Saudi succession: Rival princes jockey as global oil slump hits home

King Salman was reportedly hospitalized last month. Since being crowned earlier this year as ruler of Saudi Arabia, he has shaken up the succession process in the secretive oil-rich kingdom. 

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
President Barack Obama (l.) greets Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (c.) and Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (r.) as they arrive at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 13, 2015.

The deteriorating health of King Salman, on the throne for less than a year, is fueling a bitter succession battle in Saudi Arabia that has drawn in royals across generations and political stripes.

King Salman reportedly was hospitalized earlier in October. In his “temporary absence,” palace insiders say, the monarch’s two crown princes took charge.

The 79-year-old monarch has since returned to work, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign officials in recent weeks.

But longtime observers say what palace officials refuse to admit publicly: King Salman is unlikely to continue his reign unaided. As a result, bitter infighting over his succession has begun and has exposed a sharp division between conservative and reformist branches in the royal family.

The infighting could not come at a worse time for Saudi Arabia. The country remains embroiled in an eight-month-long war in Yemen and plunging oil prices recently caused Standard & Poor’s to downgrade its credit rating.

A prolonged oil slump threatens Saudi Arabia’s lavish public spending, most of which goes to salaries. Last month the International Monetary Fund projected Saudi Arabia would run a 22 percent GDP deficit this year – and that its cash reserves would run out within five years at the current rate.

In Salman’s absence, palace insiders say, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef took charge of interior security and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the ailing king’s son, handled foreign affairs, economic, and defense portfolios.

Yet because of Mohammed bin Salman’s unfettered access to his father’s advisers and his role in leading the war in Yemen, palace insiders say the young prince has assumed greater responsibility and at times has served as “de facto head of state.”

“All final decisions pass first through Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” one royal court official said.

A two-horse succession race

Under the current line of succession established by Salman, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is 56, would be next in line to the throne, followed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is 30. 

Both princes have supporters within and outside the kingdom. Mohammed bin Nayef has built ties with Washington by positioning Saudi Arabia as an ally in fighting terrorism, while Prince Mohammed bin Salman has styled himself as an economic liberalizer. 

In May, King Salman deputized his son to represent him at a summit of Persian Gulf nations in the US. The following month the son visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg.

Still, battle over control of the kingdom is not a simple two-horse race. According to longtime Saudi observers, a wider struggle between reformers and conservatives is underway within the 271-year-old House of Saud.

Reformists within the royal family quickly soured on King Salman, who was seen as unwilling to open up and continued a crackdown on the country’s Shiite minority, refusing to commute the death sentence of key Shiite cleric Nimr al Nimr and his young nephew, Ali al Nimr. The King also declined to release dozens of political prisoners.

“The Saudi government and Saudi Royal family have always been a balance between conservative forces and calls for change, and King Salman has swung in favor of the conservatives  this may have caused a backlash,” says Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program.

Dissent aired in public

Reformists reportedly also reject Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who they fear will continue his father’s legacy. Instead, they favor another candidate for the throne: Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, son of the late Saudi founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who they claim by birthright holds a more legitimate claim to the throne.

In a rare public display of royal infighting, an unnamed prince published an open letter in September calling for King Salman’s dismissal, extolling Prince Ahmed’s credentials. Reformists say Prince Ahmed showed leniency towards political prisoners during his term as deputy interior minister.

Among those clamoring for change in the palace are royals who object to King Salman’s unorthodox succession plan, which leapfrogged 11 of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud’s surviving sons (Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef are both grandsons of the late patriarch.)

“It has long been an established rule in Saudi that the greatest threat to the ruler’s power comes from his first constituency: the royal family,” says Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert and professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University.

“Since the 1960s, the way of avoiding conflict was power-sharing among a set of princes," he says. "Salman has upset the tradition by consolidating a lot of power in those two princes and now we are seeing this playing out.”

An internal coup?

A name being put forward by some conservatives is Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the former head of Saudi intelligence services. In April he was removed from the post of crown prince and the line of succession by King Salman.

The removal of a Saudi king by disgruntled royals is not without precedent. In 1964, a group of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud’s sons forced then-King Saud, their brother, to abdicate because of his reckless spending and erratic behavior.

While such an internal coup could occur, it would only take place under a broad agreement, observers say. When faced with external challenges, such as what Saudi Arabia sees as a growing threat posed by regional rival Iran, Saudi royals tend to close ranks in order to ensure stability, at least in the short term.

“At the end of the day, this is a family that closes ranks in the face of external threats,” Mr. Wehrey said. “There may be jockeying for power within the royal family  but even that jockeying has its limits.”

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