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Feature Article
Mit'ab bin Abdallah - Holding The Keys To The Kingdom? 2016-05-14
Amidst speculation over palace coups and angst over the wholesale upheaval of the established order, one figure has been largely absent from the discussion. Does the fate of the Kingdom's hinge on the National Guard?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

With the world captivated by the unveiling of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia's massive and ambitious undertaking to prepare for a post-carbon world, it seems hard to believe that just a few short months ago, the media was enthralled by stories of an brewing revolt among the royal princes, with dire predictions of the king's forcible removal and his replacement by someone more amenable to the interests of the purported revolutionaries. In truth, the affair had its roots in the petulant actions of some disgruntled princes who saw themselves passed over and resented the rise to prominence of the young Muhammad bin Salman, the new deputy crown prince. The overthrow of a sitting king, especially one as senior and respected as Salman, was in fact never very likely.

The only precedent for such a drastic measure was the deposition of King Saud in 1964, a protracted family drama that carried on for years and involved a running battle between the factions supporting him, led by his sons, and those agitating for him to step down. In that case, Saud had proven himself utterly incompetent at the business of governing, and his wastefulness and legendary profligacy had brought the nation to the brink of financial ruin. Furthermore, Saud was very obviously making an attempt to set up a a parallel line of succession as he handed more and more power to his forty-plus sons. The situation was serious enough that eventually the royal family, led by the most important of Saud's brothers and uncles, came together to give an ultimatum. Even then, it was done only after repeated attempts at conciliation, and after further efforts to come to some sort of power-sharing arrangement that would allow Saud to remain the titular head had also failed. Finally, the oath of allegiance to Saud was formally withdrawn, and Faysal was proclaimed king. Nonetheless, it was done with the utmost reluctance; Saud had been given his father's blessing, and Faysal had taken a.solemn oath before his father that he would not dispute Saud's right to rule.

With this perspective, the present circumstances could hardly be more different. Unlike in Saud's era, when a phalanx of brothers stood ready to take their awaited turn at rule, as was their prescribed right, and had a legitimate grievance at the overt attempt to shut them out of the succession, there remains almost no one who can challenge Salman. His surviving brothers are either hopelessly unfit to lead, or have already been shunted aside, making a comeback that much harder. None have Salman's stature. This harsh reality means that there never existed a viable alternative candidate around which the family might coalesce. However much resentment might be engendered by the king's actions (the unprecedented promotion of Salman's son ruffled the feathers of those senior royals who saw the hopes they had pinned on favorite sons disintegrate before their eyes), the family knows that self-preservation takes precedence above all else. The ability to put personal antagonisms aside and, if necessary, tolerate unpalatable choices, is the key to Al Saud longevity. This time was never going to be any different.

But even if the family was unlikely to erupt into open warfare simply because some royals were deeply unhappy about the king's decisions, tensions are simmering. Already, Salman has dismissed Muqrin, his predecessor's pick for crown prince, and advanced the ever-present Muhammad into the vacant slot of deputy crown prince, now that Muhammad bin Nayif has moved up to presumptive heir apparent. Exactly no one thinks the current officeholder will not soon find his own head on the chopping block, and the king's son next in line to the throne. The rapid pace of change, and its unpredictability (at least among those accustomed to a more glacial pace), has upset many, including the powerful and influential. But is it enough to set in motion an agenda to challenge Salman?

a tactical pivot?
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