As US sours on young prince, old Saudi succession pot is stirred. Too late?

Hassene Dridi/AP
Protesters in Tunis demonstrated Nov. 27 with saws and placards reading “You are not welcome” in advance of a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. International concern about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has not abated.
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The Saudi royal family has relied on Washington’s military support as the bedrock of its security and stability for 75 years. Today, President Trump's administration is standing by Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, despite a growing international outcry over the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But across the United States and in both parties in Congress, sentiment is turning against the prince and against Saudi Arabia in general. And that has the Saudi royal family worried, so much so that the prince's rivals reportedly are pushing to have him removed from the line of succession. They may be too late to move against the strong young prince, and the Saudi royal family and government emphatically deny there are challenges to his succession. But observers say this could change as support grows in Congress to stop arms supplies to Saudi Arabia or withhold backing for its war in Yemen. And, warns F. Gregory Gause, professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, “Being crown prince does not automatically make you king. In Saudi Arabia, you are always the heir presumptive, not heir apparent.”

Why We Wrote This

How much sway does the United States have over Saudi Arabia? Enough so that disfavor toward the crown prince over the Khashoggi affair has shaken the royal family – after MBS had already moved to solidify his power.

Growing bipartisan opposition in Congress and across America to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia itself has shaken the House of Saud, reportedly emboldening rivals to push for the de-facto ruler to be removed from the line of succession.

The royal family has relied on Washington’s military support as the bedrock of its security and stability for 75 years. Within the family, the crown prince’s detractors are seizing on the October murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the strained US ties as a “now-or-never” opportunity to prevent Bin Salman from reaching the throne.

But their aspirations face a profound challenge from a rapidly changing Saudi society that appears receptive to a new kind of ruler: a youthful strongman who defies tradition, appeals to nationalism over religion, and seeks to create modern opportunities for the country’s burgeoning youth.

Why We Wrote This

How much sway does the United States have over Saudi Arabia? Enough so that disfavor toward the crown prince over the Khashoggi affair has shaken the royal family – after MBS had already moved to solidify his power.

President Trump has continued to back the prince and cast doubt on the CIA’s reported finding that he ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the president’s stance Wednesday after he conducted a closed-door Senate briefing. CIA Director Gina Haspel did not attend – an absence criticized by legislators on both sides of the aisle.

But White House affirmations aside, the mood in Washington represents a dramatic shift in American sentiment toward MBS, as the young crown prince is known. In his first months in power, he portrayed himself as a social reformer, and he was warmly received on a coast-to-coast tour of the United States just last spring.

In a bid to prove to potential rivals in the royal palace, security agencies, and religious establishment that his brand has not been damaged beyond repair, MBS embarked on a goodwill tour across Saudi Arabia and the Arab world before heading to this weekend’s G20 summit in Argentina. 

Yet the photo-ops with Saudi tribesmen and Arab leaders who rely on Saudi support reportedly are doing little to dispel concerns by elites at home over the crown prince’s long-term viability.

Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives a gift from Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain, Nov. 26, 2018.

Indeed, two days of mass protests in Tunisia with banners depicting MBS with a chainsaw ­­– a riff on reports that Khashoggi was dismembered after being killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – ahead of the prince’s visit in the North African country created a less than reassuring image.

Publicly, the Saudi royal family and government have shown a united front, emphatically denying challenges to the crown prince’s succession.

But longtime observers say even this public face could change as support grows in Congress to stop arms supplies to Saudi Arabia and support for its war in Yemen, and even consider sanctions against members of the royal family and the kingdom itself.

“In time, if they start seeing the US security relationship disintegrating, and there are no more arms sales or training, then Saudis are going to say that this young man is chipping away at the bedrock of our stability and leaving us vulnerable to Iranians and others,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and Saudi expert at the Brookings Institution. “That is a pretty serious indictment and an issue that is much harder to fix.”

Succession challenge?

Attempts by members of the historically cautious royal family to convince King Salman to rein in or demote his favored son reportedly have fallen on deaf ears, Saudi sources say.

Instead, those opposed to MBS are hoping to challenge the 33-year-old’s ascension to the throne through the so-called Allegiance Council – after King Salman has passed or abdicated due to failing health.

The Council, a non-formal grouping of 33 royals, must certify the ascension of any prince to the throne.

Even before the Khashoggi affair, the Council had several grounds on which to challenge the young prince’s ascendance: He would be the first king who is not a son of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Al Saud, and it would mark the first time that the Saudi line of succession would go from father to son, rather than the brother-to-brother succession set out by Al Saud’s wishes.

