Palace coup

King Salman of Saudi Arabia sacks the Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, and makes his favourite son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne with the backing of the U.S.

Published : Jul 05, 2017 12:30 IST

King Salman (right) and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been decreed next in line to take over the oil-rich kingdom.

King Salman (right) and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been decreed next in line to take over the oil-rich kingdom.

THE timing of the sudden elevation of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the sacking of the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef by Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Salman, on June 21 came as a surprise to most observers of the region. It was, of course, quite evident that the old and ailing monarch wanted his 31-year-old favourite son to succeed him. Soon after assuming the throne on the death of his half- brother, King Abdullah, in January 2015, King Salman sprang a surprise by naming his son as the Deputy Crown Prince and also giving him unprecedented powers. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef was reduced to a virtual figurehead. The King abolished the Crown Prince’s Royal Court, which was a parallel centre of power. Only the Interior Ministry remained under Prince Muhammad bin Nayef’s control. The Crown Prince had reportedly gone into a deep sulk, disappearing for months on an extended holiday to Algeria, last year. After he returned, he realised that his influence had been further whittled down. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef had made his reputation as the man who crushed the incipient Al Qaeda network in the kingdom and had powerful connections within the United States security establishment during the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman was given charge of the Defence portfolio. He was only 29 at the time and became one of the youngest Defence Ministers the world had seen in recent times. It was under the young Prince’s watch that Saudi Arabia started its disastrous military intervention in Yemen. Under his father’s benign watch, he further expanded his powers by taking control of the economy, which was hit by low oil prices for three years in a row. The West hailed him as a reformer after he announced the launch of a “Vision 2030” plan to revive the Saudi economy.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised to partially privatise the Saudi oil behemoth Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, and to cut the lavish subsidies that Saudi citizens enjoy. He announced wage cuts for public sector workers in September last year. Two-thirds of the Saudi workforce is in the public sector. The unemployment rate among young Saudis is said to be rising, with some experts saying that the official rate of 12.1 per cent is not the real figure. It is said to be closer to 30 per cent. Two-thirds of the Saudi population is below the age of 30.

The fall in oil revenues, coupled with the billions of dollars spent on the war in Yemen and Syria, has considerably depleted the kingdom’s treasury. This has led to a drastic cut in public spending and the imposition of taxes on Saudi citizens for the first time. Many of the big Saudi companies, such as the bin Laden Group, are on the verge of bankruptcy. The expatriate workforce, consisting mainly of South Asians, has borne the brunt of the problem, with many workers losing their jobs and many others going without pay for months. There are around 12 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. More than a million are going to be sent home before the year ends.

When King Salman issued the royal decree naming his son the Crown Prince, he also announced the restoration of the allowances that were slashed for public servants when Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced his grandiose “Vision 2030”. Another son of the King, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, has been made the new Saudi ambassador to the United States. His previous job qualification was that of a pilot in the Saudi Air Force. A close associate of the new Crown Prince, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayyef, has been put in charge of the Interior Ministry, which has a million-strong security force.

Anointed by Trump

The palace intrigue and changes in the kingdom came in the wake of the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump. As a veteran West Asia-watcher observed, for a Saudi prince to become the King, he needs the backing of the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the extended royal family. The voice of the Saudi populace is virtually irrelevant. According to reports from the region, the royal in-house coup plan had started immediately after the election of Trump.

The United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed, who has emerged as a powerful player in the region, had reportedly laid the groundwork by arranging a visit of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Washington in March where he met with Trump and his closest advisers, including his influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner. According to reports in the U.S. media, the spectacle and pomp that was on display during Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia in May was planned during that visit to Washington.

An article in The New York Times said: “Prince Mohammed was Trump’s anointed candidate—in this case for the byzantine struggle to control the House of Saud.” During the last years of the previous Obama administration, the Saudia were kept on a long leash of sorts. The Obama administration, unhappy with young Prince Mohammed’s Yemen misadventure and his open criticism of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, had stopped providing some lethal weaponry to the kingdom. There were also growing demands in the U.S. media and the political establishment to hold the Saudis responsible for the 9/11 terror incidents and the spread of fundamentalist ideology fuelling terrorism in the region. The scenario for the Saudis suddenly changed with the election of Trump as President. Every action the Saudi monarchy has taken this year, including the economic blockade of Qatar, has the unequivocal support of the White House.

Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first official foreign destination as President. No other newly elected U.S. President had done so. During the visit to Riyadh, Trump fully endorsed the Saudi world view, including its theory that Iran is the biggest source and instigator of terrorism and that political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas were terrorist organisations. The Trump administration views Saudi Arabia as the pivot of a pro-American Sunni alliance in the region. It has bought the Saudi argument that its war against the people of Yemen is in fact a war to halt the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. The Trump administration has identified Iran as its primary enemy in the region.

Move against Qatar

Trump even supported the Saudi position on Qatar, despite the stated misgivings of the U.S. State and Defence Departments. Trump tweeted twice that Qatar was guilty of harbouring terrorists and supporting terrorist groupings. It may not be a coincidence that the Saudi move against Qatar came soon after Trump’s visit to Riyadh.

During Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first visit to Washington, he spent more than four hours in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis. Every major move by Saudi Arabia these days is said to have the imprint of the new Crown Prince. The German Intelligence Agency, the BND, had in an internal memo issued two years ago characterised the new Saudi Crown Prince as “a reckless gambler with too much power”. His actions since then have vindicated this viewpoint. The war in Yemen and the move against Qatar have the imprint of the new Crown Prince.

Since Trump assumed the presidency, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statements against Iran have been even more belligerent. In an interview in May, the Crown Prince ruled out any dialogue with Tehran, insisting that Iran was out to dominate the region. “We’re a primary target of the Iranian regime,” he said. “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.” The Iranian government has blamed the Saudi authorities for instigating the twin terror attacks that rocked Tehran soon after Trump’s visit to Riyadh. The official reaction from Washington and Riyadh after the terror attack in Tehran only fuelled Iran’s suspicions. Both the governments tried to portray the attack as a kind of blowback for Iran’s alleged support for terrorism.

The elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman coincided with the Saudi-orchestrated move against Qatar. With Qatar rejecting the Saudi demands, which would have reduced it to a vassal state, the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) seems to have received a death blow. Kuwait and Oman have refused to toe the Saudi line on Qatar. These two countries fear that if Saudi Arabia has its way with tiny but rich Qatar, they will be next on Riyadh’s hit list. Among the demands made by Saudi Arabia is the immediate disbandment of the Al Jazeera network and the abandonment of all ties with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other such political groupings. The other key demand is that Qatar sever all diplomatic and trade links with Iran and remove the Turkish military base from its territory.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ascendancy also coincides with the weakening of the GCC. It was only after his father assumed the throne in 2015 that Qatar invited Turkey to set up a military base on its territory. Turkey has now managed to re-establish its military presence in the region for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century.

The Trump administration expects Riyadh to play a proactive role in helping Israel to subdue the demand for a meaningful Palestinian statehood. The contours of an axis emerging between Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are already visible. Trump had flown directly to Tel Aviv after his official visit to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia never allowed any previous head of state to do so. The new Crown Prince has the strong backing of the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington, which had been assiduously cultivated by UAE diplomats there. The U.S. media had reported that secret talks are being held to establish diplomatic relations between Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Israel has a semi-official presence in Abu Dhabi. Israel and Saudi Arabia have been coordinating their stance on Iran and Syria. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Defence Minister, has called for diplomatic relations to be established with “moderate Arab Sunni countries” before a “peace agreement can be made with the Palestinians”.

Meanwhile, there is no let-up in the Saudi-led war against Yemen. The country is facing a dire humanitarian crisis, the worst the world has seen in recent times. On top of that, the country has been hit by a cholera epidemic of gargantuan proportions. The new Saudi Crown Prince has not seen it fit to order a ceasefire to help humanitarian relief and health workers into the country. Instead, he has announced the donation of $66.7 million for the victims of cholera in the country devastated on his watch. UNICEF and other aid groups have, however, thanked the Prince for his charitable turn. In 2015, the Crown Prince spent $550 million to buy a second-hand yacht from a Russian tycoon in France. Interestingly, the Russian oligarch had initially bought the yacht for around $300 million.

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