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Feature Article
2018-06-25

A Year As Crown Prince: Forward Progress Or Sideways Shift?


by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

June 21, 2018 represents one year since King Salman issued a royal decree installing his 31-year-old son, Muhammad, as heir to the throne, in the process ensuring that the succession would skip a generation and finally move to the grandsons of the Kingdom's founder. In that tumultuous time, the new crown prince, Muhammad (known as MbS) has fundamentally altered the political landscape in ways no one could have predicted; indeed, the royal family may be at a tipping point - the disruptive young prince is determined to see his vision through, despite alienating the religious establishment and overturning decades of royal tradition.

MbS already held the position of Minister of Defense at the time of his appointment, and it was with this portfolio that he established his reputation as ambitious and attention-seeking, if not reckless. The campaign in Yemen began in 2015, as Saudi charged in to support the government against Iran-supported Houthi rebels, and MbS was its visible face, appearing nightly on TV to champion the Kingdom's forces. Few had even heard of him before his rapid promotion, and this became his chance to become a public figure, an opportunity which he seized and a role which he relished. Spokesmanship of the war effort soon devolved to military men for media broadcast, but MbS had made his mark. The impression he made could hardly have been overdone - for most of the public, images of the resolute prince against a backdrop of swooping fighter jets, or riding the bridge of a warship, were their first introduction to the man who would quickly come to dominate affairs.

Fortunately for him, as the war's cost has mounted, and casualties and disruption have turned Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe, MbS has managed to disassociate himself from the human suffering and lack of success in the adventure. His formal role in the Kingdom has expanded to such an extent that Defense is far from the first thing in mind when his name comes up. Yemen has receded into the background, despite the financial cost and lack of progress, as rapid fire change elsewhere occupies the attention, allowing MbS to avoid the taint of potential failure. Others before him have had their careers destroyed along the southern border (Khalid bin Sultan was unable to achieve any success against a low level conflict there), but the crown prince has used the Yemeni war as a means to pivot to a broader strategy of containing Iran, a goal which colors everything being undertaken. He has accused Iran of "direct military aggression" by supplying ballistic missiles to the Houthi rebels (and indeed, hardly a day passes without a ballistic missile being intercepted in Saudi airspace, often as far north as Riyadh) and the battle raging in the south keeps the Iranian threat front and center in the public mind. To an extent unmatched in Saudi history, the Iranian 'project' (the Islamic Republic's supreme leader has been compared to Hitler by MbS) is regarded as an existential menace. The Kingdom has made clear that it will develop nuclear weapons if its rival obtains them, and celebrated when the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement in May.

Playing up the threat of an external enemy is a handy tool for rallying political support, and MbS has opened himself up to this charge, seen against the backdrop of the convulsive changes underway domestically. Society is being shaken to its roots, as even the existence of the contract with the religious establishment, whereby the royal family secures legitimacy to rule in return for giving free reign to the clerics' hardline doctrinal interpretation, is being called into question. A direct challenge to clerical authority would have been unthinkable previously; King Abdallah made some tentative steps towards curtailing their power but never confronted the issue head on. Now, the shakeup is real, and Saudi is entering uncharted terrain.

Related articles: A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?
Royal Family Consensus: Shattering A Myth?
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Past Feature Articles
The Disappearance Of Muhammad bin Salman: Rumor Mill Or Going Rogue?

The crown prince has apparently vanished from public view, stirring speculation that he was injured, or even killed in events three weeks ago that some described at the time as an attempted coup. Given the provenance of reports raising concern over his absence, how much credence should the rumors be given?

A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?

Historically, the royal family of Saudi Arabia has struggled with the tension between the urge by successful rulers to solidify their power and the necessity of providing for the inclusion of less prominent princes in order to maintain domestic stability. At critical inflection points the family will either rally around a disruptive leader who challenges the status quo or find itself dissolving into disunity.

Royal Family Consensus: Shattering A Myth?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman wraps up his U.S. visit, few would question his apparent status as de facto ruler of the Kingdom, and whatever questions remain about the upcoming succession center on the role family consensus will play. In fact, the more recent history of the Al Saud turns out to have been an anomaly, and the rapid elevation of the crown prince suggests that the traditional mechanisms of royal governance may have been more myth than reality.

The Crown Prince, Change And Failure: Grooming For Power?

In the midst of excited chatter over the latest news on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, it has nearly been forgotten that King Salman is still in charge. The king, despite exaggerated reports of his declining health, continues to groom his favorite son for office, allowing him wide latitude for action while still holding back from a complete abdication.

Age of Disruption: The Fourth Saudi State?

Now that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is firmly in control, is it premature to ask whether his footing is so secure, and his power base so distinct from that of his predecessors, that one may begin to distinguish the outlines of a fundamentally new political state?

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