Saudi succession reshuffle: A threat to the house of cards

Saudi succession reshuffle: A threat to the house of cards
Comment: An indulged prince who flaunts his wealth, newly proclaimed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will find building support amid increasing dissatisfaction a Herculean task, writes Robert Springborg.
8 min read
21 Jun, 2017
Muhammad bin Salman talks with now former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef [Getty]

Changing the pattern of royal succession from successive sons of Abd al Aziz Ibn Saud to any of his grandsons has always been ranked among the most difficult challenges facing the Saudi monarchy.

That challenge is now being faced at a particularly inauspicious time, with the House of Saud being assailed simultaneously on the domestic, regional and global fronts.

Whether the newly proclaimed Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, rumoured soon to be crowned king, can induce his 15,000 fellow princes, to say nothing of his more than 20 million fellow Saudi citizens, to accept this fait accompli, is an open question.

The various domestic travails the country now faces are not entirely of its own making, but King Salman and more importantly, his son Mohammad, are rightly to be held to account for the inadequate ways in which problems have been addressed.

The collapse of oil prices in June, 2014, was met initially by a futile attempt to ride out the revenue storm by expanding Saudi Arabia's market share. When that strategy resulted in yet lower prices and net revenues, then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, newly entrenched as head of the country's key economic decision making committee and as effective head of its oil industry, ordered an about face in the form of tightening OPEC quotas.

That strategy has also now failed as swing producer Saudi Arabia's declining global market share has been replaced by the United States, Nigeria, Libya and, most galling of all, Iran.

OPEC has been demonstrated to be a paper tiger and the Saudi role as swing producer has now been assumed by Texas. Only briefly in 1986 was Saudi oil policy in such disarray, which at that time cost Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani his job as oil minister. 

Only briefly in 1986 was Saudi oil policy in such disarray

Financial cutbacks necessitated by reduced Saudi oil revenues are biting ever deeper despite a dramatic increase in overseas borrowing. Delayed payments to government contractors and suppliers, although recently eased somewhat, have driven some of the country's largest firms into near or actual insolvency.

The collapse of the construction giant Oger, for example, has thrown thousands out of work, including some Saudis, thereby adding to the already profound problem of unemployment. At least one quarter of young Saudi men are unemployed, and almost 90 percent of women are essentially out of the labour market altogether.

Even those in jobs have not been spared stringencies, including civil servants, who have had to endure pay cuts and some reductions in subsidies. Muhammad bin Salman's well known lavish lifestyle, including ownership of one of the world's largest private yachts, presumably makes it difficult for the less fortunate to greet their financial sacrifices with equanimity.

  Read more: 'Sack all foreigners by 2020,' says Saudi government

Now that it is clear that Saudi oil revenues are unlikely ever again to produce a GDP per capita equivalent to that of the many golden years between 2002 and 2014, the country's leadership has been forced to devise a new economic strategy for the country.

Saudi Vision 2030, commissioned and then launched by Muhammad bin Salman, is that strategy, coupled with the announced intent to offer 5 percent of Saudi Aramco for sale.

The former does not directly address the country's key problem of employing its nationals, while the latter has been heavily criticised as selling the country's crown jewel in a depressed market in which a price as low as $60 billion might be obtained, funds easily borrowed on international financial markets.

US President Donald Trump and Mohammad bin Salman met in
Riyadh on May 20, 2017 [Getty]

Maybe more importantly, Vision 2030 was drafted by foreign consultants, a process implicitly contemptuous of the Saudi people. They are being asked to make sacrifices by foreigners acting on behalf of the wealthy ruling family. Small wonder that proclamation of the new economic strategy has been met with considerable, uncharacteristic grumbling, most notably on social media.

The downwardly spiraling economy is not the only domestic problem.

The intensifying crackdown on Shias in the Eastern Province, including the ill-advised execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, reflects the growing restiveness of that community, and the government's nervousness in the face of it.
Intermittent spillover of the war in Yemen has unsettled some border areas.

But most importantly, Muhammad bin Salman faces the prodigious political task of building a new political coalition to support his rule in place of the one that has long underpinned the House of Saud.

