Since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by a hit team, Saudi Arabia’s top prodigal son, Mohammed bin Salman, has rarely been seen.
Saudi’s crown prince Mohammaed bin Salman, or MbS, once widely praised for his attempts to reform the country’s economy, is widely rumored to have had many of his powers taken from him. Some media outlets have even gone as far to speculate that the Saudi royal court is quietly trying to have him replaced with a more moderate, less controversial prince.
A highly circulated article from The Guardian revived these theories by reporting MbS is quietly being barred from attending meetings and making political decisions on behalf of the kingdom.
Taken at face value, this possibility would mean that Saudi is looking to make amends with those countries it has wronged; most notable the U.S., and fall back in line as a stable regional partner.
But this narrative rests on the assumption that Saudi’s internal power dynamics can be heavily influenced by outside players, and ignores the fact that MbS still firmly grips the country’s main levers of power.
Experts interviewed by Al Bawaba also pointed out that stories on MbS’ supposedly waning power rely on anonymous sources, who may in fact be from western intelligence agencies wanting to see bin Salman removed from power.
The reality is that Mohammed bin Salman still appears to be the country’s de facto leader, and is largely immune from the hailstorm of criticism he has received.
The Narrative: Bin Salman is fighting for his place as crown prince
Mbs (left) with King Salman (right) (AFP/FILE)
On Oct 2, Washington Post reporter and American resident Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, never to come to out.
After a few weeks, it became clear that he was assassinated by a team sent from Riyadh to kill him, and fingers began pointing at MbS as the man who ordered the hit.
World leaders called on Saudi to take responsibility for the murder and business executives boycotted a financial conference organized to support MbS’ ‘Saudi Vision 2030—a national plan he introduced to ween Saudi off of oil and relax some of its hyper-conservative social norms. MbS only briefly attended the conference to and went largely silent after that.
Rumors began to swirl that MbS was a marked man; that dissidents within the royal court were organized a silent coup against him and were actively seeking replacements to be the crown prince.
In late Oct 2018, Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz arrived in Riyadh from London. According to a Reuters report, Abdulaziz’s trip was part of an insider effort to replace MbS. Abdulaziz “appeared to criticize the Saudi leadership while responding to protesters outside a London residence chanting for the downfall of the Al Saud dynasty,” the Reuters story read.
“Senior U.S. officials have indicated to Saudi advisers in recent weeks that they would support Prince Ahmed, who was deputy interior minister for nearly 40 years, as a potential successor, according to Saudi sources with direct knowledge of the consultations.”
The story was circulated widely, and subsequent reports have only contributed to the theory of a disempowered MbS desperately trying to maintain his tenuous hold on power.
In Feb 2019, the Financial Times declared that “The global tide is turning against Mohammed bin Salman.”
The Guardian then broke a viral story alleging that MbS had been functionally demoted by the king.
Citing an anonymous source, the piece reports that MbS “has not attended a series of high-profile ministerial and diplomatic meetings in Saudi Arabia over the last fortnight and is alleged to have been stripped of some of his financial and economic authority.”
In addition to absences in meetings with high-level diplomats, “Prince Mohammed also wasn’t present at a meeting with senior economic and finance officials earlier this week, a meeting between the king and the grand mufti, a meeting with the head of the World Health Organisation, and meetings with the prime minister of Lebanon, and ambassadors from India and China,” The Guardian writes, before relaying that the king has been reportedly displeased with his son and frustrated with the business costs of having such a controversial crown prince.
The article even portrayed the king to be livid with MbS over his handling of prisoner exchanges in Yemen and press coverage of protests in Sudan and Algeria. “While the king is not a reformer,” the Guardian writes, “he is said to have supported freer coverage of the protests in Algeria in the Saudi press.”
On April 3, after the CIA published a report determining that MbS almost certainly ordered the Khashoggi hit, the Middle East Eye published an opinion arguing, “Mohammed Bin Salman can take on and crush his more experienced cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, but even he knows he cannot take on the CIA and win.”
