Mohammad bin Salman. Photo: Reuters
Mohammad bin Salman. Photo: Reuters

The aging king of Saudi Arabia issued a stunning royal decree on Wednesday, stripping his nephew – the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef – from office and appointing his own son, Mohammad Bin Salman, as heir to the Saudi throne.

The decision builds on a 1994 law allowing a sitting monarch to choose his successor, regardless of seniority or age. Significantly, all of the king’s brothers are way beyond retirement age, meaning that if they took their turns on the Saudi throne, a vacuum would emerge every few years, hampering stability and progress – something that King Salman wants to avoid at all costs.

On the surface this seems to end a looming power struggle in the oil-rich kingdom between two powerful cousins, Bin Nayef, aged 57, and Bin Salman, aged 31. Behind closed doors this is what everybody in Saudi has been taking about since the ailing Salman took office in early 2015. The 81-year old king had long wanted his son to succeed him; however, by line of hereditary succession, the throne was meant to pass to Bin Nayef, the powerful Interior Minister who is rumored to be a favorite of the United States.

Neither the Americans nor Bin Nayef objected to the royal decree on June 21; however it is unclear how long the ex-Crown Prince will remain quiet. So far he has responded gracefully, immediately pledging his allegiance to Bin Salman. The decree was signed off by the powerful Allegiance Council, established 11 years ago with a mandate to decide on any incoming heir apparent. It is composed of the surviving sons of the kingdom’s founder, who are all brothers or half-brothers of King Salman, and 15 of his grandchildren — who all see themselves as more worthy of the throne than Mohammad Bin Salman.

The new heir’s uncles are unhappy and so are his cousins and 11 brothers, who were all stunned at being passed over in such a manner. All of them were dying to be king and unless rewarded with other senior posts some might rebel against the decree — perhaps not now but after he parts from the scene. In a tribal country riddled with internal problems and competing ambitions, anything can happen — including, of course, nothing at all. Bin Salman has full control both of the state coffers and the entire military apparatus, which is under his command in his capacity as Minister of Defense. Deprived of these his rivals can never seize power.

If Bin Salman takes over, he would be the youngest king in Saudi Arabia’s history. Young Saudis like that, given that 50% are below the age of 18 and eager for a king-in-waiting who is closer to their age and speaks a language they can relate to; one that recognizes entrepreneurship, jobs, and cyber technology.

Bin Salman failed to listen when they advised against sending more arms to Syria, warning about terrorists returning to strike within the kingdom and arguing that these arms were reaching al-Qaeda affiliates in the Syrian battlefield

The older generation, however, are stunned. They see Bin Salman as young, inexperienced, and haughty, blaming him, for example, for the ill-fated war in Yemen, which was supposed to end within weeks of its start in March 2015. Two years down the road there is no end in sight for that military adventure, which has cost billions while destroying the kingdom’s reputation in the Arab and Islamic worlds due to the amount of destruction it has inflicted on Yemeni civilians. When Bin Salman became minister of defense in 2015, they say, he had no military experience to handle such a sensitive campaign. He had previously only been assistant to his father when Salman was governor of the Riyadh Province and chief of the royal court, from 2009-2015. 

Born in the port city of Jeddah in August 1985, Bin Salman was often described as a “king in training” when studying law at King Saud University. A pampered child, he was taught to take decisions at will without consulting anybody — which is exactly what he did when launching his war on Yemen, snubbing family elders and members of the security services, all of whom who were far more experienced than him. He also failed to listen when they advised against sending more arms to Syria, warning about terrorists returning to strike within the kingdom and arguing that these arms were reaching al-Qaeda affiliates in the Syrian battlefield.

Bin Salman did not seem to mind – so long as he managed to clip the wings of Iran, crush Hezbollah on the battlefield and topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Three years down the road, none of that has happened, and Iran is as powerful as ever, helping to overrun major cities like Aleppo, with Russian help, just last December. He is still out to destroy it, seeing it as more dangerous to Saudi Arabia than Israel.

Under Bin Salman’s tenure, the armed opposition in Syria has lost every single city that was once under its control, tipping the war balance in favor or Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus. More recently he sparked a major confrontation with Qatar, trying to muscle his tiny gas-rich neighbor into political submission. Reportedly, its young emir, Tamim Bin Hamad – who is of Bin Salman’s age – has complained about the Saudi Crown Prince’s erratic and ill-planned policies, saying that Saudi Arabia will crumble if he ever assumes the throne. One German security agency portrayed Bin Salman, according to The Independent, as a “political gambler who is destabilizing the Arab World.”

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