Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) is like the monkey with a loaded gun: it will either blow its own brains out or those of others. His erratic policies and decisions are shaking the medieval kingdom to its core. Other members of the clan are worried that the ignorant brash prince will blow up everything bringing the kingdom built on sand upon them all.
With all the powers in his hands and being the sole decision-maker in the kingdom, it is surprising that MbS is still terrified of potential rivals. If stupidity had a name, it would be called Muhammad bin Salman (MbS). He is arrogant, impulsiveness and lacks any understanding of issues.
How does one explain the manner in which the crown prince arrested dozens of senior ‘royals’ last month? This was followed two weeks later by the arrest of nearly 300 security personnel. The detained princes—all much older than him—were accused of attempting to carry out a coup with the help of foreign powers. What ‘foreign powers’ was MbS referring to? Reports in the Saudi media left little doubt that the accusing finger was being pointed at the US, or more precisely the CIA.
The reason for MbS’ fear is that CIA had close links with Mohammad bin Nayef (MbN), the former crown prince, who was among those detained. The agency would have preferred him as the future king. MbN had for decades served under his father (Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz) when he was the interior minister. The son cultivated close links with American and British intelligence agencies during that time. He was their man in the kingdom and carried out the West’s agenda with ruthless efficiency.
In the medieval kingdom, important portfolios are allocated among the sons of Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder: foreign ministry was the personal domain of the Bin Faisals, National Guard of Bin Abdullahs, defence portfolio of the Bin Sultans etc. All other ‘bins’ have since been knocked off their perches and the Bin Salmans have grabbed those positions or given to more trusted men, since Salman became the king in January 2015.
The Bin Salmans and MbS in particular, have also grabbed all other levers of powers. He was appointed defence minister in January 2015 and soon thereafter launched the disastrous war on Yemen. Two years later, he became the crown prince, knocking off MbN, his more experienced cousin and many years his senior. MbS also serves as head of economic policy as well as manages Aramco, the huge Saudi oil company. The kingdom’s internal security is also under his control. There is hardly any facet of life that he does not control.
MbS is in charge of the royal court and acts as his father’s personal secretary. Further, he makes all decisions in the name of the king who is believed to be suffering from dementia and perhaps may even be in a coma. He has not only sidelined other princes but also arrested and brutalized them.
Take the latest wave of arrests based on allegations that they were plotting a coup. MbN was already under house arrest since November 2017. With all security personnel reporting directly to MbS, how could he organize a coup? Besides, all of MbN’s communications were and are closely monitored.
Thus, we must seek the reasons for MbS’ nervousness elsewhere. As long as Donald Trump is in the White House, he need not worry. But MbS’ dilemma is that he is not sure whether Trump will be in the Oval Office after the November presidential elections. The US economic meltdown following the coronavirus pandemic has further eroded Trump’s support. Whosoever wins the Democratic nomination—Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, the latter’s chances fast receding—will have a good shot at the presidency. If the Democrats win, the Saudis will be in for some rough times.
The arrests, especially of his uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abd al-Aziz (78) and cousin Muhammad bin Nayef (58), have much to do with MbS’ nervousness. Unless he becomes king before the King dies, his chances of ascending the throne would be in jeopardy. Prince Ahmed, full-brother of the king and last of the Sudairi-7 (they are from the same mother, Hassa bint Sudairi), has made no secret of his dislike of MbS. He refused to pledge allegiance when MbS was appointed crown prince. As member of the Bay‘a (Allegiance) Council, Prince Ahmed had actually opposed MbS becoming crown prince in June 2017 as well as spoken out against the disastrous war on Yemen.
Further, Prince Ahmed insists he is the rightful claimant to the throne after King Salman. He cites the Saudi ‘Constitution’ whose Chapter 2, Article 5, section b states: “Rule passes to the sons of Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, and to their children’s children. The most upright among them is to receive allegiance with the principles of the Holy Qur’an and the Tradition of the Venerable Prophet.”
So long as the sons of Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud are alive, MbS has no right to the throne. There are four sons of the kingdom’s founder still alive. Besides King Salman, there is the king’s full-brother Prince Ahmed, and half-brothers Prince Muqrin and Prince Talal (born to other wives of Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud who had 23 wives and sired 45 sons and 15 daughters).
Abd al-Aziz went to the grave leaving behind a royal mess in the form of an army of children. The few remaining children are in their late seventies or eighties but they have not lost their appetite for intrigue even if they all have one leg in the grave.
At 78, Prince Ahmed is still quite robust, hence his desire to become king. He makes a strong case based on the Saudi constitution, whatever it’s worth, to be more deserving of becoming the king when Salman dies which could be quite soon given his age and health condition. Besides, MbS is far from being upright although among the Bani Saud there is hardly anyone—young or old—that would qualify on this score.
Then there is MbN, who managed the interior ministry under his father’s long spell, and the person MbS replaced as crown prince in June 2017. He is still seen as a potential rival. While under house arrest since he was stripped of all powers and his stipend withdrawn, MbN appears to enjoy continued support in the interior ministry and with the security establishment. MbS has appointed his own men in top slots but he is not sure of the support and loyalty of other ranks.
MbN’s close links with American and British intelligence agencies when he was running the interior ministry clearly worries MbS. He fears that the rug could be pulled from under his feet given the way he has messed up things.
Both Prince Ahmed and MbN can also act as rallying points for other dissatisfied royals that view MbS’ erratic policies with alarm. They see the impulsive crown prince jeopardizing not only his own rule but that of the entire Bani Saud clan and the very survival of the kingdom.
Even more than the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, at the express orders of MbS, the disastrous war on Yemen is undermining his authority. He has tried to divert attention from it by organizing concerts and free mixing of men and women that would be unthinkable even a few years ago, but none of these gimmicks has helped.
There are rumors that MbS wants to become the king before the G20 summit in Riyadh in November 2020, regardless of whether his father is dead or alive. For all practical purposes the king is not in the picture. But once the king is actually dead, the other senior princes would not be as deferential. This adds to MbS’ nervousness.
Even if he declares himself king, there is no guarantee MbS would be able to control the situation, hence his desperate moves to eliminate all rivals, real or imagined, before the hour of reckoning. A bloodbath cannot be ruled out in the kingdom as other royals sharpen their daggers and swords. Once it ends, the Bani Saud may have decimated each other and the reins of power would be transferred to some other hands, equally subservient to imperialism and Zionism.