“His only remaining insurance is Donald Trump himself, and that policy might expire.” the piece added.
Taken together, these reports make MbS appear vulnerable and at odds with the only person with more authority than him; the king.
His ability to continue his role as the crown prince should be baffling if this narrative was true. But it likely isn’t.
The Bitter truth: Bin Salman is here to stay
(AFP/FILE edited by Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
Mohammed bin Salman still has hands on Saudi’s levers of power, and his absence from certain meetings may simply be to continue with a strategy of PR damage control.
“The reality of the matter is that MbS is solidified in his position as the al-Saud [regime] has rallied around MbS,” Theodore Karasik, a Gulf expert who is now a Senior Adviser at Gulf State Analytics, told Al Bawaba.
Mohammed bin Salman is still the head of Saudi’s Ministry of Defense, which gives him control of the state’s military apparatus and aspects of its foreign policy, while also effectively leading the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), which is an internal military force dedicated solely to protecting the royal family from coup attempts. Karasik also noted that MbS still has strong support from the country’s technocrats, who back MbS’ reform efforts.
These positions, and not his presence at diplomatic meetings, are likely to be more accurate measurements of MbS’ political power inside Saudi Arabia.
“MbS doesn't disappear if you keep track of the Arabic press.. Ever since MBS became Deputy Crown Prince there has been a steady stream of Western reporting on major internal problems and Disappearing Acts as a sign of problems at the top of the Saudi hierarchy,” Karasik added.
Domestically, according to Karasik, MbS still appears to be a popular figure among those who support his plan to open the country up to foreign investment while leashing the country’s notorious religious police.
For his lack of high-profile public appearances, Saudi may simply be making a strategic calculation to limit his exposure.
“I don't think anyone can say anything with certainty but it may be that Mohammed bin Salman is keeping a lower public profile as he continues to consolidate power domestically and attempts to contain the fallout from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” explained Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at the Baker Institute based out of Rice University.
On a supposed internal rift between the king and MbS, Ulrichsen points out several occasions where MbS and the king have been seen together: “I think it is safe to assume that Mohammed bin Salman retains the support of King Salman,” he said.
When it comes to anonymous sources with purported insider knowledge claiming MbS is on his way out or that the royal court is scheduling is replacement, there is reason to be skeptical.
“If anyone is leaking information about the Crown Prince's position I would imagine it might be coming from members of Western intelligence communities who are alarmed at the volatility and unpredictability in aspects of Saudi regional and foreign policymaking,” Ulrichsen argued, though Al Bawaba could not independently verify this claim.
Karasik further explained that the anonymous leaks may be politically driven attempts to try and influence who becomes the next king. The country’s current ruler, King Salman, has suffered from dementia for years and is likely to pass the reigns of the country on soon.
“Some sources want MbS out so bad that they will manipulate the press and leak articles almost to the minute in order to keep fake narratives alive,” Karasik added.
A protester wears a mask depicting MbS’ face while demonstrating outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey (AFP/FILE)
Understanding how Mohammed bin Salman is able to hold onto power in spite of global backlash is just as important to knowing how he abuses that power in the first place.
That he ordered the hit on a famous American journalist speaks to one level of power he commands: to know how he can order such hits with impunity is similarly vital information, which speaks to another type of power he has captured.
There is a real risk this information could get lost under the stampede of recurrent speculations by some media outlets regarding his supposedly ailing grasp on Saudi.
Thinking he is vulnerable from the negative media coverage betrays the amount of power he actually has.
As it appears now, he is withstanding the negative media coverage of his rule while he continues the Saudi’s war in Yemen that he ordered in 2015 and tortures more dissidents and women’s activists. The rumors that the royal court is grooming a replacement have so far not panned out.
The underlying reason why he is able to persist as the country’s de facto leader is because he has centralized power more effectively than any other Saudi leader: he has personalized the state’s institutions around him while becoming the face of a fast-changing kingdom, all the while brutalizing those who stand in his way and exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
The Saudi state is not quietly holding him to account, because he is the Saudi state.
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