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Feature Article
2018-12-23

Royal Dissidents And A Change Of House: The Gathering Storm?

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, hunkering down and hoping to ride out the upheaval caused by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is gambling that the continuing support of U.S. President Trump will anchor his precarious place within the royal succession. But will the perception of a weakened Trump provide the impetus for a concerted effort to dislodge the heir apparent?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Despite official denials and a series of bungled explanations, gruesome revelations of the details of Khashoggi's killing at the Saudi consulate in Turkey ensured that the world's attention was going to remain focused on the Kingdom. There was never much doubt that Muhammad (known as MbS) was behind the decision to shut down the high profile critic, but even after foreign intelligence agencies and the American CIA had concluded that MbS was responsible, the strategy appeared to be simply hope that the whole affair would blow over, before resuming business as usual. The belated, official concession, that 'rogue' elements were the guilty parties, almost seemed a virtual smirk, since everyone knew that nothing happens in Saudi without MbS giving the word. Evidently, the crown prince was content to sit back and allow the message to sink in - dissent, whether at home or abroad, was not going to be tolerated.

The one great unknown was King Salman's reaction to the news that his son, the crown prince and heir, was the chief architect of the crime. Sources close to the court have described his dismay and shock at the troubling affair, and there were signs that the king was ready to draw in the reins. The one constant throughout the tenure of MbS has been the extreme latitude given, reflecting the almost unbounded confidence Salman places in his favored offspring. Although it was already true that he was not fully ready to hand over control (and certainly did not intend to abdicate, as some were suggesting), MbS continued to amass more and more control, with his father's blessing. Salman was neither out of the loop completely, debilitated and demented, nor was he the key driver in his son's headlong rush to power. In fact, the king's backing facilitated the driving ambition of MbS, while at the same time he was being carefully shielded from learning the full cost of his indulgence. MbS has for years managed access to the king, by virtue of successive positions as gatekeeper to the crown prince's and then royal court (after Salman took the throne). Rivals have effectively been shut out of the king's physical presence, and often resort to trickery or roundabout ways to get Salman's ear. This time, however, not even a son's guardianship was able to keep out the grim details of Khashoggi's murder, and the king has apparently resolved to reassert at least some authority.

But Salman is sending mixed signals, on the one hand signalling his full support by publicly appearing alongside MbS in a domestic tour, while on the other, very quietly looking at contingency planning. Unthinkable only a year ago, key members of the royal family are being rounded up for consultation, and word is being sent that changes to the existing structure, in which MbS controls every lever of state power, are in the works. Ahmad, one of the last remaining brothers of the king, and at one time assumed to be in line for succession, has returned to the Kingdom for talks after living abroad, despite (or because of) his recent criticism of government policy. Ahmad became something of a 'cause celebre' after his confrontation with protesters in London, where he expressed an almost unheard of (coming from a royal) dissent, and critics of MbS rallied round, hoping Ahmad would swoop in to unseat the reckless crown prince. While that may be premature, the fact that he faces no consequences for this break from tradition (incurring the wrath of MbS along the way), indeed, being welcomed home, is significant. Consultations are underway with other senior royals as well, particularly those feeling alienated by the rush to one-man rule. The dismantling of the framework of royal consensus has rankled most, even apart from the sidelining of ambitious royals from what they see as a birthright; being shut out of lucrative opportunities is one thing, the snatching away of all hope for the future is another, when the whole enterprise of royal rule is in jeopardy.

Related articles: The Khashoggi Affair: The Downfall of Muhammad bin Salman?
The 'Dissent' of Prince Ahmad: Bad Blood or Widening Rupture?
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Past Feature Articles
The Khashoggi Affair: The Downfall of Muhammad bin Salman?

Despite international condemnation, the crown prince carries on with an attitude of 'business as usual'. Yet, internal pressure is mounting, while the question of his removal depends largely on the mental state and willingness to act of his father, the king.

Bullets And Bone Saws: The Dark Side Of Prince Muhammad bin Salman?

As the crisis over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi deepens, the world is taking a second look at Saudi Arabia's crown prince, who has forged an image as a reformer and modernizer. Will the threat of international pariah status finally galvanize royal opposition at home?

The 'Dissent' of Prince Ahmad: Bad Blood or Widening Rupture?

Prince Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz startled Saudi watchers recently by appearing to confirm the suspected chasm between the policies of the king and crown prince and the concerns of the broader royal family. Were his off-guard remarks to a crowd of protesters a clue to the family's simmering discontent, or do they reflect a more personal animosity?

The Crown Prince, Canada and Aramco: Shattering The Illusion?

The surprising decision to go on the offensive against Canada has baffled Saudi watchers, but in the context of the broader goals of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman it makes perfect sense. With sanctions comes prestige, yet at the same time a ruthless suppression of dissent at home exposes an agenda not so different from his predecessors.

Royal Crackdowns and Vanished Princes: Shakeup Or Shakedown?

As dozens of prominent individuals remain in Saudi government custody, the arrest of activists continues. Nothing is known of the true aims of the purge's beneficiary, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, though competing explanations are equally convincing.

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