Now that the initial wave of disputes over the major overhaul of Saudi government that occurred on April 29 settled down, one can take a closer look at what these changes can actually mean for the future of the region. As you must already know, early in the morning on April 29 Saudi media sources started distributing an urgent message that Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has been deposed as “second to the king”, allegedly on “his own request”, while Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was appointed Crown Prince along with retaining his post of the Minister of Interior. At the same time he became the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, that is traditionally headed by the monarch, along with getting the position of chairman of the new Council for Political and Security Affairs. The position of Deputy Crown Prince, that was previously occupied by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, took king’s son Mohammed bin Salman, while retaining the post of Defense Minister and the second deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. He will also chair the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
The problem is that these two figures are not sons of the founder of Saudi kingdom King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, they are grandchildren. Thus, by forcing Abdulaziz’s son Muqrin to step down, King Salman has broken the tradition of transfer of power from brother to brother. It means that once King Salman perishes the throne will be inherited by the third generation of heirs of Al Saud, that are significantly younger that the representatives of the second generation. Crown Prince is “only” 55 years old, while his deputy is considerably younger – he’s in his 30’s.
Another important point is that those princes head security departments, therefore Saudi royal family members are hinted that any protests against the latests royal decrees will be suppressed by brute force. Quite expectedly, some political figures have already expressed their dissatisfaction with the fact that the Deputy Crown Prince is not just king’s son, he’s the youngest Defense Minister in Saudi history.
In addition, the appointed Crown Prince is known as an ardent fighter against all terrorism in general and Al-Qaeda in particular, since he has barely survived an attempted assassination orchestrated by the members of this group. This fact is of crucial importance, since all the previous security officials were known for their ties with international terrorist organizations. Moreover, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, a director general of Saudi intelligence from 1977 to 2001, is considered to be the founder of the Mujahideen movement that was brought up to fight Soviets troops in Afghanistan. He is also believed to be the mastermind of the rise of Chechen militants that caused a lot of troubles to Russia in mid 90’s. On March 16, 2015, Prince Turki in an interview with the BBC made a blatant statement that Saudi Arabia may abandon its nuclear-free status if the “mediator” will fail in persuading Iran to ban uranium enrichment.
As for another former security official – Prince Bandar, after spending 22 years as Saudi Arabia ambassador to Washington, in 2005 he became the General Secretary of National Security Council, and in just seven years the head of Saudi intelligence. It is no coincidence that his appointment was followed by a wave of “color revolutions” in the Arab world, along with the creation of such terrorist groups as the ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra. He was actively encouraging extremism in the Russian North Caucasus, including the organization of the terrorist attacks in Volgograd on the very eve of Sochi Olympics. He made an attempt to blackmail and later bribe Russia so it would abandon its support of Syria and Iran.
Apparently, Riyadh is going to finally turn its back on terrorist organizations in order to achieve its political goals by more conventional means.
The appointment of two young princes as heirs to the throne has also confirmed that the Sudairi branches of the royal family are gaining more strength. Al-Sudairi – is the powerful Arabian family that occupies an important position in the political system of Saudi Arabia due to its connections to the royal dynasty of Al Saud. Since 19th century Al Saud princes are marrying Al-Sudairi girls, so Sudairis gave birth to a great many of Saudi royal family members, even the founder of the Saudi kingdom Abdulaziz Ibn Saud was a son of a Sudairi. It is obvious that this change was hard to implement since the balance of powers between Saudi clans was ultimately broken by these appointments. The clan of the deceased King Abdullah, that has no connections with the Sudairi family, has lost most of it influence overnight.
Another landmark in the Saudi policy is the resignation of Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud that occupied the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1975, he was replaced by “a rising star of the Saudi diplomacy” Adel al-Jubeir. For the second time in Saudi history one of the key positions is occupied by a member “of the educated class” with no royal blood in his veins wahtsoever. It seems like a new trend – to promote offsprings of the wealthy educated families to the highest ranks of Saudi policy, since King Salman has allowed commoners to run ministers of labor, economy, planning, and public health. It is clear that Salman started infusing the political system of the country with fresh blood under the pressure of internal and external challenges, otherwise the state that is still run by the Wahhabi code of the 18th century will not last for long. But it will take some time before commoners will get any real political power.
The now reinforced government of Saudi Arabia, where all the power is consolidated in the hands of a single group, will have to face a long list of problems in foreign policy, domestic affairs and economic development. The first and foremost is in the need to distance itself from conflicts in Syria and Iraq, that Saudi Arabia had been fueling for a long time, along with stopping military aggression against Yemen without losing face in front of its Arab allies. King Salman will have to find a way of saving Egypt from total disintegration and collapse, while establishing normal relations with all the GCC partners. But what is even more important for the KSA well-being is the adoption of a new policy towards the United States, that is clearly determined to depart from the Middle East. Today Washington believes that is no longer bound by its obligations to protect Saudi Arabia anymore. In the nearest future Riyadh must attempt to seek reconciliation with Moscow, since its bilateral relations with Russia have hit an all time low due to a number of unfriendly and outright aggressive steps that Saudi authorities have made over the last decade. It’s no secret that without a strong partner there’s no survival for the KSA on the rapidly changing regional scene.
The primal internal goal is to maintain stability, which is badly shaken as a result of the Saudi aggression against Yemen, that is aggravated the Shiite population of the kingdom which amounts to 15% of the total population. It’s also about the time to stop dropping oil prices on the world markets, since Riyadh has lost tens of billions of dollars by selling short. As of now Saudi national economy has no means to compensate the deficit of 38 billion dollars that has made a big hole in the social budgets. The country that already had a significant number of unemployed and those living in poverty was forced to throw even more people onto the streets
All the above listed troubles can be addressed if King Salman continues showing political will. However, there is one relatively minor aspect that can jeopardize the whole grand plan – the possible confrontation between Crown Prince and his Deputy. One can not exclude such a possibility, since the king has offended a number of royal dynasty clans that may seek revenge in one form or another. Nothing is settled in the KSA, therefore Moscow can consider an option of providing assistance to Saudi Arabia, should its elites seek genuine reconciliation without any malicious intents.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”