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Feature Article
2019-05-24

Muhammad bin Salman and the Great Unknowns: A Closer Understanding or Distant Conceit?

Three big uncertainties surround the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and his leadership role - what, if any, influence does his father, King Salman, have over domestic family politics; does the larger family, especially its senior members, still retain any influence over succession; and to what extent is a larger framework in place to govern executive decision making. The answers to these questions, however, are likely to be remain unanswered as events on the ground overtake a complete understanding of the unfolding dynamic.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The latest headlines emphasize how rapidly change is taking place in the traditionally conservative Kingdom, where change is normally expected to evolve at a snail's pace. Amid the ongoing Yemen conflict, and continued American support for the Saudi campaign (in the face of worldwide condemnation), the Trump administration is reported to be planning to approve a major new arms sale, involving precision guided missiles, using an "emergency powers" loophole to bypass Congress. This follows ongoing revelations that secret licences are being issued for a number of U.S. nuclear power companies to share information with the Saudis, who are pursuing plans to build civilian nuclear power plants (though the concern of course is that the technology will end up being used for nuclear arms). The other news, in a rather dramatic escalation in the Kingdom's crackdown on dissent, is that three prominent clerics are said to be in line for execution just after Ramadhan. The men are Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Umari, and although Saudi officials deny the story, the rumor is that the executions will be carried out swiftly once death sentences are passed. This follows a well-publicised mass execution of 37 men (including the crucifixion of one), mainly from the minority Shi'a community. The shocking nature of the sentence was speculated to have been a "trial run" to judge how the international community would react. The larger backdrop is Saudi`s ruthless suppression of all forms of dissent and criticism of the ruling elite.

Of course, the even larger backdrop is the presence of Crown Prince Muhammad (MbS for short) who has stamped his imprimatur on the country like no other. He owns the Yemeni campaign, and the crackdown on all but the most sycophantic is unprecedented. Importantly, he has the strong support of the Americans (and American business, despite the public relations nightmare), though it is an open question whether MbS simply feels emboldened by U.S. backing, or whether his moves are calculated to take advantage of the personal relationships he has developed with President Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and manipulate affairs to his own ends. To ponder this dynamic leads, by necessity, to a consideration of long-term aims and policy - is MbS working towards a specific goal, or is he an opportunist seeking advantage only for the moment, with nothing but a vague notion of some vision for the future. His policies can be seen, on the one hand, under the rubric of modernisation - dragging the country into the 21st century kicking and screaming, much like his uncle King Faysal did decades earlier, during also a time of great upheaval and disruption.

But it cannot be ignored, either, that the practical effect has been to solidify royal family rule, and, even more so, clear the way for his own eventual succession. With family rivals sidelined, nothing stands in the way of the throne, making it all but a certainty that MbS will be the next king. Is this the true endgame, and all that surrounds simply the means to create an environment conducive to that ultimate goal? Certainly, it is hard to make sense of the ongoing executions of high-profile clerics, or the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in any other way. If it were only those convicted on terrorism charges involved, or even if all those deemed a threat were from the Shi'a minority (who have long complained of religious persecution), it could be perceived as an escalation (of vastly increased severity) of an ongoing campaign against the usual foes. But the inclusion of relatively mild-mannered academics, and women's rights advocates, leaves no room for doubt - this is a clear-cut signal that the only way forward is that proposed by officialdom. Change will come, but on the terms of MbS alone, at a time and place of his deciding. Even if the aims are the same, the means must come from above.

Related articles: Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?
A Father-Son Rift: Change Of Course Or Course Correction?
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Past Feature Articles
Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?

It is no secret that the Kingdom has embarked on a campaign of repression, silencing any who might challenge the agenda and succession prospects of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. A ramping up of the intensity and extent of the crackdown raises the question of his survivability - will the king, committed to his son's prospects, take a knee and let the clock run out, or will an overconfident Muhammad celebrate too soon and see his world come crashing down?

A Father-Son Rift: Change Of Course Or Course Correction?

The news that King Salman has stripped his son Muhammad, the crown prince, of some financial and economic authority should be considered unsurprising. A widening rift at the top has been apparent for months, and calls to rein in the reckless heir to the throne have only accelerated in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Looking East: Hedging The Bet Or Cutting Losses?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman faces unrelenting international pressure, he has embarked upon a major Asian tour. At the same time, revelations continue to trickle out over his deep involvement with U.S. President Trump and his family. Is the Kingdom's de facto leader playing both sides, or has he given up on his American bet?

A Royal Shakeup: Window-Dressing Or Genuine Reform?

The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, seems more secure in his position than ever. Has the succession dynamic passed the point of no return?

Royal Dissidents And A Change Of House: The Gathering Storm?

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, hunkering down and hoping to ride out the upheaval caused by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is gambling that the continuing support of U.S. President Trump will anchor his precarious place within the royal succession. But will the perception of a weakened Trump provide the impetus for a concerted effort to dislodge the heir apparent?

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