Professor Mahmood Monshipouri, University of California, Berkeley

The new power shake-up in Saudi Arabia

June 28, 2017

The Saudi Arabia’s succession battle took a new turn on June 21, 2017, when Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, was elevated to a higher status, namely, the crown prince.  In a series of royal decrees, King Salman ousted his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and named his son Mohammed bin Salman as next in line of succession to the throne.  The new crown prince’s rise to power indicates a dramatic reordering of the Kingdom’s power structure.  

 The removal of Mohammed bin Nayef has presented new uncertainty for the West. Nayef has been known in the West as a key Saudi security partner in a crackdown against al-Qaeda especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Having survived four assassination attempts, Nayef became permanently if partially ill because of one of those attacks conducted by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber in 2009.

This significant reshuffling has pushed Prince Mohammed and his so-called “Vision 2030” plan to the forefront of Kingdom’s political stage.  Exactly where this vision takes Saudi Arabia in the future remains open to debate. Also uncertain is how far the new generation of young leaders in Riyadh will go to change the country’s welfare state economy by restructuring its oil-dependent economy in the wake of slump in oil prices and persistent ultra-conservative cultural pressures.  What is certain, however, is that Prince Mohammed’s promotion to power comes at a difficult time, when the entire Middle East and North Africa region faces daunting challenges and the Saudi Arabia itself encounters numerous internal problems, ranging from low oil prices to a substantial increase in the size of younger cohorts of unemployed who are angry, vocal, and eager for social change.  The lingering civil war in Yemen, which has tied down Saudis’ hands in an unwinnable crisis next door, has also presented new problems to the Saudis leadership.

“The lingering civil war in Yemen, which has tied down Saudis’ hands in an unwinnable crisis next door, has also presented new problems to the Saudis leadership.”Saudi airstrikes have irreparably demolished Yemen’s already inadequate and dilapidated infrastructure, leaving the country on the brink of famine, starvation, and epidemics such as cholera. The ensuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen has significantly undermined Saudi Arabia’s image both in the region and on the global scene, while also strengthening the resolve of a generation of young Yemenis to violently resist the Saudi military intervention in their country.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the prospect of a young prince—to become the king in not-too-distant future—with the potential to rule the country for decades has now become real.  Such an eventuality carries worrisome implications.  Consider, for example, the recent Saudis’ ill-fated policy of isolating Qatar following the accusation that Doha has kept financing extremist groups—a policy with which many of the region’s Arab countries, as well as the U.S. State Department, fundamentally differ.  In fact, the U.S. State Department officials have pointed out that many Arab countries of the Persian Gulf allow funding to groups and organizations that foster extremism or underwrite terrorism.  “Saudi Arabia, for instance, has long underwritten mosques around the world that teach a stark form of Islam strongly associated with extremism” (The New York Times, June 21, 2017:A13).  

“The ensuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen has significantly undermined Saudi Arabia’s image both in the region and on the global scene.”Given that Qatar is an important military partner of the United States and home to the largest U.S. air base in the region, the boycott of Qatar has wreaked havoc on the region and intensified further divisions there. The control of the House of Saud by young and aggressive princes bodes ill for a country that is consumed by taking a hawkish stance toward Iran and yet at the same time claiming to lead the campaign against Sunni extremists, including Daesh.  The Trump administration’s unbridled support for the new prince is likely to invite further controversy and discord in the coming months and years.

To successfully fight against Sunni militants linked to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh—not to mention ending civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen—the United States needs regional stability, calm, and cooperation. That said, for both the United States and Saudi Arabia the priority, at least for now, seems to be not to frontally confront al-Qaeda and/or Daesh, but rather to fend off Iran’s pervasive influence in the region.  Such urgency is fundamentally misplaced, for a strategy that allows for the simultaneous isolation of Iran and confrontation with al-Qaeda and/or Daesh makes little or no sense.

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Mahmood Monshipouri, Ph.D., is teaching Middle Eastern Politics at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley.  He is the editor, most recently, of Information Politics, Protests, and Human Rights in the Digital Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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