EghtesadOnline: Saudi Arabia has never been a democracy but for several decades it’s been governed by a loose consensus among an extended royal family. Not, it seems, anymore.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, one step away from the throne, has emerged as the dominant figure in the desert kingdom. He controls almost all the levers of government, from the Defense Ministry to the central bank and the oil giant Aramco, which bankrolls the country. The 31-year-old has announced radical plans to sell state businesses, cut the public payroll and step up a regional power struggle against Iran, Bloomberg reported.
“This is a concentration of power in the hands of one person that is unprecedented since King Faisal took power in the early 1960s,” said Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs and Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University. He describes the arrangement that’s prevailed since then as a “committee of senior princes, with the king as first among equals.”
That system “is now over,” Gause said.
Late One Night
The prince’s decisive push to power came late one night in June, in an abrupt shake-up that made him heir to his father King Salman’s throne. In Riyadh, rumors are widespread that the final step could come sooner rather than later; that the king, now 81, could abdicate as soon as September’s hajj pilgrimage, ensuring his son’s succession.
Saudi officials say the New York Times story is baseless; that bin Nayef wasn’t pressured to step aside or placed under house arrest. But many diplomats and elite Saudis say they’re inclined to believe it. Several said they wondered why the royal court hadn’t published new images or videos of the prince since then, if the news wasn’t true.
The change of succession was supported by 31 of 34 members of the Allegiance Council, an advisory body to the king.
Still, “it’s really difficult to tell how much disquiet there is within the royal family,” over bin Salman’s rapid ascent, said Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in London.
“If one was a disgruntled prince, one would probably not take many risks,” she said. “If someone who was as powerful as Mohammed bin Nayef, with his western backing and his support within the Interior Ministry, can be cast out overnight, then nobody else can be 100 percent sure.”
The rise of bin Salman doesn’t necessarily mean one-man rule, according Joseph Kéchichian, senior fellow at Riyadh’s King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. He said Prince Mohammed will have no alternative but to delegate some powers.
“Traditionally you had a variety of positions that were entrusted to the members of the ruling family,” he said. “This will continue in the future."
For the crown prince known as MBS, consolidating power may depend on the success of his policy agenda: economic reform at home,and a more assertive stance abroad. Neither has delivered immediate results.
The traditionally cautious kingdom has become mired in regional disputes. The war in Yemen, launched by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in March 2015, has proved costly and remains deadlocked. A more recent dispute with Gulf neighbor Qatar has drawn outside powers into the region, and not on the Saudi side: Turkey based troops in Qatar, and Iran provided food.
At home, bin Salman enjoys advantages including an ability to connect with the kingdom’s youthful population “in ways the older generation cannot,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “Fulfilling expectations, particularly in terms of social and economic prospects, is the key.”
If Prince Mohammed becomes king, he’ll be Saudi Arabia’s seventh but the first who wasn’t a son of the nation’s founder, Ibn Saud. Under previous monarchs there were usually senior princes who controlled key ministries or provinces, and were consulted on most policy decisions. They were considered rulers of their own fiefdoms, and could block moves they didn’t like.
“Now all the veto players are gone,” said Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics, a writer on government and oil in Saudi Arabia. “MBS is much less risk-averse than any of his predecessors, which has made it easier to break old taboos. This is necessary for social and economic reform. But it also has led to risky decisions that would probably not have happened in the past.”