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Feature Article
2019-09-22

New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?

Unprecedented attacks on the Kingdom's oil infrastructure have focussed attention on the leadership's failure to defend even the most critical facilities, despite overseeing the third-largest military budget in the world. Will royal patience finally wear out with crown prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

In the pre-dawn hours of September 14, a barrage of missiles slammed into the world's largest oil-processing facility at Abqaiq, in the eastern Saudi desert, whilst a separate attack set alight the the Khurays oilfield, 185km to the south west. Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed credit for the strike, but Saudi and American intelligence immediately cast doubt on their claims, citing a sophistication in accuracy and weaponry not seen before from the militia based far to the south. Pinning the blame squarely on Iran, the allies pointed to physical evidence, in the form of crashed drones that fell short of their target, as well as the fact that the damage to the Aramco structures suggested the missiles came from the north. The Houthis did, however, imply that they had help from within the Kingdom, perhaps being provided with detailed targetting co-ordinates. The Eastern Region, home to the facilities and oilfields, has a largely Shi'a population, and sympathizers, whether pro-Iranian or simply opposed to the royal family, are readily available to assist. Regardless, Iran has a well-honed strategy of using proxies to disrupt or even strike at its regional enemy; unfortunately, Saudi has no good options to hit back without plunging the area into an even worse conflagration.

The strikes coincided almost exactly with the appointment of the king's son Abd al-Aziz to the position of Energy Minister less than a week before, the first time that a royal has been in charge of oil policy. By tacit agreement, the royal family had intentionally kept at arm's length from what is the lifeblood of the economy, at first seeking to avoid the impression that the wealth of the state was for the Al Saud alone, which later merged with a realization that qualified technocrats might in fact be better at managing such an essential portfolio. The taint of the King Saud years, when every government post available was dispensed like candy to the king's multitudinous sons, and it started to take shape as one man's personal fiefdom, still weighs heavily on the family, and while holding portfolios like Defense was considered almost de rigeur (out of sheer self-preservation), the optics of heavy-handed intrusion in the functioning of oil markets, which would inevitably accrue to royal benefit, still kept Energy in the domain of dedicated commoners.

Royal involvement had been creeping back in, however, as it became too tempting a jewel to ignore. Abd al-Aziz first became involved with the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources (as it was then called) in 1995, as a counsellor with the title of 'Assistant', before promotion to Assistant Minister in 2004, and then Deputy in 2015. He was a regular participant in OPEC meetings, and by all accounts was a highly capable and knowledgeable career man. His formal accession to Minister of State for Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources came in April, 2017, the only surprise being his royal status. Abd al-Aziz seems to have the requisite characteristics to hold down the job, being at once level-headed and diplomatic, while also having a presence commanding enough to make his mark in the cutthroat world of OPEC (and beyond).

One of his first actions as new Minister was to inspect the damaged Abqaig facilities; had his appointment come only a week later, speculation would have been rife over the reasons for the change. As it is, the embarrassment of having suffered the attacks early on his watch could play out in two ways - Abd al-Aziz inherits the reality that the Kingdom was utterly unprepared, affording him the chance to take part in a fundamental realignment while avoiding blame, as well as demonstrate leadership in the turbulent aftermath. Or, his role could be suspect, with his peers questioning the overall competence of the royal family, of which he is a senior member, amid suspicions that such an appointment smacks of desperation when the Kingdom is reeling from years of low revenue

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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Page 2: a fly in the ointment?
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Commentary
Royal Dalliance and Soft Power: Changing Mores or Sidelined Princes?

With the crown prince rumored to be dating American actress Lindsay Lohan, a similar affair from the past comes to mind, involving his predecessor and uncle, the late King Fahd. At the time, royal family opposition destroyed any chance of an enduring relationship; given Muhammad bin Salman's pre-eminent position within the family today, would the same dynamic hold?

Clerics and Confidantes: Royal Crackdown or Seismic Shift?

Shaykh Salman al-Awda, one of the most high-profile religious figures in the Kingdom, faces the death penalty for his perceived opposition to official government policy. Is his case unique, and the severity of his actions such that he represents a genuine challenge to power, or does he represent a shift in dynamic of the Al Saud's partnership with the religious establishment?

da Vinci and the Plumber: Royal Exceptions or the Rule?

Separate news events involving the crown prince and his sister highlight the often un-Islamic behavior of the royal family. Is this part of a long-standing pattern, or have the senior royals embarked on a dangerous and cynical new course?

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.

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?

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