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Challenges for the New Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

Dr Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 23, 2017

    Royal succession in Saudi Arabia has been a matter of intense speculation since octogenarian Crown Prince Salman ascended the throne in January 2015 after the demise of his half-brother King Abdullah. The new king appointed his youngest half-brother Muqrin as Crown Prince and nephew Muhammad Bin-Naif as Deputy Crown Prince making the latter the first among the grandsons of founder King Ibn Saud to come in the line of succession. Salman also appointed his 29-year old son Muhammad as the new Defence Minister. Within three months, in a surprise move, the line of succession was changed with the removal of Muqrin, the elevation of Bin-Naif as Crown Prince, and the appointment of Bin-Salman as Deputy Crown Prince. Since then, Bin-Salman has been consolidating his position by accumulating power through institutional changes and appointment of key allies and confidantes in important positions. He was also seen as the architect of several high profile internal and foreign policy decisions, giving rise to speculations about his eventual elevation as the heir to the monarchy.

    On June 21, 2017, these speculations came true when King Salman, through a royal decree, changed the line of succession, the second time in less than three years, by deposing Bin-Naif and elevating Bin-Salman as the new Crown Prince. Though the move was not entirely unexpected, the timing of the announcement, when the kingdom is facing several internal and regional challenges, has come as a surprise. For one, it puts the new Crown Prince in a difficult position vis-à-vis royal politics, in which domain, despite the recent history of smooth transitions, struggle for power is not alien. It is perhaps for this reason that the royal decree makes a significant change in Article 5(b) of the Basic Law of Governance by adding the clause that “After founder’s sons, king and crown prince shall not be from one branch of the founder’s descendants.” Moreover Bin-Naif was also relieved of his position as Interior Minister, and his nephew and the relatively inexperienced Abdulaziz Bin-Saud Bin-Naif was appointed to that position instead. At the same time, several great grandsons of Ibn Saud have been appointed in different government positions including as ambassadors to Italy and Germany.

    All these moves could be an effort to mitigate the chances of rifts amongst the linear branches of the family over the appropriation of the line of succession by King Salman. The sight of Bin-Naif being the first to pledge allegiance to the younger cousin and Bin-Salman in turn appearing to not only kiss the former’s hand as a mark of respect but also touching his knee to seek blessings showed that the transition is smooth. At the same time, the news that 31 out of 34 members of the allegiance council supported the transition signals the near consensus, although it also underlines the scope for internal differences with three members not in favour of Bin-Salman’s elevation. The new Crown Prince will work for regime consolidation by placating any anger within the large al-Saud family and evolving a consensus on key issues to keep royal unity intact.

    The larger challenge emanates from economic, political and religious problems facing the Kingdom. The economy is suffering from a slowdown due to low international oil prices seriously affecting state revenues and public investments. Petroleum contributes nearly 90 per cent of state revenues, about 95 per cent of export earnings and 55 per cent of the GDP. None of the previous efforts at diversification has given the desired results. The Vision 2030 unveiled in April 2016 also envisages economic diversification. Heralded as Bin-Salman’s pet project, the target of this ambitious plan is to end dependence on oil by 2030. The challenge is to deliver on some of the economic reforms targets with an important task being to arrest rising unemployment, especially among the youth and women.

    Further, Bin-Salman will have to confront challenges emanating from religious matters. He has quickly built an image of himself as a reformer and is considered to be popular among the youth who support him to end many religious-cultural restrictions such as public entertainment and women driving. On the other hand, the powerful clergy and their strong conservative support base continue to oppose any social reforms, instead advocating restrictions on what they deem as ‘Western influence.’ Hence, finding a balance between the aspirations of the youth and expectations of the clergy is a major challenge for the new Crown Prince.

    Thirdly, regional conflicts that pose serious challenges for Saudi Arabia’s external ambitions are a significant test for the heir apparent. While the Trump administration has signalled a change in approach towards the Middle East and especially Iran, Bin-Salman has played a significant role in sharpening Saudi-Iran tensions. Regional conflicts have accentuated due to Saudi-Iran competition for influence. At the same time, direct tensions between the two countries have escalated due to the Haj stampede in September 2015 and Riyadh’s execution of Shia dissident preacher Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016. These had not yet died down when Bin-Salman, accusing Iran of creating internal rifts in neighbouring countries, threatened to take the war inside Iran. This has angered the Iranian regime and polarised international public opinion against the Kingdom. Therefore, managing tensions with Iran and avoiding a direct confrontation is an important challenge.

    Bin-Salman is considered to be the man behind the decision to intervene in Yemen in March 2015. The decision, projected as a bold foreign policy move by the young Defence Minister, has not paid dividends. Rather, it has evoked strong international criticism due to the worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen. Breaking the stalemate in Yemen and finding a respectable exit is consequently important for the new heir apparent. On top of it, the Crown Prince is considered the architect of the joint action, along with UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, against Qatar. By breaking diplomatic ties and blocking all air, land and naval transport connections and putting the GCC unity at stake, the move has widened the regional schisms and has the potential to further polarise regional alignments.

    Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a historic transition and Bin-Salman as the new heir apparent is at the centre of this process. Though the change in the line of succession was not entirely unexpected, it would not have pleased everyone in the royal family. Thus, regime consolidation by keeping royal unity intact will be a priority. Simultaneously, the Crown Prince is faced with multiple domestic and external challenges. While other factors remain important, the real test for Bin-Salman would be to manage the three-pronged challenge of keeping royal unity intact, expediting economic reforms and ensuring regional stability.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.