  Read more: Is Saudi Arabia selling off Aramco for peanuts?

At the heart of that coalition were the sons of Abd al Aziz Ibn Saud, hence their sons and grandsons. That key pillar of the regime has now been cracked, with King Salman asserting that his lineage will henceforth rule the Kingdom, with other lineages being relegated to cadet status.

The second component of the ruling coalition has always been the religious establishment, embodied most visibly in the al Sheikh family, which over the years has contributed numerous cabinet ministers. Muhammad bin Salman has signaled his intent to reduce the role of religion in society, hence of the spokesmen for it.

So in essence King Salman and his son are kicking the two major props of the regime out from under themselves. The son is promising to build a new coalition of youths in support of himself and the dynasty he obviously intends to establish.

This is a politically parlous undertaking.

The majority of young people are economically struggling and not from the Saud's home Najd Province. Hejazis and Asiris are particularly resentful of Najdi rule. More than 10 percent of Saudi youths are Shia.

In essence King Salman and his son are kicking the two major props of the regime out from under themselves

So for an indulged prince who flaunts his wealth to build a new support coalition on youths whose prospects are ever darkening and a majority of whom do not share either the provincial background or even the sect of that Prince, is a Herculian task. 

From the perspective of the region and the world, this is precisely the worst time for him to be undertaking it.

As the architect of the disastrous war in Yemen he has to bear responsibility for its manifest failures, whether humanitarian or strategic. Saudi forces have not dispatched either the Houthis or Ali Abdullah Saleh, and have failed to make any progress in taking Taiz or Hodeidah, to say nothing of Sanaa.

Emirati forces have performed better, as is crowed by Minister of Defense and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Muhammad, whose shadow looms large over Muhammad bin Salman, accentuating his comparatively diminutive political and military stature. 

So too must the new Crown Prince assume primary responsibility for the botched effort to bring Qatar to heel

So too must the new Crown Prince assume primary responsibility for the botched effort to bring Qatar to heel. In one stroke he has destroyed the GCC, provided further openings for Iran, mystified and consternated his vital Washington backers, and given heart to Islamists backed by Qatar and Turkey. 

Not to be overlooked in the chronicle of regional missteps is that in Egypt, where Crown Prince Muhammad demanded that the two Egyptian islands of Sanafir and Tiran be "returned" to the Kingdom. This ill-advised claim kicked up the biggest political firestorm in Sisi's Egypt and has stimulated simmering anti-Saudi sentiments in the country.

Saudi policy in Iraq and the entire Levant is in shambles

Finally, Saudi policy in Iraq and the entire Levant is in shambles. Iran rules in Baghdad, where Saudi has basically been excluded. It also rules in Damascus and even Saudi-backed forces elsewhere in Syria are essentially defeated.

The election of pro-Hizballah Michel Aoun as President of Lebanon was the final chapter in the long downhill slide of Saudi influence in that country.

In sum, since King Salman succeeded his half brother King Abdullah, and especially since Muhammad bin Salman has assumed primary responsibility for foreign policy decision making, along with everything else, Saudi Arabia's stature in the region has declined precipitously.

That regional policy cannot possibly serve as a basis upon which to make a domestic appeal for his rule. 

Finally, the Saudi image in the world has gone from bad to worse under his behind the scenes rule. The House of Saud is the only regime in the world to have manifestly aligned its fate with the worlds' most unpopular democratic leader, America's President Trump.

It is the very worst time for King Salman to have sprung the change of succession on his fellow princes and citizens

Far from fastening Saudi Arabia to the US and the West in general, tethering the Kingdom to Trump is akin to dropping an anchor below the ship upon which Muhammad bin Salman hopes to sail to his political success.

For the first time since the crisis of the early 1960s that saw Faisal replace Saud as King, the House of Saud is looking like a house of cards, possibly facing collapse.

It is the very worst time for King Salman to have sprung the change of succession on his fellow princes and citizens. It suggests that he and his son are out of touch politically and that the latter, if indeed he becomes King, is unlikely to die in office of natural causes, as all six of his predecessors have.  

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

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