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Feature Article
2019-01-22

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?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

In what seemed like a response to worldwide condemnation and outrage over the involvement of his son Muhammad (commonly known as MbS) in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, King Salman reshuffled the government to shift some areas of importance out of the control of the crown prince. Yet, the effort may not have been as sincere as hoped. Although the king has been willing to rein in clear excesses, there is no indication that any sort of major upheaval is in the works. Many had hoped that the shakeup might reveal a real crisis of confidence in the leadership of MbS; in fact, such regular government upheaval is the norm, and may reflect any combination of disparate factors, from actual dissatisfaction with performance in a certain role, to political manoeuvring which shifts the balance from one faction to another. If the latter is the case, there is no sign that MbS is any worse off.

Faced with the crescendo of criticism over the Khashoggi killing and the very real prospect of a precipitous decline in foreign investment (a scenario worse than the damage to relations with allies), Saudi announced a major effort to bring the perpetrators to justice, although no one seriously expected anything to come of it, since by then it was common knowledge that the affair had the personal stamp of the crown prince himself. Nonetheless, given that it was becoming ludicrous to continue to feign ignorance, at least the "investigation" could tamp down the fervor and provide cover for foreign governments to avoid taking meaningful action. A number of low-level operatives were rounded up, the crown prince denied involvement, and it was business as usual. Still, skepticism abounds, especially since Saud al-Qahtani, the right-hand man to MbS, was not among those charged in the murder. (If he had taken the fall, the consequences would have been unpredictable - was loyalty to the crown prince reciprocated in any way?) Business may yet be affected, as Canada and Germany, in particular, came under intense domestic pressure to cancel arms exports.

On the other hand, overall foreign investment does not appear to have taken a hit. A number of large corporations called off their appearance at a conference hosted by Saudi in the immediate aftermath of the Khashoggi affair, but there are few signs that their withdrawal is permanent. The showpiece city, NEOM, a futuristic mega project in the desert, seems to be back on track, following a period of uncertainty over whether it would actually get off the ground. The brainchild of MbS, NEOM is a key part of the structure intended to transform the Kingdom's economy. Similarly, big name musical acts are trickling back for performances, shrugging off criticism over their appearance there. Opening up the religiously conservative nation to public, Western-style entertainment (along with a loosening of restrictions on women) was a stroke of genius on the part of MbS; domestically, it has made him into something of a hero to a population that is slanted towards the young, and nothing was calculated to excite foreign interest as much as hearing that popular culture was about to take root. Saudi instantly became relatable, rather than strange and suspect, and its people identifiable as individuals, rather than the stereotypical extremist, fist-shaking male or shrouded, oppressed female of the imagination. Pulling back the curtain has brought an untold amount of goodwill, a capital store that risks being rapidly drained, however, with revelations that dissent is facing an increased crackdown. Change is meant to be on royal terms, and boundaries, when crossed, are provoking a harsh backlash. This reflects the fact that much of what is taking place is not truly a shift in foundations, but only a change in perceptions, a means to siphon off mounting social pressure and solidify popular support for MbS personally in his quest to secure the throne.

Related articles: 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: shuffling the deck chairs
Saudi Business News
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Commentary
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?

The 'Dissent' of Prince Ahmad: Bad Blood or Widening Rupture?

Prince Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz startled Saudi watchers recently by appearing to confirm the suspected chasm between the policies of the king and crown prince and the concerns of the broader royal family. Were his off-guard remarks to a crowd of protesters a clue to the family's simmering discontent, or do they reflect a more personal animosity?

The Crown Prince, Canada and Aramco: Shattering The Illusion?

The surprising decision to go on the offensive against Canada has baffled Saudi watchers, but in the context of the broader goals of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman it makes perfect sense. With sanctions comes prestige, yet at the same time a ruthless suppression of dissent at home exposes an agenda not so different from his predecessors.

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