The power struggle in Saudi Arabia is far from over. King Salman’s son and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman upset the established order of succession in the ruling Saudi family in June this year when he forced his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef and took over as Crown Prince. It was a bloodless coup, though credible reports spoke of Nayef’s house arrest and resignation being taken under duress. It was also put out that ever since he survived an assassination attempt Nayef was on strong drugs which made him impossible to work.
The 31-year-old Crown Prince has since been engaged in consolidating his position, neutralizing potential challengers within the House of Saud and reorganizing personnel in government to appoint his own loyalists in key positions. The nature of the monarchy and its overwhelming military and financial power made it hard for anyone to confront the incumbent father-and-son duo. The arbitrary reordering of the succession plan was being enforced at the point of the sword. Even the US which had cultivated close contacts with Crown Prince Nayef, felt it wise to maintain a hands-off approach.
Clearly, the internal power struggle was still smoldering when last Sunday he cracked down against eleven princes and a number of senior ministers, former ministers and officials, supplanting them with his henchmen in their place. Among those put under house arrest was the well-known billionaire Prince Talal al Waleed who has sizable stakes in world renowned corporations such as the Citibank, News Corp., Apple, Time-Warner, etc. Besides, he controlled prominent media platforms in the Middle East. Another prince put away on Sunday is Mutaib ibn Abdullah, the son of former King, Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz.
Prince Abdullah was the head of the National Guard. Given that the National Guard is an armed force drawn from men from various tribes, its control by King Salman was aimed at ruling out trouble from those loyal to Prince Abdullah. The all-embracing crackdown against anyone who could potentially pose a challenge to the 32-year-old Prince Mohammed was sought to be justified as an earnest of his determination to `preserve public money, punish corrupt people and those who exploit their positions.’ A commission to investigate all those thrown in the dog house on Sunday was announced
Without doubt, the situation in Saudi Arabia is fraught. The most powerful nation in the region commanding the loyalty of most Sunni rulers thanks to its superior money and muslce power as also due to the historic fact as the seat of Islam’s most revered shrines is bound to suffer internal strife since those deposed too have vast reservoirs of support among various tribes and sections of the House of Saud. Clearly, the ambitions of crown prince to transform his nation will be tested by the constant fear of rebellion from within the ruling family.
Even if King Salman fully backs his recklessness, internal and external factors can upset his plans. For one, the on-going armed struggle in the neighbouring Yemen is and on-going problem. Saudis’ ill-considered intervention against the Iran-backed Houthis has not paid any dividend. Indeed, the other day Houthis fired a missile into Saudi Arabia, which the latter claimed was supplied by Iran, the rival Shia power in the region openly hostile to the Saudi leadership of the Islamic world.
The failure of the Saudis in Syria to force the change of regime, and the resignation last week of the Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al- Hariri while on a visit to Saudi Arabia citing the fear of Iran’s surrogate militia, the Hezbollah, killing him has further injected uncertainty in the region. The development reflects the rising tensions between Iran and its allies on the one side and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other. With Iran getting an upper hand in Syria and Lebanon, and the Iran-backed Hamas Fatah burying the hatchet with Fatah in Palestine, tensions in the Arabic world have mounted immensely.
The power struggle within the ruling party in Saudi Arabia can only undermine its capacity to play a stabilizing role in the region. Indeed, the on-going crackdown has sent tremors in the global oil markets, pushing the price above $60 per barrel. To balance the budget and meet the growing aspirations of its young population, Crown Prince Salman needs the crude priced at about $70 dollars. Allowing a whiff of freedom to women, announcing plans for a huge new city and shifting reliance from oil to commerce, industry, trade, etc. by 2030, is unlikely to douse anytime soon the ambers still burning bright following the crackdown against senior figures in the House of Saud. The controllers of Muslim’s most holy sites ought to have shown restraint and forethought, but then violent coups have a long tradition in Islam.