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Feature Article
2018-01-20

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?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Muhammad bin Salman (widely known as MbS), who is set to become king either upon the death of his father Salman or earlier, if abdication rumors are true, has reportedly boasted of his close personal connection to US President Trump and his advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The president has seemed to find a kindred spirit in the person of the young and ambitious MbS, and his support of the December crackdown on allegedly corrupt princes and officials has been whole-hearted. Both men see themselves as disruptors, unafraid to break the mold even at the risk of alienating allies. Trump is said to have known in advance of the impending purge, and MbS had met with Kushner only days before. Clearly, MbS feels energized by this support, and the pace of his stratagems may have been hastened by the knowledge that the Americans had his back. Those in the intelligence community would have preferred the predictability of the former Interior Minister, Muhammad bin Nayif, with whom they enjoyed close relations, but Trump shares the Kingdom's suspicion of Iran, which has become something of an obsession for Saudi.

The self-professed disruptor MbS has previously expressed his admiration for other visionaries like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and has not been shy about making comparisons himself. Without a doubt, the speed at which he has been able to consolidate his position has been astonishing. Partly, this has been the result of outside observers being unaware of the undercurrents in the royal family political dynamic, and partly a function of conditions being exactly right for the changes MbS has called forth. In some sense, the two overlap - his ascent did not happen in a void - a sclerotic and self-absorbed leadership left the field clear for bold moves from an unexpected quarter, and the lack of strong direction from a generation of overly-cautious royals itself helped create the ground the young Muhammad now hopes to build upon.

Nonetheless, change in the Kingdom did not happen overnight without the preparation having been laid; the underlying dynamic has been severely under-appeciated. Salman, never one to be overtly ambitious himself, has been laying the foundation for a passing of the succession to his sons, working to bypass the traditional mechanisms and establish an alternate line of succession, which his position as family elder (he served as arbiter of royal disputes) allowed him to carry through. As one of the last surviving sons of the founder Ibn Saud, Salman occupied a position nearly comparable to that of his late brother Faysal, who served as king after the disastrous reign of Saud. At the time, the younger brothers had yet to establish themselves, whilst Faysal seemed cast in the mold of a king from birth. Such was his prestige that his mere presence was enough to inspire awe. Later, the family split into multiple spheres of influence, with key portfolios such as Defense and the National Guard being apportioned out among the more powerful princes, in particular the Sudayri brothers. For decades, speculation centered on which of the so-called Sudayri Seven would make a move to seize power and shut out their brothers, all of whom, at least in theory, were entitled to rule in their turn. As the years passed, however, stasis set in, and a major rupture in the order of things became less, rather than more, likely. It is this more basic dynamic which has obscured the realities of present-day royal family politics, which is still seen through the old lens of brother versus brother conflict, the powerful circling one another as in a Mexican standoff, when the paradigm should have been recognized as simply one of self-serving preservation. The well-placed were content to enjoy the privileges of position, and rocking the boat served no one. Whatever change did come about was reluctant, half-hearted, and done only to stave off any threat to the status quo. Into this world now enters the king's son.

Related articles: The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?
Succession Shock - The Trump Effect?
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Commentary
The Strange Case Of The 'Salvatore Mundi' - Hiding In Plain Sight?

At the same time as the identity of the mysterious buyer of an expensive and controversial work of auctioned art is revealed to be Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the fate of dozens of royals detained for alleged corruption remains uncertain. Does the news of his purchase make a mockery of his economic austerity program, or is Muhammad sending a subtle message to his opponents?

A Royal Purge: Public Relations or Private Scores?

The spectacular arrests of high-profile members of the royal family on November 4 rivetted the world's attention on Saudi Arabia and it's young crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Under the guise of an anti-corruption drive, any opposition to Muhammad from within the royal family has been effectively shut down; at the same time, the purge solidifies his support from the broader public.

The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?

Despite an implicit admission that achieving the targets of Vision 2030 will be difficult, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is ploughing ahead with reforms. At the same time, any criticism of royal rule is being firmly rebuffed. Dealing with immediate threats to royal rule, however, may leave Muhammad exposed to challenge on another front.

The Islamist Crackdown: Impending Autocracy Or Crumbling Support?

The month of September got under way with an alarming crackdown on dissent which targeted critics of the newly-installed crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. At the same time as he scales back plans for the ambitious Vision 2030, the crown prince is moving to solidify his position. But do his aggressive tactics underline how tenuous his position really is, or rather, do they expose an overconfident belief that he can navigate the treacherous waters alone?

Changing Family Dynamics: End of an Interlude?

As traditional assumptions about the place of consensus, seniority and compromise in domestic family politics are cast aside in the face of new realities, any discussion of succession must take into account the evolving dynamics. The more recent history of the Al Saud, in fact, and the impression drawn of of stability, practicality, and quiet competence, may, in the larger scheme, prove more the exception than the rule.

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