Mohamed Bin Salman (also known as ‘MBS’) secured another milestone in his meteoric rise by successfully engineering his appointment as Crown Prince, removing one of the last bastions of power that stood in his quest to become King. In incredible circumstances, Saudi Arabia announced that the once powerful Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef would step down in favour of his much younger cousin, clearing the political arena of all opposition to MBS.
It is well-established that succession has usually been coordinated with Washington since the assassination of King Faisel in 1973. The U-turn in relations between the kingdom and the US since King Faisel is well-documented; from an antagonistic oil embargo, to warm allies. Crown Princes would often curry favour with Washington in their bid to cement their power, making lucrative investments, or signing lucrative contracts for unnecessary weaponry, or facilitate the creation of new US military bases.
This time however, officials in Washington have privately expressed frustration at MBS’s rise at the expense of their favourite prince; Mohamed Bin Nayef.
It is no secret that Washington has fawned over Mohamed Bin Nayef for years. Credited with his hard anti-terror polices and the establishment of rehabilitation centres, Mohamed Bin Nayef is perhaps one of the only princes to ever receive effusive praise from the American press and, just last year, Bin Nayef was awarded a prize from the CIA, a warning from the American security services to MBS about who their preferred candidate for King was.
Then came Trump.
It is impossible to understand Trump’s impact on events in Saudi Arabia without a comprehension of just how much Obama alienated and frightened the leadership in Riyadh. A rapprochement with Iran sent Riyadh reeling as well as an assertion by Obama himself that Saudi Arabia was the prime cause of much of the instability in the Middle East; not Iran.
This was compounded by the drop in oil prices which exposed just how much the balance of power in the region has shifted as Saudi found itself unable to rein in other OPEC members and force them to abide by their quotas.
Moreover, Obama’s undermining of Saudi’s role in the region encouraged other neighbouring nations to begin pursuing their own ambitions. The UAE began to pour money into Haftar in Libya, and into the Southern Separatist Movement in Yemen, seeking to emulate Qatar in pursuing dreams of hegemony. Kuwait began to court Tehran to safeguard itself from the changing tides in the region. Qatar began to prop up the Muslim Brotherhood by pumping huge financial firepower in their election campaigns in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and heavily lobbied Washington to back the movement as an alternative to the Assad regime; much to Saudi’s ire. Egypt reneged on an agreement to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands, while sending limited support in Yemen and standing against Saudi in Syria by supporting the Assad government.
It is in this environment that Trump visited Riyadh. Enamoured by the show of wealth, intoxicated by the lavish praise, and bought by incredibly lucrative arms deals, Trump accepted Saudi’s narrative of a failed US foreign policy under Obama and was flattered by their effusive optimism of what he could bring to the region.
It is in this climate that Mohamed Bin Salman was advised that the time was ripe to make his move. With Trump at odds with the Pentagon and US foreign policy under Trump in comical disarray, US-backed Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef would not be able to muster his allies in the Pentagon to lobby Trump to prevent the move. If Mohamed Bin Salman was uncertain of this, then US Defence Secretary James Matthis’ opposition to Trump’s support for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar would have confirmed suspicions of a deep rift between the Pentagon and the White House. Moreover, according to Saudi circles, there is a genuine belief that Trump may not survive his first term, which would have encouraged the young prince to take advantage of this perfect storm and enact irreversible changes before a new ‘credible’ president is installed.
Mohamed Bin Nayef has never been popular among the third generation of Al Saud princes who, unlike the second generation which put the family before all personal ambitions, possess a much more individualistic mentality. Opposition from princes is often rooted in a disgruntlement over their inability to be a front-runner in the pursuit to be king than any genuine disagreement with policy or economic reforms. Moreover, it appears Mohamed Bin Nayef sought to react to the political manoeuvring of MBS by conducting himself in the manner of his predecessor King Salman who, as Crown Prince, tolerated the machinations of King Abdullah’s son Mitab on the basis that there was no feasible way for Mitab to displace him. It appears however that the extraordinary circumstances brought about by Trump took Bin Nayef by surprise, allowing Bin Salman to take full advantage.
As Mohamed Bin Salman nears the throne, only his father now stands in his way. And unlike King Saud who had to contend with his brother Faisel, King Faisel who had to contend with Mohamed, King Fahd who had to contend with Abdullah, King Abdullah who had to contend with Sultan, Nayef and Salman, the road appears clear of any remaining obstacles to Mohamed Bin Salman’s quest for the throne. Rumour has it that the King is now preparing to step down, the last move in a truly fascinating game of thrones.