Saudi Shakeup: No Surprise, but Vast Implications for U.S.

Thomas Lippman
Author, "Saudi Arabia on the Edge"

The only surprising thing about the leadership shakeup ordered on Wednesday by King Salman of Saudi Arabia was the timing.

It has long been apparent that the king, 81, was grooming his favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman, 31, to succeed him. The young prince was already one of the most powerful men in the kingdom as deputy crown prince, or second in line to the throne, as defense minister, and as chairman of the interagency committee that directs economic policy. In multiple decrees announced without fanfare, the king now has made it official that the young prince known as MbS will succeed him and will be effectively running the country henceforth. Mohammed bin Salman is now crown prince, heir to the throne, and deputy prime minister, while retaining his economic portfolio. King Salman retains full legal authority and is nominally in charge of the government as prime minister, but he has essentially assumed figurehead status.

This change has vast and not entirely predictable implications for a country that is of critical strategic and economic importance to the United States.

On the positive side, it represents a full solution to the long troubling question of how the country would move from decades of being ruled only by sons of the founder, King Abdul Aziz, to the so-called grandson’s generation. Salman and the few remaining brothers of his generation have irrevocably passed the torch.

Moreover, the transition was engineered smoothly and without open opposition from the rest of the royal family. The former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, or MbN, apparently went quietly, joining other senior princes in swearing the baya’a, or oath of allegiance, to the new crown prince. The official announcement posted by the Saudi Press Agency said the vote in the family council that controls royal succession was 31-3. It did not identify the dissenters.

In addition to a calm transition, the shakeup confirms the power and aspirations of a young go-getter widely admired for his energy, his tireless work habits, and his willingness to acknowledge the kingdom’s longstanding economic, social, and educational deficiencies. Former president Barak Obama described him as “wise beyond his years.” He has thrown himself into the necessary tasks of restructuring Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy, limiting its dependence on imported labor, opening opportunities for women,  and lightening up on the kingdom’s oppressive social environment. He is the architect and chief implementer of the ambitious set of plans known as Vision 2030. If it is successful, it will enshrine MbS as a historic figure, but if it fails, he could face a popular backlash.

There is also a potential downside to the elevation of MbS to so much power at this moment of Saudi history. In addition to the economic problems brought on by the sustained slump in oil prices – about which the prince can do little – the kingdom faces multiple problems on the international front that would challenge even an executive of greater experience and broader education. Unlike many Saudi royals, Mohammed bin Salman never studied outside the kingdom.

With the departure from government of Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also minister of interior, the young prince MbS finds himself running a government without the experienced, effective leader of its efforts to control encroachment by the Islamic State and al Qaeda. MbN’s deputy also was removed from office.

Moreover, retaining his position as defense minister, MbS is responsible for managing the devastating, stalemated war in neighboring Yemen, where for two years Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been fighting a rebel group known as the Houthis, which the Saudis say is aligned with Iran, its arch-rival. The war, which MbS embarked upon shortly after he became defense minister two years ago, has caused widespread destruction, killed many thousands of civilians, and brought disease and the threat of famine to what was already the Arab world’s poorest country. MbS and other Saudi officials have offered shifting rationales for continuing a conflict that is costing Saudi Arabia millions of dollars a week at a time of strained finances, and no solution is in sight.

The young prince also takes on responsibility for what the Saudis collectively regard as their most urgent international challenge, confronting the regional ambitions of Iran. The Saudis see malign Iranian influence not only in Yemen but in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, where Iran has been a strong supporter of President Bashar al-Assad during six years of civil war. Saudi Arabia has insisted that Assad be removed from power as part of any solution Riyadh can accept.

As if those issues were not challenging enough, Mohammed bin Salman takes control while Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an absurd but potentially ruinous conflict with another neighbor, Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have imposed a diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar, which less than a month ago joined them and scores of other Muslim countries at President Donald Trump’s anti-terrorism summit in Riyadh.

The Saudis and the others have accused Qatar of harboring extremist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and of being insufficiently zealous in opposition to Iran. But those issues were on the table long before the Riyadh conclave, and it is not entirely clear what Qatar has done since then to incur the Saudis’ wrath. The boycott has disrupted lives, business dealings, and air travel across the region, and it also has strategic implications.  

Qatar is an important military partner of the United States, home to the largest U.S. air base in the Gulf, and the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command. The boycott of Qatar threatens to disrupt security arrangements that the United States has labored for years to build with the six nations of the regional group known as the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain are among the members. President Trump signaled his support for the boycott, but is has alienated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, further muddying the policy waters in which MbS will now have to swim.

The Author is Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is the author of Saudi Arabia on the Edgeand an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.    He was a correspondent at the Washington Post for 33 years, 1966-1999.

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