On 21st of June, 2017, King Salman of Saudi Arabia sent shockwaves within the perennial Kingdom and across the globe with the announcement of succession of his son, Muhammad bin Salman – who is commonly known as MbS – to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The royal decree announced that former Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Nayef (MbN) also being stripped from his position of Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia.
This announcement of royal shake up caught some off-guard but things were set in motion for this succession tremor since the ascendancy of King Salman to the throne of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2015. After the death of King Abdullah, King Salman ascended to throne of Saudi Arabia and appointed Muhammad bin Nayef (MbN) as his Deputy Crown Prince – becoming the first one from his generation to be in line of the throne – with Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) serving as Defense Minister. Subsequently, both were promoted with MbN appointed as Crown Prince – and MbS serving as Deputy Crown Prince alongside being Defense Minister.
Initially, MbN was too significant to be left unattended for Kingdom polity. As Minister of Interior, he oversaw KSA’s counterterrorism and intelligence efforts in the turbulent years of fight against Al-Qaeda. He worked in close liaison with western powers who dubbed him as counterterrorism czar. Concurrently, MbS liberal approaches provided MbN with a constituency in socially conservative and religious segments of the society.
But in a classic game of thrones, King Salman was resolute in centralizing power within the Kingdom therefore he cautiously begun to cripple the powers administered by the Ministry of Interior, which included measures such as curtailing arresting powers of religious police and separating bureau of investigation from Ministry of Interior. Subsequently, in a raft of royal decrees, King Salman appointed the third generation, younger princes in many ministerial and deputy governor positions of KSA regions.
After undermining MbN power base, King Salman dealt the final blow by discharging MbN from all his duties and replacing him with his son as Crown Prince. Reportedly, 31 out of 34 royals on the Allegiance Council supported the new Crown Prince. However, King Salman also appointed Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef as Interior Minister who is son of the Governor of Eastern Province, Prince Saud bin Nayef. For staving off any royal coup, these two crucial positions in terms of internal security were allotted to the Bin Nayef line. But the powers which the Interior Ministry is stripped off are unlikely to be reinstated. This is what made the Bin Salman line influential.
Futhermore, King Salman also amended the basic law to prevent complete exclusion of other branches of family from the throne. Amendment stipulates that the King and Crown Prince would come from different branches of the family in the future.
Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), aside from being Crown Prince and Defense Minister, is also the Chief of House of Saud Royal Court. Concurrently, he heads Council of Economic and Development Affairs and also chairs Supreme Council of Aramco – largest oil-producing and influential state-owned oil company. He is also dubbed as ‘Mr. Everything’ for all these vital positions he commands. Deriding royal norms and traditional values, his political surge in the power corridors of the Kingdom was not without controversy.
The 31-year-old possesses an arrogant, impulsive and risk-taking personality unlike his aged predecessors who were risk-aversive and made calculated political decisions. Moreover, according to some reports, King Salman’s health is deteriorating therefore MbS, according to some commentators, is a grey cardinal and policies pursued by Kingdom from now on have larger clout of him.
MbS is the architect behind the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 which seeks diversification of Saudi economy by decreasing its dependence on oil and building up various economic sectors alongside instituting national programs to prepare the Kingdom for an eventual post-oil economy and to keep at bay any potential Arab Spring in KSA.
Some of the most salient features of Vision 2030 are: selling of 5% shares of Saudi Aramco in open market, creating largest sovereign wealth fund on the globe which may surpass Norwegian Pension Fund Global, which is currently the largest sovereign wealth fund. It issues green cards for families to settle into KSA while also encouraging tourism, increasing the strength of pilgrims from 8 million to 80 million by 2030, and establishing a military industrial complex.
Aside from economics, MbS is also at loggerheads with conservative religious establishment of the Kingdom as he aspires to transform Saudi social landscape with distancing from Wahhabism to more nationalist posturing and cultural reinvigoration. He is also quoted to have said that without American cultural influence in Saudi Arabia they would have ended up like North Korea.
While at domestic front, he proactively sought to bring the Kingdom out from the dark abyss of myopic socio-economic visions and saturating traditionalism against modernism. His crusade at the foreign policy front however represents traditional Saudi supremacist mentality. As Defense Minister, MbS spearheaded the military engagement in Yemen when Houthis – who are alleged to be supported by Iran – took over the Yemeni government in a coup d’etat.
The military campaign by MbS was so recklessly executed that even some relevant authorities within the Kingdom were surprised when bombs started to hit Yemen. After 2 years of relentless bombings, which also include cluster bombs, Yemen is faced with acute humanitarian crises. According to reports, more than 17 million people are food-insecure among whom 6.8 million are critically in need of immediate aid and food assistance.
Military assertiveness and hard power approach shown by MbS represent his foreign policy. MbS’s foreign policy seems to be primarily two-pronged, whereby the Kingdom views its immediate neighborhood not as a region comprised of independent, sovereign states but rather vassal states who must share a political responsibility to do Riyadh’s bidding in their political, social, economic and foreign policies.
Secondly, like his predecessors, MbS considers Iran as an existential threat to the Kingdom and therefore it must be countered by all means necessary. KSA’s policies viz-a-viz Qatar, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria represent this Saudi imperialistic foreign policy vision.
However, what is feared, and which KSA must cautiously tread upon, is the path towards adopting to Iranian hybrid warfare. MbS recently stated: “We are a primary target for the Iranian regime, we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”
Such an approach, aside from enflaming the region, would be deleterious to the economic ambitions of MbS. Any kind of war effort – conventional or otherwise – requires a sustained credit lifeline. With oil prices at their historic low and Kingdom economics also not in a perfect contour, this type of engagement with Iran would drain KSA coffers, which are already taking heavy toll from Yemen military campaign.
But with MbS at the helm of the Kingdom and Iranians unlikely to tone down their asymmetrical warfare, it is in all likelihood that KSA might be impelled to confront Iranians in their own game which undoubtedly will engulf the entire region and beyond, in flames.