Summary: Turki bin Salman is the quiet money man, the consigliere, in the family business of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his star is rising as the already immense fortune of Salman’s immediate family continues to grow and grow.
We thank Christopher Davidson for today’s newsletter. He is an expert on the comparative politics of the Gulf states and was previously a reader at Durham University and an assistant professor at Zayed University, Dubai. The author of several books focussed on the Gulf, Christopher’s most recent, published last year is From Sheikhs to Sultanism: Statecraft and Authority in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (London: Hurst & Co., 2021.) He is a regular contributor to the newsletter. His latest AD podcast Putin’s war plays well for MENA authoritarians is available here.
Unveiled earlier this year, the prominent new mural inside Riyadh’s Al-Yamamah Palace — the seat of the Saudi Royal Court — seems worthy of comment. Though depicting King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud in the centre, with the omnipresent Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman Al-Saud, a.k.a. ‘MbS’ predictably on his right, it features the far less prominent Prince Turki bin Salman Al-Saud on his left.
Within Saudi Arabia, news of the mural has certainly stoked the debate over the most probable line of succession in the event of the 86-year-old king’s eventual passing. Notably, increasingly forthright suggestions are being made that a future ‘King MbS’ might be willing (or might have been asked by his parents) to appoint Turki as his heir apparent. On paper, such a scenario isn’t particularly implausible, nor even controversial: MbS’s own sons are nowhere near old enough for such a role, and — following MbS — Turki is the next eldest of the de facto new ruling branch of the Al-Saud: the sons of Fahda bin Falah Al-Hathleen (King Salman’s much discussed third wife).
In some respects, however, the rumour mill might be missing the point, or at least the biggest development. After all, ‘Riyadhology’-style crown prince-guessing seems likely to end up in a holding pattern, especially if an increasingly sultanistic MbS proves strong enough to delay substantially any appointment until he is able to position better one of his own sons. In this sense, he will be taking another leaf out of Muhammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, (MbZ)’s book, where everyone in Abu Dhabi’s innermost sanctum is patiently waiting until MbZ’s favoured son Khalid has enough clout to see off any of his uncles.
Instead, the mural is perhaps better understood as another layer of evidence indicating that it is actually Turki, rather than any of Fahda’s ostensibly higher profile sons, who has emerged as MbS’s right-hand man. Indeed, though Fahda’s third eldest, Khalid bin Salman Al-Saud, is deputy minister for defence (and was earlier ambassador to the United States), and her fourth eldest, Bandar bin Salman Al-Saud is commander of the Royal Bodyguard unit (and is responsible for both King Salman and MbS’s personal security), it appears that Turki has not only quietly assumed control over the family’s private fortunes, but is also being discreetly positioned as one of the kingdom’s most important foreign investment interlocutors.
Notably, Turki is understood to have already taken over the management of King Salman’s personal real estate portfolio, serving as guarantor and being associated with several of the entities owning King Salman’s various overseas properties. Meanwhile, having moved on from a short stint as chair of the Saudi Research and Media Group, by the time of MbS’s first major appointments in 2015, Turki was fully at the helm of the Al-Tharawat (trans. ‘treasures’) Private Investment Holding Company. Though founded back in 2008, the Salman-linked company appeared to have been repurposed to support (or exploit, depending on one’s perspective) MbS’s post-oil diversification masterplan, launched in January 2016 as the National Transformation Programme (as part of the renowned ‘Saudi Vision 2030’). Significantly, the NTP has been heavily focused on supporting private sector growth in strategic areas, with a target of boosting private sector GDP contributions from 40 to 65 percent.
In this context, Turki’s Al-Tharawat had begun to expand rapidly, being increasingly referred to in Saudi Arabia as a sharikat takatul (trans. ‘conglomerate corporation’), and initially being compared to some of the biggest Gulf merchant family-owned companies in Dubai and Bahrain (including the Al-Futtaim Group, the Al-Ghurair Group, and the Kanoo Group). Known to have invested in a number of straightforward and NTP-friendly domestic real estate, construction, agricultural, medical, and IT projects, Al-Tharawat was however also being linked to a more contentious series of Saudi air industry investments.
Back in 2014, for example, Al-Tharawat had already acquired a majority stake in a small Dubai-based bank (with Turki taking over as chairman), which had then gone on to serve as one of two placement agents for a new shariah-compliant aircraft leasing fund. In turn the fund had solicited a $100 million investment from Airbus on the condition it would purchase 50 Airbus aircraft and then lease them to Saudi Arabia’s national carrier, Saudia (thus representing about a third of Saudia’s fleet size). Holding a signing ceremony in London, Turki formally announced the fund’s launch, and in June 2015 MbS stated at the Paris Air Show that the leasing deal had been finalised, claiming he had been its ‘mastermind’. Significantly, the arrangement soon generated opprobrium (including rare implicit criticism of the ascendant MbS), on the basis that prior to King Salman’s succession there had been a separate more state-centric plan for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to purchase Airbus aircraft directly on behalf of Saudia (for more on the Airbus story see our 30 June newsletter.)
In this broader context, rather than comparing Turki and Al-Tharawat’s activities to those of the merchant family-owned conglomerates, observers both inside and outside Saudi Arabia have instead begun likening the situation to Bahrain’s Premier Group (which is owned by Bahrain’s Royal Court and is understood to manage King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa’s private domestic and international investments), and to some extent Abu Dhabi’s Royal Group — which under Tahnun bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s leadership is seen by some as representing the private business interests of MbZ and his other full brothers. Either way, Turki is clearly MbS’s money man.