The Saudi Power Balance is On a Knife-Edge
The sweltering heat of Saudi Arabian summer will feel like a cool breeze compared to the geopolitical fire that could soon take over the country if ongoing internal power struggles destabilize the Kingdom’s Royal Family and national security in the coming weeks.
After his successful elevation to Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has been appointed by King Salman to be in charge during his holiday to Morocco. The King’s holiday comes at a time of relative instability in the Kingdom, as the effects of the removal of former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef at the end of the Ramadan period continue to linger.
King Salman’s choice to award his son the position of Crown Prince was expected, but insiders are warning that his predecessor still holds a great deal of influence. To put MBS in charge during this already very volatile period in the Gulf, as the Saudi-led alliance continues to up the pressure on Arab neighbor Qatar, is feeding into uncertainty.
The young Crown Prince also faces some personal pressure. The lack of progress in the Yemen War (against the Houthi’s and Iran), the fledgling Saudi strategy to stabilize the oil market, and the Qatar crisis, have put a major dent in the current GDP growth projections of international rating agencies. The negative impact of these issues is being kept at bay by the enormous financial reserves of Saudi Arabia, but as the list of failing MBS initiated endeavors grows, his position in the Kingdom is under increasing pressure.
At the same time, rumors are spreading that the health of King Salman has further deteriorated. Some Saudi sources have indicated in the media that King Salman is even considering to abdicate in the next few months and put MBS on the throne. The current rule of MBS during the King’s holiday could be a taste of things to come.
As the MENA region is in peril, with economic pressure building due to low oil prices, Saudi Arabia is facing a total restructuring of its security apparatus. MBS is now being charged with removing the old power base of former Crown Prince Mohamed Bin-Nayef, while also dealing with internal and external security threats.
In recent weeks, King Salman has stripped the Interior Ministry of many of its key mandates, including counter-terrorism. All these powers have been transferred to a newly created body that is fully overseen by the King himself. Former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, before his removal, was also Minister of the Interior. The new entity, called the Presidency of State Security, is under the command of the King, who is also the Prime Minister. A royal decree stated that “whatever concerns security of the state, including civil and military personnel, budgets, documents, and information will also be transferred to the new authority”.
The sudden and drastic change of the security services however, also indicates that there is still some opposition in the Kingdom to Crown Prince MBS. The appointment of General Abdulaziz Al Howairini is seen as an attempt to build more support for MBS, as he is perceived as a MBS supporter. At the same time, Al Howairini’s appointment is also meant to counter fears in the West that Saudi Arabia is changing its attitude in the global fight against terrorism.
The main threat, however, still exists inside of the Kingdom itself. The position of MBS is not undisputed, a significant group of the royal family members still seems to oppose the position of MBS in general. Possible opposition exists within the old guard of the MBN led security forces, with Miteb Bin Abdullah, currently head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, seen as a possible target for removal. The National Guard is regarded, if used by the opposition, as a real threat to MBS in general and is very loyal to former King Abdullah’s entourage. The Guards were not mentioned in the latest Royal Decree, a sign of their importance and power within the Kingdom.
Several scenarios are currently being discussed both within and outside of the Kingdom. It is expected that MBS will become King within the next year, although the pretext to such a move is not yet clear. The star of MBS is still rising, while a possible success story to solidify his position is on the horizon.
A second possible scenario is that regional conflicts will blow up, creating the need for drastic change in the Kingdom. A confrontation with Iran or Qatar would definitely call for a strong young leader to deal with these issues. Looking at the pro-active approach already taken by MBS, his elevation to Crown Prince is a logical one. MBS will also get the support of the main Gulf rulers, such as UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. Kuwait is also currently cuddling up to MBS’s views on the region it seems.
The most worrying scenario is that MBS would take an even more aggressive stance use his current power position to change the internal security structures. This move could be successful but would fully depend on the coordination of all Saudi military and security forces. At present, this is not possible without upsetting the National Guard and other internal forces.
Over the next weeks, analysts should keep an eye on these developments. A destabilized Saudi Arabia will put not only the region at risk but also energy supplies. MBS’ opponents are waiting for a mistake to make a move. Iran and others will be supporting any opposition to remove the Crown Prince from power. Let’s hope Riyadh will only be hit by the normal summer heat and not the repercussions of internal power struggles combined with regional aspirations of others. MBS would do well to remember the words of Saladin, who stated that “the ability to inspire rather than enforce loyalty is a critical quality of leadership”.
By Cyril Widdershoven