King Salman’s appointment of his son Mohammed bin Salman to replace Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince on June 21 was widely expected. What was a de facto situation was given official cover. The king’s favorite son has been the public face of Saudi Arabia since Salman’s accession as king in January 2015. Not surprisingly, the sycophantic Saudi media went into a frenzy proclaiming the non-existent virtues of the young prince. Had the king appointed a camel as crown prince, the Saudi media would have found merit in that as well.
Extremely arrogant, Bin Salman is likely to cause more disasters to the Kingdom, which is already reeling from several (of his) policy failures. The war on Syria since 2011 is going nowhere; the Yemeni war launched by Bin Salman as defence minster was meant to bolster his credentials. Instead, it has exposed his incompetence as well as that of the Saudi armed forces despite massive superiority in weapons. If causing mass starvation and destruction of the poorest country in the Muslim East are the hallmarks of “success,” then Bin Salman can be considered to be extremely “successful.” This, however, is barbarism of the worst kind. And the father-son duo has compounded their woes by taking on tiny Qatar, almost blowing up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
With such a record of failures, Bin Salman should have been fired. He wears his failures as a badge of honor. Besides, his father had already set his mind on making him the future king. There is speculation that Salman would abdicate in his son’s favor thereby ensuring a “smooth transition.” The Kingdom’s internal dynamics may not be so amenable.
The big question is: why now? Bin Salman’s numerous failures notwithstanding, the reason for his elevation can be found in US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia (May 20–22, 2017). This was projected as the crowning achievement of the Kingdom, more specifically of Bin Salman who has cultivated close links with Trump as well as his Jewish-Zionist son-in-law Jared Kushner. That such friendship has come at a huge price — $350 billion to be forked out to the Americans over a 10-year period — is considered a small price.
Even the Israelis are elated at Bin Salman’s appointment. On June 22, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz publicly called for inviting Bin Salman to Tel Aviv and sending Benjamin Netanyahu to Riyadh to establish diplomatic relations. This possibility cannot be discounted since the two regimes have already announced plans to establish economic relations. It would be a small step for full diplomatic ties.
These external props may not be sufficient to weather the internal storm that is bound to erupt once Salman is dead. Members of the Saudi clan are ruthlessly ambitious. Hitherto, they have deferred to the decisions of the elders — sons of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz — but this may not hold true for the next generation. In the official announcement, the royal decree said 31 out of 34 members of the Allegiance Council had endorsed Bin Salman’s appointment without explaining why Bin Nayef was removed as crown prince and interior minister. How can we be sure the Allegiance Council’s vote is accurately reflected? Besides, the army of Saudi royals would demand their share in the Kingdom’s spoils. Their fathers had played an equal if not greater role in propping up the Kingdom by maintaining clan solidarity.
Bin Salman’s uncles and thousands of cousins would raise the issue of his policy failures. If hitherto Bani Saud have maintained clan solidarity, it was precisely out of fear that everyone would lose if things fell apart. This argument cuts both ways. If Bin Salman’s policies pile up more disasters — and there is no reason to believe they will not given his failures so far — the other clan members will not remain silent. They will demand his removal before he destroys everything.
A possible scenario would be to push Bin Salman out as king but the question of succession will loom large. Given the stakes, everyone would maintain that he is most qualified to take over. Clan warfare is bound to erupt and it is safe to assume it would be a messy and ugly affair.
Once the bloodletting and throat slitting ends, there may not be much left of the Bani-Saud clan. We can’t wait for that day!
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).