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Saudi Arabia: Royal dissent could keep MBS from the throne

As Saudi King Salman fades from public life, the crown prince remains mired in controversy and scandal
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks in Riyadh on 14 December 2021 (Bandar al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP)

Saudis celebrated the end of 2021 with raves in the desert, while an absentee monarch - not seen for months amid old age and possibly fragile health - has disappeared from public life.  

King Salman has been holed up in the new, futuristic Neom city, and may not be physically fit to receive the annual renewal of the oath of allegiance that would normally take place this month, marking seven years of his rule. But King Salman will not abdicate, remaining an absent king until his death. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is now confirmed as the de facto ruler of the kingdom. 

Palace intrigues may become an option to rid them of an arrogant and ruthless young prince

Domestically, MBS is destined to continue to implement a series of controversial political and religious policies that may haunt him when he formally takes over in the event of the king’s passing. His top nightmare scenario is internal dissent within the House of Saud. It is uncertain that he has the consensus of the royal household to confirm him as future king. In the meantime, he has been ruthless in eliminating rival royals

Scandals have recently surfaced about his detention and alleged torture of a number of rival princes, including deposed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the sons of King Abdullah. Allegations by former chief intelligence officer Saad al-Jabri, now in exile in Canada, revealed embarrassing secrets about conversations with MBS when he allegedly threatened to target King Abdullah with a poison ring

The New York Times reported that bin Nayef was subjected to torture, including being hung upside down by his ankles. Obviously, the old photograph of MBS kissing the deposed crown prince’s hand has been forgotten. Bin Nayef’s future remains in the hand of his early masters in Washington, namely the CIA, who thus far have not intervened to spare him this unexpected humiliation.

Marginalised royals

It is clear that MBS wants bin Nayef dead, but this won’t solve his larger problem, as there are other disgruntled royals who resent their total marginalisation since 2015. They all remain silent at the moment, fearing for their lives - but for how long will this be the case? 

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It is unlikely that rival princes will stage a rebellion against the crown prince, as they have all become toothless. Still, we cannot rule out agitations that will haunt MBS for a long time. 

Killing journalists and detaining dissidents, or leaving them neglected and deprived of medical care in prison until they die, is not the same as subjecting your own royal cousins to such treatment. In an absolute monarchy, torturing your subjects is common and can persist for a long time - but creating rifts within your own royal household is a different and more serious challenge. 

It is not likely that the crown prince will face an open rebellion, but he will continue to be haunted by the prospect of an assassination in the future. No rival prince can organise a clandestine coup, as they have all been deprived of military might - but palace intrigues may become an option to rid them of an arrogant and ruthless young prince. 

The Wahhabi factor

Should this become a possibility, rival princes can surely count on an army of frustrated and angry die-hard Wahhabis, who have watched the collapse of their religious empire, built over the course of a century. Loyal Wahhabis were the backbone of the House of Saud, which entrusted them with domesticating the Arabian population, indoctrinating it in the most radical religious traditions, and ensuring its obedience to the princes. 

In return, the Wahhabis benefited from lavish state handouts, jobs, privileges and prestige. They were truly the guardians of the realm, the “sages” who must be obeyed by a reluctant population, and their rulings were backed by military force. The House of Saud and the Wahhabis worked together as a chorus, playing each others’ tunes in the name of serving God and king. But not anymore: the kingdom has become a Graveyard of Clerics, to borrow Pascal Menoret’s recent book title. 

How he manages the various forces that he has antagonised and humiliated will determine whether his succession will usher in a new dawn or new troubles

MBS started changing this historical relationship as he embarked on a project to eliminate the Wahhabis from religious and public life, replacing their preaching and threats to punish transgressors with pop concerts and raves. For how long can the dismissed Wahhabis tolerate seeing their godly kingdom sink into debauchery, historically dubbed western corruption? The return of the Taliban to Kabul last summer after two decades of US occupation may have given hope to Saudi Arabia’s humiliated Wahhabis. 

The Wahhabis are sure to return with a vengeance, and there will be blood, as the revival of zealotry always comes as a violent deluge. But this will depend on how Saudi youths respond to their frustrations over a lack of jobs and economic opportunities, high inflation, more taxes and financial hardships. If they feel they don’t have a stake in the new kingdom, they would have nothing to lose by pivoting towards their old Wahhabi mentors. 

MBS may soon succeed in becoming the future king, but this won’t come without serious challenges. How he manages the various forces that he has antagonised and humiliated will determine whether his succession will usher in a new dawn or new troubles.   

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

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

Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @MadawiDr