Deputy King MbS? Crown prince claims new title as coup rumours persist

Deputy King MbS? Crown prince claims new title as coup rumours persist
Following months of speculation of a rift between the Saudi crown prince and his father, MbS' new title may reflect his steady maneuvering towards the throne.
5 min read
06 March, 2019
Rumours of a rift between the father and son have been circulating for months [Getty]
Bubbling tensions between Saudi King Salman and his son-and-heir Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have reached crisis point, according to a recent report, which suggests the kingdom's leader was warned of a plot against him during a state visit to Egypt last month.

Speculation has been rife of a rift between the the two royals since the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, thought to have been spearheaded by Prince Mohammed himself.

A report by The Guardian on Tuesday suggested that further disagreements over the war in Yemen have had a destabilising effect on their relationship, culminating in a coup plot last month, forcing the Saudi monarch to reshuffle his entire security team while in Egypt.

Another significant sign of a potential power grab by the young royal was the widespread use of the title of "deputy king" when media referring to Crown Prince Mohammed during his tenure in charge of Saudi Arabia during the king's absence.

Many commentators believe this signals the crown prince's hasty ambition to become the official ruler of the country due to protocol regarding the use of titles in Saudi Arabia.

Kristian Ulrichsen, from Rice University's Baker Institute, told The New Arab that this subtle shift in his position is significant as the crown prince has never used the deputy king title before.

During King Salman's time away, it was used in every single Saudi news article referring to the crown prince, "implying there was some order from the top" to make the change.

Bin Salman, 33, signed off three important decrees as deputy king. This included the appointment of Princess Reema bin Sultan as Saudi ambassador to the US, while the crown prince's brother, Khaled bin Salman, was made deputy defence minister. These kinds of appointments are usually only decreed by the king himself.

Despite the title being used in countries such as Jordan and Bahrain, deputy king has only been occasionally rarely used in Saudi Arabia, where names and titles carry enormous significance.

Ulrichsen also added that issuing royal decrees in the king's absence hasn't been done in recent times.

"It raised eyebrows, especially as it reflected the centralisation of power" under Prince Mohammed, Ulrichsen told The New Arab.

According to The Guardian, King Salman and his team found out about the crown prince's reshuffle on television.

"It shows the main policy decisions are being taken by MbS," said Ulrichsen, using a name Prince Mohammed bin Salman is commonly referred to.

Ulrichsen also called the decrees "a gesture of defiance" to the US, who were applying pressure on the crown prince amid the fallout of the Khashoggi assassination.

"It sent a message that MbS is running the show," he added.

King Salman, 83, is thought to have suffered from ill health for several years, however, he is physically fit. He handed over the majority of his royal duties to Prince Mohammed in 2017.

According to Bill Law, an analyst with The, there is truth amid the rumours of a rift between the ruling pair, as he told The New Arab.

"There is growing anxiety within the kingdom about Mohammed bin Salman and the manner in which he is choosing to conduct himself as the de facto ruler."

Read more: West 'should cut ties with Saudi Arabia' over torture of female activists

"His decision to remove his brother Khalid bin Salman as US ambassador and install him in the defence ministry without prior consultation with the king will not have gone down well," he added.

As has been speculated over recent months, bin Salman has faced some sanctioning from his father, who still wields ultimate power in the kingdom. For example, Prince Mohammed was not present on Tuesday when Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Riyadh, potentially as punishment for his recent antics.

"Clearly the king is annoyed with his son," said Law.

"Is this just a slap on the wrist or something more?" he added. "In the immediate aftermath of the Khashoggi killing, MbS had his wings clipped but for a short time only before re-emerging to play on the world stage."

However, he downplayed rumours that Salman would or could replace MbS with a more obedient heir, and instead predicts he will "seek to contain his more problematic behaviour".

In November, Saudi-British professor Madawi al-Rasheed suggested that Prince Mutaib al-Saud was in the running to replace MbS following talk of meetings in the royal palace in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal.

Rasheed, an expert on Saudi affairs, tweeted in response to the report on Tuesday, saying: "I am not sure the king is in charge". She added that he wasn't even able to read his own speech properly at the EU-Arab Summit.

Dr Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor at Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa University, concurred that Salman had kept MbS "on a long leash", which could have allowed him to orchestrate Khashoggi's murder.

But Jones warned against making too much out of such a rift, telling The New Arab that "drawing a distinction between [Mohammed bin Salman] and his father merely seems to suggest a 'good cop, bad cop' that serves little purpose but to paint King Salman as the more reasonable party in the kingdom's slightly new, but still alarming direction".

The issues surrounding the crown prince are especially heightened this week as Saudi Arabia faced criticism by the UN Human Rights Council over Khashoggi's assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the treatment of imprisoned activists and dissidents, notably women's rights campaigners.

Some are thought to have been tortured while in detention, under the direction of Prince Mohammed's former right-hand-man Saud al-Qahtani, according to Law.

"Both tie directly back to MbS," Law told The New Arab.

"Salman will be concerned that the global reputational damage being done to the kingdom, rather than being contained, is growing, largely because of the actions of his wayward, headstrong son," he added.

Florence is a Middle-East focused journalist and staff writer at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter @flo_dix