The power struggle in Saudi Arabia has been become increasingly intense since reports began appearing that King Salman Al Saud is preparing to step down, handing over the throne to his son Minister of Defense, Mohammad Al Saud, while bypassing the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, which is a direct violation of the Saudi succession tradition. The king’s son is a Deputy Crown Prince and he would have taken the throne after the Crown Prince, if traditions were to be observed. However, Mohammed bin Nayef still has a good chance of becoming a king, if the position of “Deputy Crown Prince” is abolished, since it was introduced a short while ago, during the reign of King Abdullah Al Saud, who died within months of introducing this change back in 2015.
Sources in neighboring states are hinting that King Salman has tried to obtain the approval of the succession board to bypass Mohammed bin Nayef in the line of succession. Yet, members of the board, most of which are elder princes and king’s close relatives, are considered far too conservative to agree on breaking with tradition regarding succession of the throne, although some of them did agree to do so allegedly for “the best interests of the state.”
But a draw is not nearly good enough, the chances are slim for king Salman without an overwhelming majority of votes approving this plan. Under these circumstances, rumors have begun circulating in Riyadh that there’s a coup d’etat in the making, with King Salman declaring himself “father of the King” and appointing his son the new king without the approval of the succession board. There’s good reasons to believe that this scenario will be executed long before February is over, even if this course of events is highly undesirable for the Al Saud dynasty, but there’s a strong chance that without this step a disintegration of the Saudi kingdom may soon follow, with the Shia minority launching a revolt and no money to be found in the treasury due to a long run of low oil prices.
The situation is spiraling out of control so fast that there’s been preparations for the resignation of the Saudi Minister of Petroleum Ali Al-Naimi, who is to be used as a scapegoat for propaganda purposes. To a certain degree this decision was influenced by the recent statement of Russia’s Energy Minister Alexander Novak, who stated that Saudi Arabia and OPEC agreed to negotiate a 5% production cut with Russia. The next week both OPEC and Riyadh renounced this statement as false. We are being told that there has been no agreement whatsoever and the level of production of crude oil will remain the same. But oil prices have already gone up while the ruble has begun to fight back against the dollar. Here’s where Washington intervened, sending a harsh warning to Saudi Arabia, reminding it that it is demanded to carry on dropping prices even further. This is understandable, because if Moscow is going to dodge the bullet one more time, forcing a sanction lift, the United States in the coming years will stand no chance in consolidating the West against Russia, while aiming at its most sensible weak spots – oil and gas exports. And America analysts seem to be convinced that the Russian economy is on its last legs and will collapse before the end of the year, undermining the approval that the sitting government in the Kremlin has been enjoying, which is a strategic goal of Washington.
Saudi Arabia along with a number of other Persian Gulf monarchies have been pretty angry with Moscow for its continuous support of the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria and its cooperation with Iran.
Americans are poking Saudi officials on the daily basis, while insisting that the Saudi Kingdom should be dropping prices no matter what. There’s enough sane politicians in the kingdom who realize that they’ve been undermining the very foundation of their own state, along with hurting Russia and Iran. But to date, US influence has been too strong in Riyadh, especially in a situation where there’s a strong American lobby with access to the highest political ranks, even if those lobbyists don’t occupy any official position like the notorious Prince Bandar.
So it’s no coincidence that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has recently interrupted his stay abroad and urgently returned to the Kingdom Saudi Arabia (KSA). It can be interpreted that he’s prepared for a fight for the throne, while being backed by a “certain world power”, and it’s not Russia for sure.
In this situation, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has paid a visit to the region in an attempt to persuade the GCC countries to influence the Syrian opposition, whose members have been residing in Geneva for days, without any attempts to start negotiation with the delegation from Damascus, all while saying a lot of unpleasant things about Moscow. Why would opposition representatives go to Switzerland, if they can make rude remarks from pretty much anywhere? And, there’s little doubt that Foreign Minister Lavrov will try to reach an agreement with the GCC states to stop dropping oil prices and remind them that they’ve promised to make some serious investments in Russia’s economy.
That’s a step in the right direction for sure, but one should clearly understand that to get money from the GCC, Russia would be forced to make a number of concessions, especially in regards to Syria. But Moscow is not going to “surrender” Bashar al-Assad or even cease its airstrikes in Syria, even for a day. If it does, radical terrorist groups will have enough time to redeploy and resupply their forces, consequently launching an assault, which will include putting Turkish, Saudi and Qatari special forces to good use, pushing back the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad to their previous positions. In this situation, nothing will be able to save Damascus from defeat. Squeezing Moscow out of the region, with empty promises is too much for the GCC to expect success in.
History teaches us one simple fact: Russia is being heard when it’s attacking, not when it’s making concessions.
As for the change of power in Saudi Arabia, there’s little doubt that Mohammad Al Saud has an upper hand in this face-off, since he’s enjoying the support of all the nation’s armed forces and the National Guard, while the Crown Prince has only police units at his disposal. The absolute majority of the nation’s ministers are also siding with Mohammad Al Saud and there’s a very good reason for that – King Salman has carried out a cabinet reshuffle in April-May 2015, even though it displeased some powerful clans across the country.
There is, however, another factor that many observers may overlook. It’s the position of the leaders of tribal groups and clan that can influence the situation “on the ground”. Their opinion cannot be ignored. Especially the tribal union of Shammar that resides in the northern and north-western parts of the country. This tribal union is led by the dynasty of the Al Rashid, who ruled this region until 1924. The powerful Al Rashid could have become the royal family back in the days when Saudi Arabia was created, but London opted for a more complaisant Al Saud clan. For now those tribal leaders have kept quiet, observing events in Riyadh. But we know one thing is for sure, none of them are profiting from the continuous decline in oil prices, therefore they are extremely dissatisfied with King Salman and his family.
In any case, the endgame is near. The main thing is to avoid the disintegration of the kingdom, which will immediately affect the entire situation in the region where Iraq is literally falling apart and Bahrain is on the edge of a Shia revolution. And all this is occurring against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Syria, Yemen and the growing list of conflicts between Riyadh and Tehran. Iran is closer to creating a “Shia arc” than it has ever been. That’s the worst nightmare the GCC countries could imagine.
Alexander Orlov, political scientist and expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”