Some influential Saudi royals appear to be looking for a replacement for crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MbS as he is also known), the 33-year old who self-branded as a ‘reformer’ only to create the worst humanitarian disaster in Yemen, lock up rivals and kill critics like Jamal Khashoggi.
Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was reportedly recalled from London to Riyadh in an apparent show of defiance to MbS’ rule. But while bin Salman has proven himself to be a rash, destructive and despotic ruler who has started wars and diplomatic disputes that can’t be won, there has been one area he has excelled in, perhaps better than any previous Saudi crown prince: centralizing power.
He has neutralized potential rivals to the throne and personalized the Saudi state around him. To unseat him, a rival would need to disentangle bin Salman from his deep-seated influence with the military and economy and gain the consensus of a fractured royal family. He would also need to gain the confidence of the U.S. President Donald Trump and his Middle East envoy/son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who both seem to be backing MbS.
Bin Salman has Glued Himself to the Throne
Throughout most of Saudi Arabia’s history, there have been multiple viable candidates to the throne at any given time: the Saud family numbers in the thousands after all. But after Mohammed bin Salman elbowed his way to the coveted position of crown prince, he sought to eliminate any competition he may have to being the future king.
His anti-rival purge, thinly disguised as a ‘anti-corruption’ investigation, may have been the first of a series of PR nightmares for the crown prince, but it achieved its goal. By locking up hundreds of high-level royals in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, torturing several of them, confiscating much of their wealth and placing many under long-term house arrest, bin Salman showed everyone in his family that no person is powerful enough to challenge his rule.
Bin Salman also has the military firmly under him: he has led the ministry of defense since 2015, and personally ordered the invasion of Yemen, which in turn has caused the worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe on Earth. He has gained popularity internationally and domestically by curtailing the power of the Saudi religious police, letting women drive again after a decades-long ban and unveiling Saudi Vision 2030; a plan to wean Saudi off its oil dependency and open the country to foreign investment.
Finding a prince who can detach bin Salman from all of these positions of power is a gargantuan task, one made nearly impossible as he made sure he had no rivals inside the country.
“My sense is that the royal family is probably cowed, or at least cowed enough, and no longer able to coalesce around a powerful figure [to replace Mohammed], even if one existed, Yezid Sayigh from the Carnegie Center in Beirut told a reporter from the Washington Post.
“It’s much too late… Much of their institutional fiefdoms have already been dismantled,” he added.
The one place where a rival may have been found was the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG).
The National Guard is a massive professional army set up independently from the ministry of defense to safeguard the throne from a potential coup. It is the one bastion of influence in the Saudi state for the country’s tribes, and for decades, was ruled by members of the Abdullah-wing of the royal family. It is fiercely loyal to the Saud family, and answers only to them.
From 1963 until 2010, the National Guard was led by Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who used SANG to rise in prominence and eventually became king. In 2010, he handed the reins of SANG to his son, Mutaib bin Abdullah. Mutaib then immediately set about modernizing the force, and was widely considered a frontrunner for the crown prince position.
But in stepped bin Salman, who had Mutaib arrested and held as part of the Ritz Carlton Purge in Nov 2017. His arrest was a particularly bold move, as Mutaib was one of the most powerful people in Saudi Arabia. MbS reportedly had him tortured and only released him when Mutaib agreed to hand over $1 billion to bin Salman.
So removed Mutaib, the leader of the Abdullah wing of the Saud family, from the line of potential successors. MbS also replaced him with a no-name prince, giving MbS effective control over the National Guard as well.
In personalizing the National Guard around him, bin Salman also disempowered Saudi’s tribes, who make up the force.
Although a report surfaced that elder tribesmen associated with SANG were feuding with bin Salman and the King had to step in to quell the in-fighting, there is reason to be skeptical.
“It sounds more like someone with sour grapes over the end of Abdullah and family’s control over the SANG is fueling the idea of disgruntled tribes,” said J.E. Peterson, an analyst specializing in Gulf countries.
“I’m not convinced that tribal shaykhs have that much power, even over their own tribes,” Peterson added.
“In the past, other princes were strong and they worked by consensus, [although] the oppression was exactly the same,” Madawi al-Rasheed of the London School of Economics told the Washington Post. “Now the elders have died or disappeared or [been] detained or humiliated, so MBS works as an individual. Whether he has a good personality, a bad personality, a murderous personality is not important. What is important is that he is not restrained by any structure, any institution or any members of his family.”
In other words, replacing MbS requires a structural overhaul of the entire state of Saudi Arabia, and no one seems to have the power to do that.
The Nascent Potential Rival: Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz
One potential candidate European officials reportedly singled out as a rival candidate for the crown prince position, is Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz.
A Saudi source reportedly close to Prince Ahmed told the Middle East Eye that Prince Ahmed and “others in the family have realised that MBS has become toxic.”
“The prince wants to play a role to make these changes, which means either he himself will play a major role in any new arrangement or to help to choose an alternative to MBS,” the source added.
U.S. and U.K. officials also reportedly gave the prince assurances that he would not be taken out like Mutaib or Khashoggi was. Ahmed is one of the most senior members of the Saudi family: him and the king are the last two of the so-called Sudairi Seven, a group of Saudi men who were all sons of the late king Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.
However, “Ahmad was always regarded as something of a lightweight, the tailend of the Sudairi Seven,” Said Peterson. “If there actually is a movement for him to replace MbS, it would put him into power as a figurehead. So the question would then arise as to who would be the power behind the throne.”
Traditionally speaking powerful Senior figures need good relations with the U.S., Saudi’s biggest ally. And while certain influential U.S. figures, like former Obama advisor and ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, have come out against Mohammed bin Salman, the Trump administration still seems to be backing MbS.
Trump called the Khashoggi murder the “worst cover-up ever” but stopped short of blaming MbS. Kushner and Trump’s influential National Security Advisor John Bolton, for their part, both seem to be on good enough terms with MbS to receive personal calls from him.
In a call between Kushner, Bolton and bin Salman, the embattled prince called Khashoggi a “dangerous Islamist,” while urging the Kusher and Bolton to maintain the strength of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In other words, MbS may be a toxic liability, but is still comfortably in power enough to speak directly with Trump’s top aides, who share his foreign policy priorities in the Middle East.
Strategically, bin Salman has pushed to aggressively combat growing Iranian influence in the Middle East, which is also one of Trump’s biggest foreign policy objectives. For the White House to back a replacement for bin Salman, he would likely have to demonstrate as strong a stance against Iran while proving he manage the bad press bin Salman has attracted. That is a difficult task; MbS has picked fights with Iran all over the region, draining the budget of Saudi in the process.
Taken in sum, ousting bin Salman would require a coordinated effort from international players as well as dissident and disempowered elements of the Saud family backing a royal who can capture the youthful energy in Saudi and match bin Salman’s economic and political vision, all without risking a violent dispute with bin Salman, a man known to use violence to gain and keep power and who has personalized the military around him, if he refuses to go.
It will be very hard.