If Saudi Arabia has seen several kings fall and rise throughout the decades, it is probably King Abdullah ibn Saud’s death this January 23, 2015 which will be most remembered by historians, as his departure marked more than just a transition of power; it rang the end of one mighty Saudi empire.
And though many experts continue to argue that the kingdom remains strong and united since the very thorny matter of royal succession was pre-emptively handled by late king Abdullah through the appointment of one crown prince and a deputy crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s court is alight with fiercely competitive and opposing ambitions.
Following two decades spent in the shadow of king Abdullah – the late king took over from late king Fahd in 1995 after a debilitating stroke left him unable to handle the affairs of the state – Saudi Arabia is stumbling in the shadows, looking of a new footing amid an increasingly unstable region.
If king Abdullah exerted many efforts in bringing the region to heed – at times rather successfully – 2011 came to shatter this sense of control, throwing in the wind the very political fabric upon which the Middle East and North Africa had sat upon and revolve around.
And though for a time at least king Abdullah’s policies in the MENA seemed to bear fruits — the kingdom successfully spearheaded counter-revolutions to shore up tyrannical regimes in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia as well as shielded his own backyard garden by invading and occupying Bahrain — inner political tensions and irresponsible foreign policies now threaten to unravel this house of card.
Born in the desert of Nejd at the turn of the 20th century, the mighty kingdom of Saudi Arabia which was built on the back of an the alliance in between the house of Saud and Mohammed Abdel Wahhab – the founding father of Wahhabism, a violent and acetic branch of Sunni Islam – over two centuries ago, could return to the sand.
If Washington was rather pleased to hear that king Salman’s first order of business was to elect his full nephew, prince Mohammed bin Nayef to deputy crown prince and minister of interior, thus opening the corridors of power to the next generation of royals, US officials have remained blind to the dangerous storm which is brewing in Riyadh over the “Sudeiri coup.”
King Salman’s rise to power and the nomination of his nephew, prince Mohammed bin Nayef, son to late prince Nayef, late king Abdullah’s former crown prince, laid bear very deep national and regional political fault-lines.
And though king Abdullah’s former crown prince now carries the much coveted title of Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, others, appear quite determined to if not shorten his reign, at least stifle it. Behind the smiles and the reassuring handshakes, king Salman has scrambled to counteract and disappear prince Muqrim’s ambitions, leader of what experts have dubbed “the opposition”.
Like his father before him, prince Mohammed bin Nayef has become a formidable power within the royal family. The son of one of the Sudeiri seven, bin Nayef carries with him the legacy of one of Al Saud’s most powerful faction.
But if king Salman ensured that his kin, his direct lineage would rule uncontested through a clever government reshuffle – upon assuming the crown king Salman issued over 30 decrees back to back promoting and demoting royals in an unprecedented shake up – it is such radical changes which have raised the kingdom’s temperature and even led regional powers to choose sides.
Widely believed to be the last capable son of Al Saud – all others, including king Salman suffer poor health - the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia, prince Muqrim has very different ideas when it comes to what direction the kingdom should take, starting with the very sensitive issue of power sharing.
Just as king Salman seeks to assert his clan’s footing in the kingdom, prince Muqrim has too worked to do the same.
And though this power struggle has for now remained confined, developments in the region have given interesting insights into the kingdom’s inner struggle. It was difficult for example this January to ignore the absence to king Abdullah’s funeral of United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Khalifa bin Zayed, his deputy Mohammed bin Rashid, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Openly opposed to prince Mohammed bin Nayef, UAE royals made sure that king Salman would heed their warning. As it happens it is the entire region which heard the underlying threat behind the snub.
The Sudeiri coup
Among Ibn Saud’s 35 sons, the most formidable family group is the Sudeiri Seven – after their mother Hassa Al Sudairi, who was said to be Ibn Saud’s favorite wife. By all accounts, they have resolutely strived to get to the throne and tenaciously hold on to it. And thus it came at a great surprise in 1982 to see Abdullah rise through the ranks to become then-king Fahd’s – the first Sudeiri monarch – appointed heir to the throne.
Consequently, king Abdullah’s uppermost priority after acceding to the throne in 2005, was establishing an allegiance council in April 2006 – which included all the factions of Ibn Saud’s family – that was principally designed as an effective instrument, enabling the monarch to counter the Sudairi’s block by galvanizing support from marginalized factions.
A keen strategist, king Abdullah understood that for the kingdom to endure and not fall victim to bitter infighting the Sudeiri’s brothers’ ambitions had to be curtailed. And though king Abdullah held true to his promise when he consecutively appointed Sudeiri princes — prince Sultan, prince Nayef and then finally prince Salman – at his succession, he did so with one key failsafe – he prevented the rise of prince Mohammed bin Nayef as direct heir to the throne by appointing prince Muqrim as his deputy crown prince.
All along, king Abdullah knew that should prince Salman became king, he would certainly name either his full brother prince Ahmed or far more likely prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince. And so in March 2014, king Abdullah took an unprecedented and highly controversial step of appointing prince Muqrim, the youngest of Ibn Saud’ sons as his second nominated heir, stripping prince Salman from his right to chose his own successor.
In retrospect, king Abdullah’s move might have been dictated by his desire to see his own son, prince Metab become Saudi Arabia’s next crown prince under prince Muqrim and thus secure his own lineage and legacy.
Somewhat of a pariah in Riyadh due to his Yemeni heritage, prince Muqrim was bound to return king Abdullah’s favor by paving the way for his nephew, prince Metab.
But king Abdullah’s drawn out illness came to provide prince Salman with a golden opportunity. As king Abdullah’s hold on power dwindled, the then-crown prince devised an emphatic Sudeiri comeback, exploiting prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s international friendship to rally support from western capitals.
And if for now at least king Salman has judged too risky to do away with his imposed crown prince, his decision to let go three key figures of late king Abdullah’s court — prince Bandar bin Sultan, Khalid al-Tuwaijri and prince Metab bin Abdullah — clearly set the tone.
Days within his reign, king Salman dealt a mighty blow to late king Abdullah’s next of kin, prince Metab by not only cutting his kinship dream by appointing a deputy crown prince, but by ripping through his powerbase.
Prince Metab was demoted from his position as the head of the special Royal National Guard and both his brothers, prince Mishaal, governor of Mecca and prince Turki governor of Riyadh were dismissed.
With the Sudeiri attempting such a comeback, hundreds of princes have been left feeling more than just a little resentful. With egos and ambitions set to clash over the crown, Saudi Arabia’s peaceful transition of power could make way from one violent unravelling.
Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.