Saudi Arabia's royal reshuffle

Saudi Arabia's royal reshuffle
Comment: Saudi Arabia under Muhammad bin Salman is likely to take even more hasty, reactionary measures, like the coercion of Qatar and the quagmire in Yemen, writes Yousef Munayyer.
6 min read
22 Jun, 2017
Newly appointed Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman [R] is just 31 years old[Saudi Royal Council]

It had been coming for some time.

Ever since Salman bin Abdelaziz ascended to the royal Saudi throne after the death of his brother Abdallah in early 2015, questions were lingering about when the octogenarian potentate would move to put his young son Mohamad next in line for succession.

When Salman became king, he was the second youngest surviving son of King Abdelaziz, the first ruler of the modern Saudi state. The presumptive heir and youngest surviving son of Abdelaziz was Prince Muqrin, but the likelihood of him becoming King after Salman was in doubt, due to his lineage.

Muqrin's mother, one of Abdelaziz's nearly two dozen wives, was Yemeni. Sultan's mother was from the Sudairi family, a preferred family of King Abdelaziz and also his mother's family.

Muqrin's reign as crown prince was thus short lived and he was removed from the role in the spring of 2015 just months after Salman's ascension. Since Muqrin was the last in the line of surviving Abdelaziz children, the next Crown Prince would shake up the order, almost certainly kicking off a power struggle inside the royal family.

Salman named his nephew Muhammad, the son of his full brother Nayef the long-time minister of interior, as crown prince. 

He'll be Saudi Arabia's next king, but who is Mohammed bin Salman?

After all, it would have likely come as an unwelcome shock and coup inside the royal family, had Salman immediately named his young and inexperienced son Muhammad as his successor immediately after becoming King in January of 2015.

This would have been seen not only as an attempt to determine a new trajectory for succession that ran through Salman's lineage, but also a hasty and dangerous move that would put an inexperienced neophyte ahead of more seasoned members, particularly in the realm of security, like Muhammad bin Nayef.

Muhammad bin Salman, along with his close ally Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, has cultivated channels to Washington that seem to be more direct to the Oval Office itself

Instead, Salman made his son Muhammad the new defense minister, giving him an opportunity to burnish his security bona fides, and he immediately began to oversee the Saudi war on Yemen and elevate his profile on the international stage.

The groundwork would have to be laid before Muhammad bin Salman could become Crown Prince and if you were watching closely you could see this happening.

[Click to enlarge]

Royal decree after royal decree was issued in recent months moving and realigning personnel in the echelons of the Saudi government shrinking Muhammad bin Nayef's responsibilities and promoting Muhammad bin Salman's allies.

While this change was foreseeable, the timing in which it occurred was somewhat surprising.

Saudi Arabia is engaged, along with the United Arab Emirates, in an unprecedented effort against Qatar at the moment. The effort to press Qatar into submission has sent shockwaves across the Gulf, leaving regimes in Kuwait and Oman concerned, and elsewhere throughout the region.

It is unlikely that the Saudis would have preferred to make such changes in this tense moment. That they did suggests two things, both of which are plausible.

The first is that the Saudis and Emiratis expected the effort against Qatar to be quick and decisive, much as they had hoped for the war in Yemen, only to find the opposite. And the second, is that the way the GCC crisis was unfolding impacted the decision to make the switch of Crown Prince now.

  Read more: US 'mystified' over Saudi justifications for Qatar blockade

The Muhammad bin Salman and Muhammad bin Nayef dichotomy might have aligned with the White House and State Department/DoD dichotomy on policy toward the GCC crisis.

Muhammad bin Nayef was a favoured figured by American practitioners of the "War on Terror" for years and had developed strong ties with Washington's establishment intelligence, military and diplomatic communities.

Muhammad bin Salman, along with his close ally Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, has cultivated channels to Washington that seem to be more direct to the Oval Office itself, perhaps through the reportedly warm relationship between President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the UAE's ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba.

Before the sun would rise again in Washington, Muhammad bin Nayef was removed from all positions in government

As the GCC crisis unfolded, two different responses came from Washington, one from the State Department and the Department of Defense and another from Trump himself.

The former emphasised the need for Gulf unity and a need to end the blockade, while the other fanned the flames and encouraged the blockade.

Throughout this time, Saudi Arabia's official position had been articulated on multiple occasions by its Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir. Jubeir, a rare commoner appointed to this important position by King Salman, dutifully espoused the confrontational position echoing Trump, while Muhammad bin Nayef had been uncharacteristically quiet. 

Despite an embarrassing moment two weeks ago when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a statement calling for an easing of the blockade and a resolution through diplomacy - only to see President Trump make a contradictory statement 90 minutes later, the United States seems to have moved in the direction of unifying its position since then.

About a week ago, it was reported that the White House decided to "let Rex handle it" and step away from undercutting their Secretary of State 140-characters at a time.

Shortly thereafter, Secretary Tillerson cancelled an important trip to Mexico to deal with the GCC crisis. Then, yesterday, the State Department issued devastating blow to the Saudi-Emirati effort against Qatar saying that despite the Secretary's effort he was "mystified" as to why the Saudis and Emiratis had failed to provide evidence to support their claims, and raised questions about their intentions.

Before the sun would rise again in Washington, Muhammad bin Nayef was removed from all positions in government.

This could provide a ladder for the Saudis and Emiratis to climb down from the very high tree they have put themselves in through their efforts to coerce Qatar.

But that would be the wise course of action.

More likely, however, is that the consolidation of Saudi Arabia under Muhammad bin Salman leads to even more hasty and reactionary measures across the region, like the coercion of Qatar and the quagmire in Yemen, in tandem with Muhammad bin Salman's partner in the UAE Muhammad bin Zayed.

These two leaders are primed to shape the region for decades to come, but their track records suggest this is a very concerning prospect. 

Dr. Yousef Munayyer is a Middle East Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC and Executive Director of US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefMunayyer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.