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Feature Article
2019-03-21

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.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Muhammad (known as MbS for short) seemed certain, at first, that he could ride out the storm after his involvement in the killing at the Turkish consulate became obvious. In part, this was a result of his gamble that the Trump administration had his back and no real consequences would come of it, and his observation that economic interests almost always top concerns over human rights in the long run. Indeed, he was largely right in his assumptions - with the exception of some damage to ties with Canada and Germany, foreign relations remain intact, and the U.S., officially (though Congress has made some symbolic moves against MbS) stands behind the Saudi government's account, which was designed to absolve the crown prince of blame. But in large measure, too, the failure to change course or admit responsibility can be ascribed to overconfidence (some would say arrogance) and zeal. With any knowledge of his character, it is hard for anyone to imagine any other outcome. MbS has simply put his head down and ploughed forward, shrugging off the backlash at home and within the royal family as if it were a nuisance to be swatted away.

But anecdotal evidence for months now has suggested that King Salman is becoming increasingly disturbed by the behavior and decisions of MbS. Unconfirmed reports had the monarch livid upon learning of his son's role in the Khashoggi affair, and there was talk of reigning the crown prince in, particularly after the return from abroad of Ahmad, his uncle and one of the last remaining senior royals with any influence. Ahmad's sway with the king (a full brother) and stature gave him the means to draw in a small circle of like-minded royals who shared the same concerns, and with a newfound confidence anchored in Ahmad's almost triumphal arrival in Riyadh (many supporters seized on the idea that he should be the next king in place of MbS), these recently marginalized princes could address Salman directly. It was unclear whether any meaningful action resulted, but small signs supported the view that the king, while still determined to have MbS next in line, was nowhere near ready to turn things over entirely. MbS is being groomed, and stumbles along the way are to be expected, is the view; no confidence is lost if squalls or headwinds buffet the ship of state, provided course is resumed. But running aground is another matter.

Such an inflection point may have come to pass. When MbS was given temporary powers in February as the 'deputy king' during Salman's absence as the monarch visited Egypt, he seems to have abused that trust by making decisions that were considered out of his ambit. Brother Khalid bin Salman was appointed Defense Minister (assuring a total family stranglehold over all branches of the armed forces), and Rima bint Bandar bin Sultan was named ambassador to the United States. Khalid had been forced to flee Washington in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, making his position there untenable, and Rima, as the daughter of the long-serving and popular Bandar, seemed a brilliant move. Saudi has been keen to promote the image of a country on the move, and so the appointment of the Kingdom's first female top diplomat should have been heralded as a coup. Yet, apparently Salman was kept out of the loop, with no input. The apparent snub angered the king, seemingly confirming his worst fears that MbS was conspiring to seize power sooner rather than later, unwilling to wait even for a formal transference upon the king's death. Despite the impression that the crown prince has an unimpeded path to the throne, the elephant in the room has always been the uncertain nature of succession - MbS cannot simply declare himself the new monarch. The legal process demands input from other members of the family. Normally, this would not be an issue, but so alienated are senior royals that the normal procedures may not apply. MbS, sensing his path will be blocked, could act preemptively.

Related articles: A Royal Shakeup: Window-Dressing Or Genuine Reform?
Royal Dissidents And A Change Of House: The Gathering Storm?
The Khashoggi Affair: The Downfall of Muhammad bin Salman?
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Page 2: overblown fears?
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Commentary
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?

The Khashoggi Affair: The Downfall of Muhammad bin Salman?

Despite international condemnation, the crown prince carries on with an attitude of 'business as usual'. Yet, internal pressure is mounting, while the question of his removal depends largely on the mental state and willingness to act of his father, the king.

Bullets And Bone Saws: The Dark Side Of Prince Muhammad bin Salman?

As the crisis over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi deepens, the world is taking a second look at Saudi Arabia's crown prince, who has forged an image as a reformer and modernizer. Will the threat of international pariah status finally galvanize royal opposition at home?

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