Summary: troubles continue to mount for both Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi people. Biden moves fast to distance himself from MBS in his dealings with the Kingdom; signs a “soft coup” against MBS may be progressing. Login or Register To Unlock The Content!
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9 thoughts on “MBS’s travails mount”
‘Bin Salman’s scramble following Biden’s win to lift the blockade on Qatar, form a new Yemen government in preparation for superimposed talks, and release of Loujain al Hathloul suggests that for all Bin Salman’s overwhelming dominance over the kingdom’s institutions, he still believes Biden can threaten his hopes to remain in power. It also suggests that he feared more would emerge from the Khashoggi announcement and that Biden might impose sterner consequences that would undermine Bin Salman.
Bin Salman is relieved that the conclusion (thus far) appears to be that Biden settled for a PR exercise whereby he presented his administration to his domestic audience and European allies as being a break from Trump (in so far as human rights are concerned), without compromising relations with Gulf allies (UAE, Egypt, and others) who would have felt further alienated that Biden would target such high-ranking leadership directly at a time in which there remain questions over US commitment to their security (in light of revival of Iran talks).
No one believes it is beyond Washington to oust Bin Salman and replace him. The aversion to do so suggests that while the Crown Prince is lambasted in the media, there is enough about him to suggest he will be useful to Biden’s aims.
It is also worth noting that Aljazeera’s establishing of the new right wing channel ‘Rightly’ betrays a wider assessment in the Gulf that Biden is not guaranteed a second term, and that while the next four years might be turbulent for Riyadh, there is a chance the mood can flip 180 again. Bin Salman is happy to keep his head down until then.
This is a comment from a friend who knows the Middle East well and who lived and worked in Riyadh more than eight years, though he is no longer there.
“Ahmed is in play only because he is the surviving son of Abdelaziz.
He was not respected by the younger generation of princes because he was known for being totally lazy and unreliable. He would come to work only in the afternoon. Always late to meetings and diplomatic receptions by several hours. He was consumed by making money.
He could become a figurehead king for a coalition of powerful princes but only that. He has no ambition of his own.
Brit talk of coups is amusingly antiquated.
MbS has such a complete control of all security services no coalition of princes will ever dare to try to replace him. And he is immensely popular with the youth who care little about politics or political prisoners.
The Biden crowd will try to make MbS’s life uncomfortable but they will avoid any thing that would lead to destabilize the kingdom.
Change will most likely come only thru an unexpected sudden death.”
End of friend’s comment.
For what it’s worth, I have never spoken with a US government official who either believes it is the US role to shape Saudi succession, nor within US power to shape Saudi succession. As Jake Sullivan made clear in a conversation with me in June ( https://www.csis.org/events/online-event-us-grand-strategy-middle-east), he thinks the Saudi leadership should consider the impacts of its decisions on the bilateral relationship, but that is different form asserting the US can or should make decisions for the Saudis.
I share Richard Luce’s view of MBS. But if MBS went, would Trump’s great Peace Initiative survive? Would the Alliance between Israel and the conservative Arab States remain intact? Netanyahu, the Murdoch Press and many of Biden’s core supporters would be deeply unhappy and I suspect will already be lobbying furiously to set limits to the new Administration’s scope for re-setting US Middle East policies. Is Biden the man to take them on? It would be a brave new world.
An interesting piece, as ever; thank you.
The Huthis may have fired at Abha Airport for four days running, but most weapons seem to have been interdicted before they could hit. One appears to have hit the underside of a parked aircraft and caused a fire.
On the wider piece, I would hope that wiser heads than mine had gamed three central courses of action:
a) who is the best successor – Prince Ahmed is unlikely to survive long, nor likely minded to deliver the type of changes KSA will need to survive;
b) what happens to MbS if / when he is out of power – a soft landing is more likely to achieve a soft coup than a jail cell / familial revenge;
c) what to do in the event of MbS’s logical counter-stroke – deposing his father and becoming sovereign / immune.
Prince Ahmed is 78 years old so if he were to become king he may not be on the throne for long. Who he would choose to be his crown prince and successor is an open question but it seems unlikely MBN would be restored to power due to his ill health and historical enmity between Ahmed and MBN’s late father Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz. Regarding the fate of MBS, the royal family are certain to seek revenge against him for what he has done to them and would never accept him being allowed a “soft exit”. He oversaw their torture and humiliation in the Ritz at the hands of commoners such as Saud Al Qahtani, an unforgivable offence. The only reason the royal family has not taken its revenge already is because they have not been able to.
Regarding the suggestion that MbS might depose his father and become King himself, this appears to be a strategic move because as you note it would offer him a degree of immunity. There is no publicly known reason why MBS could not do this at any time and indeed he might do. One could argue that it is a strategic error on his part that he has not done so already. However, given the magnitude of MBS’s political slide even if he were to declare himself king today it would probably look like little more than political theatre and would not suffice to salvage his toxic international brand – and that is before the Khashoggi report comes out.
Whilst we would all like to see the removal of MBS, are we really still in an age when the US can use its imperial power to remove a foreign leader? If so how would they achieve this? Thank you for your excellent reports.
The US exercises enormous influence over the Saudis although as we noted in our posting of 27 January historically it has avoided using it in internal family affairs. But the coup that President Biden appears to be laying the ground for is so soft, and would require such little input from the US while finding so much support from within the royal family, as well as from many other influential actors inside the country, that there would not have to be any US fingerprints on it or subsequent allegations about imperial power being used for regime change. All he has to do is call for the full release of all political prisoners which is what he is already doing. The key however is to ensure the freedom and security of the top members of Al Saud who are currently in prison – Princes Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, Mohammed bin Nayef, Turki bin Abdullah and others. If they are set free – completely free and able to operate anywhere inside and outside the country, not just subject to a conditional release and the threat of rearrest like Loujain Al Hathloul – events would very soon take on a life of their own with no further need for any outside intervention. The royal family would rally around Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz and then they could simply issue a statement saying that King Salman is not fit to rule and that he and MBS should be removed. Senior royal family members would then give bay’ah to Ahmed bin Abdulaziz who would become King, and MBS would be deprived of all his authority. Every tribe and other kind of authority in the Kingdom would then also shift its allegiance to Ahmed bin Abdulaziz. The Saudi security apparatus would see no reason to intervene in these circumstances as they are loyal to the royal family, not to MBS personally. Even if Biden has absolutely no intention whatsoever of removing MBS, if he pushes him to release these political prisoners in this way then a coup is still likely to happen because the royal family has suffered so immensely under MBS.
This is an excellent report, and so well timed as we try to understand what will happen in Saudi Arabia, now with the changing US attitude from President Biden. It is very hard to see who would be a credible replacement for MbS, given the capacity of the Saudi Royal family to close ranks against outside influence. Ahmed maybe as a stop gap, MbN surely not. I agree with Richard Luce by implication, the best route for change is from within the Saudi Royal Family, as opaque as ever in its decision making.