There is little doubt that Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) is flying pretty high inside the kingdom. Since his father, King Salman is largely out of the picture because of ill-health, MbS is the de facto ruler. He has also locked up all his rivals, real and imaginary, in prisons or eliminated them altogether.
Under such circumstances, it may be tempting to assume that he is assured a smooth ride to the throne once his ailing father dies. What could possibly go wrong for the upstart crown prince? He is the country’s defence minister, head of the royal court as well as the economic czar. Almost everyone of any significance in the medieval kingdom reports to him directly, whether it is officials from the interior ministry or the Mukhabarat (intelligence agency).
This, however, is not the complete picture. According to well-informed sources, there is deep disquiet in the royal family. MbS has demolished all the pillars upon which Bani Saud rule was erected and had served them well. He took on the religious establishment and has arrested most of the prominent ulama and even had them killed under torture.
Sheikh Musa al-Qarni died in prison under mysterious circumstances last October. There are reports that he was tortured. Sheikh Salman al Awdah, another prominent scholar, continues to languish in prison facing a death sentence. His family members say they have not been allowed to visit him for many months and the regime is denying him medication.
Sheikh Saleh Al-Maghamsi, imam of the ancient Quba mosque, was not only dismissed from his job but also prohibited from travelling outside the kingdom. What was his ‘crime’ that forced such drastic action against him when Al-Maghamsi was known to be a staunch supporter of MbS? In a tweet at the end of March 2021, Al-Maghamsi had called for the release of inmates in order to limit the spread of Covid-19 in overcrowded jails. This was seen as veiled criticism of the kingdom’s burgeoning population of political prisoners.
Bin Salman’s real challenge, however, will come from inside the royal family. As long as the king is alive—even if he is comatose—the other royals do not want to make a move against him. Despite MbS’ drastic action against potential rivals in the family, the senior royals still abide by some decorum. Unlike MbS, they continue to respect the family tradition of deferring to seniors. But once king Salman is gone, the situation will change.
There are plenty of senior Saudi princes seething with anger at the manner in which MbS has humiliated them. These include Prince Ahmed bin Abd al-Aziz, a full brother of King Salman and part of the Sudeiri Seven. There are also Prince Muqrim and Prince Talal, half-brothers of the king. The Saudi constitution, for all it’s worth, says that upon the king’s death or incapacitation, the brother next in line will ascend the throne.
MbS, of course, does not subscribe to this view. His ruthless ambition is likely to lead him to take more reckless action. Prince Ahmed is already in prison as are a number of MbS’ cousins. These include Prince Mutib bin Abdallah, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef as well as other princes. MbS is in a desperate race to consolidate his hold on power so that no rival would have a chance to challenge him at home.
Yet there are two external challenges that he faces: the disastrous war on Yemen raging since March 2015 and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. While MbS is desperately trying to end the war on Yemen with some face-saving formula, the Ansar-Allah revolutionaries are in no mood to let him off the hook so easily.
They want to hold him accountable for all the death and destruction he has wrought upon the poorest country in the Middle East. And with the passage of time, the Ansar-Allah fighters are developing more sophisticated missile and drone technology that enables them to hit military targets deep inside the kingdom. The war on Yemen is the sole responsibility of MbS. As defence minister, he launched the war in the mistaken belief that it would be over in a matter of weeks if not sooner.
Khashoggi’s gruesome murder has also hung around his neck like an albatross. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan has much to do with it although his proposed visit to the kingdom this month may put this issue to rest. This, however, will not ease pressure on MbS given his direct role in Khashoggi’s murder that even the CIA fingered him for. He is a pariah in most Western capitals and did not show up for the G20 or COP26 summits. He had no assurances that US President Joe Biden would meet or shake hands with him.
How long will the Americans keep him at bay is not certain. Their financial interests would soon override their concern for Khashoggi even if he was residing in the US and contributed a regular column to the Washington Post. The real question is whether MbS can visit Washington or New York and not be confronted by pointed questions from the media about his role in the Khashoggi murder (Khashoggi’s body has never been found and it is widely believed that after strangling him to death, it was chopped up and dissolved in acid).
Once the king dies, it cannot be discounted that the more senior royals might mount a challenge to MbS. It could turn into a royal mess. The imprisoned Mohammad bin Nayef was interior minister for many years and had cultivated close connections with American and Western intelligence agencies. Might they not want to exact revenge from MbS for such shabby treatment of one of their favourite Saudi royals?
Mutib bin Abdallah was head of the National Guard and inherited this position from his father. Among the Bani Saud, power, like disease, is transmitted sexually. Thus, MbS became defence minister because his father held this post before becoming king. Mohammad bin Nayef’s father Prince Nayef was interior minister for many decades and so on.
The solution to the Western-imposed family is not to choose between Bani Saud members. Rather, Muslims worldwide should be working to get rid of this corrupt family altogether because they occupy the two holiest sites in Islam: Makkah and al-Madinah, popularly known as Haramain al-Sharifain. They are the common heritage of the entire Muslim Ummah, not the personal property of a family of bandits.