Saudi Game of Thrones: King Appoints Son Crown Prince After Power Struggle

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz made a surprise announcement on Wednesday morning that his son Mohammed bin Salman, 31, would become the new crown prince of the kingdom.

As it happens, Saudi Arabia already had a Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. Nayef is over 25 years senior to Mohammed bin Salman and was also the deputy prime minister and interior minister of Saudi Arabia. He was stripped of all these positions at once.

He appeared to handle his demotion quite well, having no doubt seen the writing on the wall ever since Salman became deputy crown prince. “I am content,” said Nayef to his replacement, as quoted by Al Jazeera. “I am going to rest now. May God help you.”

To the dismay of the Western world, Nayef was considered one of the most pro-American of the Saudi royal family. He received counterterrorism training from the FBI and Scotland Yard in the eighties, maintained good relations with U.S. officials, and was instrumental as both an operational leader and spokesman in the Saudi war against al-Qaeda after 9/11.

His commitment to fighting the terrorist group did not waver after a 2009 suicide bomb attack against him. The CIA was sufficiently impressed with his work to give him a counterterrorism medal in February, personally awarded by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

The new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been nicknamed “Mr. Everything” because he has been put in charge of just about everything in Saudi Arabia. He was the chief architect of the “Saudi Vision 2030” plan intended to make his country less dependent on oil money, a plan regarded as the biggest change to the Saudi economy in the country’s history.

Nayef, on the other hand, has been nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness” because of his role in Saudi intelligence. Saudi dissidents find nothing whimsical about the nickname, as they blame Nayef for using the al-Qaeda crackdown as a pretext for imprisoning the politically inconvenient.

The Saudi Vision 2030 plan put Mr. Everything at the helm of some $2 trillion in overseas investments on the reasonable proposition that breaking the country’s dependence on oil would involve buying a tremendous amount of stock in companies that do not sell oil and are not headquartered in Saudi Arabia. Among his many duties, Salman is the chairman of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco – the first member of the royal family to have such a direct role in managing the all-important corporation.

Mohammed bin Salman was popular when the reform program was launched, and he remains popular today. The UK Daily Mail notes that Saudi Arabia’s enormous youth population sees him as a rock star, a symbol of hope and prosperity for the future.

The Daily Mail floats rumors that Salman and Nayef were engaged in a fairly bitter power struggle behind the scenes, and it might not be over yet, even after the king moved to resolve it in Salman’s favor before his death. The deciding factor might simply have been that the king likes Salman better, and is impressed by his charisma, erudition, and 16-hour-day work ethic.

Another advantage to Salman is that his youth and energy suggest a certain stability for Saudi Arabia for decades to come. The previous king, Abdullah, was the world’s oldest monarch at the time of his death in early 2015 at age 90; King Salman is currently 81. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman puts a younger face on the monarchy and might well end up occupying the throne for five decades.

Middle East Eye cites analysts who say the king wanted to reassure Western governments, regional allies, and business partners there would be “continuity in foreign and economic policies.” There was evidently very little confidence that Nayef would have offered such continuity.

Also, Middle East Eye observes that Nayef had a testy relationship with a crucial Saudi ally, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, while Salman and Zayed have become close friends.

Most intriguingly, a Saudi citizen told MEE that President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia played a role in reshaping the monarchy, as King Salman took the occasion to convince Trump the new crown prince is “the right horse to back” despite Nayef’s favorable reputation in Washington.

The monarchy moved quickly to secure Salman in his new position, announcing that 31 of 34 royals supporting his ascension and arranging a meeting in Mecca for them to formally pledge allegiance within a matter of hours. The senior Islamic council swiftly endorsed the decision, followed by welcomes from the leaders of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim allies. The Saudi stock market added its congratulations by climbing over five and a half percent.

Some other Middle Eastern powers were less enthusiastic about the shift in Saudi leadership. Iranian state media grumbled that Crown Prince Salman’s ascension was a “soft coup” in which the “son becomes the successor of the father,” which would seem to betray a fundamental Iranian misunderstanding of how hereditary monarchy works.

Reuters suggests Iran correctly sees Salman’s ascension as a sign of more aggressive Saudi policy toward Tehran and its projects, such as the Houthi rebellion in Yemen and whatever the Qatari royal family has been up to for the past decade. Nayef’s focus was on al-Qaeda, while Salman has been an outspoken enemy of Iran, supporter of Saudi intervention in Yemen, and critic of Qatar. In fact, he is seen as one of the prime movers behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to isolate Qatar.

The Saudis will probably let Iran’s criticism roll off their backs, but Turkey is more problematic. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fairly close to Nayef but still working on building a relationship with Salman. It is not going terribly well, as Salman has refused every Turkish invitation to visit Ankara since he was named deputy crown prince.

Erdogan has expressed support for Qatar, putting it at odds with one of Salman’s major policy initiatives, and he disagrees with Salman’s dim view of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Middle East Eye cites Turkey-watchers who foresee a potentially serious conflict between Erdogan and Salman over Turkey’s least favorite Middle Eastern faction, the Kurds. Either as a power play, or because he sincerely favors their cause, Salman may support the Kurds in Syria – which would inflame Turkish fears of the Kurds carving out chunks of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq to form an independent state. Turkish media is reportedly speculating that Salman will threaten to put Saudi Arabia’s chips on the Kurds unless Erdogan backs away from supporting Qatar.

CNN notes that if Salman does succeed his father, he will be the first Saudi king who is not the son of national founder Ibn Saud, who became King Abdul Aziz al-Saud. Naming Mohammed bin Salman as his heir allowed King Salman to reshape the line of succession for decades, and perhaps centuries, to come.

It also puts Saudi Arabia more firmly under the guidance of the most liberal leader it has ever had, with respect to everything from women’s rights to representative government. Granted, that’s a fairly low bar to clear in one of the world’s most repressive countries, but it’s good to see a future king trying to clear it at a moment when the United States is realigning Middle East policy back toward Saudi Arabia and its allies.


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