Game of Thobes: Salman's elevation sees Saudi become Sultanate

Game of Thobes: Salman's elevation sees Saudi Arabia become Sultanate
5 min read
21 June, 2017
The rise of Mohammed bin Salman consolidates his power away from Saudi Arabia's traditional 'dynastic monarchy' approach, in which responsibility was spread across several princes or clans.

Saudi Arabia - Game of Thobes

He may have bowed down on national television to kiss the feet of his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, who was summarily sacked "at his own request", but the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as the kingdom's heir to the throne, makes him the de-facto king - if not sultan - of Saudi Arabia.

Reports of the sudden-yet-expected bold move had been circulating for weeks.

As seen with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency and the imposition of the Saudi-led blockade on Doha, the announcement of MBS' promotion came in the small hours of morning, on Wednesday. 

This timing was perhaps chosen to allow a gradual absorption of reactions.

Read more: Yemen war architect set to become next Saudi king

Bin Salman's upward mobility along the line of succession after all breaks with Saudi tradition, and the powerful interior minister he displaces has strong support in the kingdom's military and security agencies.

While it is difficult to ascertain the extent of satisfaction or resentment in the ranks of the Saudi royal family behind the kingdom's "iron curtain" of tightly controlled media and even social media, rumours of widespread grumbling abound.

For his part at least, the former heir to the throne, Bin Nayef, seems to have endorsed his replacement - despite long-running speculations about their alleged rivalry, although no one yet knows what he will receive in return for his loyalty to the king's 31-year-old son.

The rarely consulted subjects of the absolute Saudi monarchy seem to have been temporarily co-opted into acquiescence by a new round of salary raises and holiday extensions announced in celebration of the new Crown Prince's appointment.

The broader timing, however, not long after an "historic" visit by Donald Trump to Riyadh, follows a steady path of consolidation in Saudi Arabia's domestic and regional policies, concentrating more power in the young prince's hands, in a manner that is unprecedented in the kingdom's recent history.

"The team around MBS feel on fairly sure ground following the recent Trump visit. His support for Saudi arms purchases, and, more importantly, the Saudi effort to nobble Qatar's foreign policy, has been taken as something of a [US] green light," Christopher Davidson told The New Arab.

"It makes sense for the MBS camp to make their move now, rather than later," the author of Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East added.

With bin Salman now next in line to the throne, his main competition out of the way, and the fact that he already controls the country's oil sector, defence and economic spending for the next 13 years through Vision 2030, there are worries of a Saudi strongman emerging.

Traditionally, Saudi Arabia is ruled by consensus. Factions within the royal family control separate levers of the state, and even though the king is all-powerful, there are checks and balances.

Now things may be different, and if MBS were to become king now and live to the age of his 81-year-old father, he could end up ruling for more than half a century.

Read more: He'll be Saudi Arabia's next king, but who is Mohammed bin Salman?

"We are seeing the Saudi regime shift from being a fairly solid 'dynastic monarchy' to a more brittle sort of sultanistic polity, where power rests in the hands of just one or a small handful of individuals, rather than with responsibilities spread across several princes or clans," Davidson said.
The team around MBS feel on fairly sure ground following the recent Trump visit. His support for Saudi arms purchases, and, more importantly, the Saudi effort to nobble Qatar's foreign policy, has been taken as something of a [US] green light

All or nothing

To MBS' supporters in the kingdom and beyond, however, portraying his rise as a power grab is unfair. Although the PR firm-fuelled image of the ruler's reformist son and his promises of liberalisation is an old tune - last heard about Libya's Saif al-Islam Gaddafi - they insist it's true this time around.

"Never before in the history of Saudi Arabia has a member of the royal family spoken for and connected with young, hopeful Saudis," wrote Bilal Saab in Foreign Affairs in January.

Comment: Beware the sons - the hazards of intra-family succession

"In a country where more than half of the population is under the age of 25, this is huge. Because of his young age, an entire lifetime spent in Saudi Arabia... and keen understanding of the needs and aspirations of his generation, MBS is better positioned than most to manage and take advantage of the country's vast youth population... to further the reform program."

Yet many of MBS' defenders agree his consolidation entails a major gamble. As much as the kingdom needs certainty and a powerful leader to steer its domestic and regional revival, the lack of checks and balances tend to amplify blunders and losses.
It is fair to raise questions and express concerns about MBS' seemingly oversized power and government agenda

The MBS-engineered war in Yemen has become a costly and inhumane quagmire. The jury is still out on his economic programme based on neoliberal policies of cutting subsidies, privatisation and diversification of heavily oil-dependant revenues - and recent pressure forced a U-turn as soaring cost of living threatening unrest in the kingdom.

MBS has also bet the farm on Riyadh's relationship with the US, pledging to invest hundreds of billions of domestically much-needed dollars into the American economy including a massive controversial arms deal with Donald Trump.

Comment: Washington's love-fest with Riyadh comes out into the open

"It is fair to raise questions and express concerns about MBS' seemingly oversized power and government agenda," Saab wrote.

"One obvious concern is that he appears to have too much on his plate... Any portfolio that covers both defence and economics would be daunting to even the most experienced politician, let alone someone with little public policy experience" like Bin Salman, the Atlantic Council fellow added.

What is certain is that the Saudi establishment has judged, for better or worse, that the solution to its profound problems lies with betting on one young and daring stallion named Mohammed bin Salman.

Will he join the club of young rulers in neighbouring countries and reinvent Riyadh into the next Abu Dhabi or Doha? Or will the inertia of Saudi Arabia's old guard and the sheer size of the challenges that lie in his path, bring the new sultan down and his kingdom with him? Only time will tell.

Follow us on Twitter: @the_newarab