of interior, internal regime security, anti-terrorism apparatus and the intelligence services, not to mention the religious clerics, the judges in the courts and the religious industry in the kingdom.

Given his pervasive tentacles into Saudi society, he must be busy monitoring the whispers of not only ordinary Saudis, but most importantly those of his own kin, namely the vast number of disgruntled princes who may challenge him should he become king. 

Mohammed bin Nayef is notorious for filling Saudi prisons with dissidents and activists that may have earned him the title the Prince of Darkness, constantly operating behind the thick iron curtain of security and under the pretext of fighting terrorism. He must be the preferred candidate of Western intelligence services from Washington to London.

Our man in Riyadh?

But in the shadow of bin Nayef, the young Mohammed bin Salman has had the solid support of his father. Nevertheless, he has had to consolidate his own reputation and legitimacy as the future king at home and abroad.

He travelled to Washington several times to convince President Donald Trump and his administration that he is the future king, promising lavish investment in the US economy, ordering more weapons, and vowing to be yet another Washington man in Riyadh to fight terrorism, a job long associated with his senior cousin the crown prince.

The matrimony between money and power that Mohammed bin Salman represented resonated well with President Trump

Mohammed bin Salman quickly repackaged himself as the hawkish neoliberal future monarch who will deliver a seismic restructuring of not only the oil-based Saudi economy but also the kingdom as a whole.  

However, this was not enough to secure his future inside Saudi Arabia. He has so far succeeded because in the wooing of Trump, he seems to be a younger version of the controversial leader, who erratically blurs the boundaries between a businessman and a statesman, and uses the state to promote his own business interests. The matrimony between money and power that junior Mohammed represented resonated well with the president.

Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and Trump in the White House in March (AFP)
Mohammed bin Salman’s war on Yemen, launched immediately after he was appointed deputy crown prince and minister of defence in 2015, and now his second war on Qatar, are both bids to show strength domestically and outdo his cousin, who seems to have remained muted during the current Saudi-Emirati alliance against Doha.

His two regional wars - the Yemeni one fought with deadly weapons and air strikes, and the Qatari one fiercely unfolding in the media, with sanctions enforced and a Muslim alliance against Qatar swiftly assembled - attest to how the prince can manage multiple partners, with the help of consultants and public relations companies. He seems to be inspired by his mentor, Emirati Deputy Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, who has his own regional ambitions.

Firing up the rumour mill

During the current Qatar crisis, Mohammed bin Salman is in the pilot seat, cruising at a very high altitude against another Gulf ruler of his own generation, Emir Tamim Hamad al-Thani, while bin Nayef remains in the shadow of his flamboyant cousin.

The recent bold moves of bin Salman against Qatar have ignited fresh rumours and speculations about royal intrigues. These are further strengthened by the fact that the crown prince has not yet produced a male heir, limiting his ability to appoint a son of his own at the expense of his cousin should he become king soon.

This places bin Salman immediately in line to inherit the throne, provided that no further succession changes take place during the king’s lifetime or that of the current crown prince when - or if - the latter becomes king.

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But in Saudi Arabia, nothing can be taken for granted or expected to happen according to a rational plan. The survival and mystique of the monarchy is closely linked to its unpredictability even at the very top level.

While it is unlikely that the junior prince would challenge the order of succession in the short term, any minor rumblings at the top level can reverberate across the kingdom and the whole region.

However, for the time being, the house of Saud and its leading princes have decided to amuse themselves with regional wars against neighbours such as Yemen and Qatar as distractions from fatal power struggles.

Dr Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (C) and deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrive for the opening session of the Shura Council in Riyadh in December 2016 (AFP/Saudi Royal Palace)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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