Saudi Arabia, however, has no clear legal guidelines for succession, and the decade-old Allegiance Council has rarely enforced its authority and itself was largely bypassed when MBS was promoted to crown prince in 2017.

Then there is the question of an alternative contender for the crown; even detractors agree there is no obvious candidate.

The strongest contender is Prince Ahmed, the 76-year-old brother of King Salman and son of the Saudi founder, who recently returned to the kingdom from self-imposed exile in Britain and has been critical of the crown prince.

The other is Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince, long a favorite in Washington because of his security acumen and his two-decade body of work in counter-terrorism.

But these two princes lack influence and power bases back home.

Military and security services

In testament to his far-reaching power, MBS has taken the defense portfolio, Interior Ministry, security services, army, and the national guard. Yet each of these institutions was once the domain of prominent Saudi princes and rivals who had hand-picked appointees whose allegiance to the crown prince is not guaranteed.

With the disastrous war in Yemen grinding on with no end in sight, and with MBS blaming “rogue elements” in the security establishment for the Khashoggi killing and seeking the death penalty as punishment, there may be little incentive to side with the crown prince should a palace coup take place.

“Loyalty is not a given,” says Mr. Riedel. “If you are in the royal guard or intelligence services and you see the crown prince is throwing you under the bus, that is not going to help maintain loyalty.”

With Bin Salman’s campaign of kidnapping and arresting rivals, many observers warn that dissenters may have already been permanently sidelined.

“Despite the concerns over the US relationship, it may already be a missed opportunity,” says Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a DC-based analytics firm specializing in the Gulf. “He has removed so many of his critics and he has intimidated the population so much that his regime seems to be rather bullet-proof right now.”

Old Saudi vs. New Saudi

Should the headwinds of a challenge to MBS gather, another potential wrinkle may throw the potential game of thrones into a free fall: the prince’s forging and stoking of Saudi nationalism.

Since becoming de facto ruler, MBS has steered Saudi Arabia away from decades-old use of Arab ties and its Islamic credentials as custodian of Mecca and Medina to promote its interests, instead forging an inward-looking and at times extreme nationalism.

Most importantly, MBS crafted the image of a strongman who broke the bindings of tradition and “drained” the Saudi swamp of corruption with his mass lockups of influential businessmen and princes.

It was a carefully calculated political move. More than 50 percent of Saudis are under the age of 25 and over 60 percent under the age of 30; the crown prince is decades closer in age to the average Saudi than his septuagenarian uncles.

Saudi insiders and observers say Bin Salman has bet his future reign on the forging of a new pillar of support among disenfranchised young Saudis, allowing him to run roughshod over the traditional pillars of the Saudi establishment: the royal family, Wahabi religious authorities, and even tribes.

By addressing youths’ concerns in education and jobs, attracting investment, opening cinemas, and allowing women to drive, Bin Salman cultivated personal loyalty in a top-down nationalism, one that he can wield to isolate any dissenters as “enemies of the state” and head off any potential rival.

“Before we were a country based on tribal and Islamic ties where we were connected to the region; now we are a paranoid country where many people think we are under threat everywhere we turn, and all their problems will be solved by this one ‘strong leader,’ ” says a Saudi observer who did not wish to be named due to security concerns.

“It is as if we are living in Russia or North Korea – no one knows how to navigate this but the crown prince.”

It is difficult to gauge the crown prince’s popularity in the opaque kingdom, but average Saudis are adamant he is truly popular at home.

“Today there is a new Saudi Arabia molded around King Salman and his son MBS – the kingdom and the crown prince are very well tied together, and these bonds cannot be undone easily,” says Mr. Cafiero.

Enemies in high places

Yet the prince has made few allies and reportedly several enemies among traditional power centers in the kingdom, where citizens have traditionally had little influence over policy decisions.

Businessmen who were once eager to work with the crown prince on his Vision 2030 modernization plan for Saudi Arabia have soured after the 2017 lockup and alleged shakedown of prominent businessmen of billions of dollars.

Intermediaries say Saudi religious leaders, who are closely monitored by the regime at home and abroad, are becoming increasingly resentful over rapid social liberalization – particularly the introduction of cinemas and plans to open the country to tourism – without their consultations.

“We certainly know that MBS has alienated a number of important social actors,” says F. Gregory Gause, professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University. “While he has projected himself as a champion of the youth, we know he has alienated large swathes of the business community and religious community.”

Should these forces still hold influence in Saudi Arabia, they could prove to be the difference-maker in whether Bin Salman remains or is removed.

“Being crown prince does not automatically make you king,” Professor Gause warns. “In Saudi Arabia, you are always the heir presumptive, not heir apparent.”

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