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Feature Article
2021-08-01

Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?

While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman dominates the headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that two of his brothers, Abd al-Aziz and Khalid, are both highly accomplished in their own right. But to what extent do their policies and views reflect the influence of the powerful heir to the throne, or indeed, the king?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Abd al-Aziz, the first member of the royal family to be the Kingdom's energy minister, has electrified the markets with his no-holds barred approach ever since first taking over the portfolio in September 2019. Even though Saudi has an inherently outsize role within OPEC+ (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia) by virtue of its vast reserves and production capabilities, it has until now been content to play the part of primus inter pares. Under Abd al-Aziz, however, the Kingdom has emerged as a bold and far more dominant player, engaging in games of brinksmanship with rival oil producers and forcing the hand of competitors.

This new approach was on full display in March 2020. With a global pandemic bearing down, OPEC was unable to reach agreement with holdout Russia on the need to boost production levels. Angered by their refusal to look beyond the short term consequences, Abd al-Aziz ordered state oil giant Aramco to ramp up production to maximum levels. An all-out price war was launched. He announced that the Kingdom would begin pumping 12 million barrels per day, a shock increase of more than 20 per cent over the previous month's levels. Concurrently, the price of Saudi oil was slashed, being offered to refiners at unprecedented discounts. Russia relented, and Abd al-Aziz won the battle. More recently, in July, OPEC+ was again at an impasse when the UAE tried to block a deal favored by Abd al-Aziz, who wanted the group to agree to graduated production increases covering not only the following months, but until the end of 2022, in the interest of stability. Again, weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy culminated in an act of brinksmanship, and the holdout member was forced to give in. The bloc agreed to substantial production increases into August, and the deal was salvaged.

Notably, the energy minister broke with tradition and expectation by not informing the Americans of his intended actions during the latest flareup. (Washington was similarly blindsided and thrown into turmoil in 2020 by the shock announcement of massive production increases.) The unambiguous message is that Saudi is now charting its own course, less constrained by the American response. Furthermore, the Kingdom seems out of step with, even defiant of, the growing global consensus on climate change - Abd al-Aziz reportedly said in June to a private conference that "we are still going to be the last man standing, and every molecule of hydrocarbon will come out". Having charge of the energy portfolio, his ambition seems to be capturing as large a market share as possible now, by investing in infrastructure and new exploration projects, at a time when international oil companies are being forced to slash spending in order to meet climate change targets demanded by stakeholders. Saudi, already benefitting from rock-bottom production costs, believe this represents an opening.

This seemingly puts the energy minister at odds with his own brother Muhammad (known as MbS), the crown prince who has made his Vision 2030 platform key to weaning the country off its 'addiction to oil', as he puts it. But this highlights the fact that the energy minister is not merely an underling to his more powerful brother. Abd al-Aziz, although the first of the royals to assume the role, has been preparing for it his entire career, which began with a move to Dhahran (home of Aramco), where he studied for a degree at the renowned King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals. Later, he headed the economic studies department at the university's Research Institute, before heading to California to pursue Ph.D. studies. He left before finishing, however, to take a junior position with the Petroleum Ministry. In time, he effectively became the deputy of oil minister Ali al-Naimi, and continued in much the same role under his successor, Khalid al-Falih, from 2016. Eventually, he landed the top job himself.

Related articles: From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?
The Changing Shape Of Royal Family Politics: Old Rivalries Revisited?
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Past Feature Articles
From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?

As the Kingdom's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is entertained in Washington, another royal is under fire in France for allegedly enslaving his maids, bringing to mind the notorious affair of Princess Hussa bint Salman, the sister of Khalid, who was accused of threatening to murder a contractor working at her Paris apartment. With talk of a "fundamental" transformation of Saudi society, it is an open question whether real change is afoot, or whether it is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

An Imprisoned Princess: Red Lines Crossed or Factional Dispute?

Princess Basmah bint Saud continues to languish in prison, one of a number of high-profile royals imprisoned without charge or "disappeared" on the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Is her case, like that of many others, the consequence of a falling-out with the heir to the throne, or is the real motive an internal family dispute?

The Changing Shape Of Royal Family Politics: Old Rivalries Revisited?

The Al Saud has been riven with internal conflict throughout its varied history. This has typically taken the form of inter-sibling rivalry, as brothers jostle for power and position, whether in the courtyards of the palace or on the battlefield. Will a similar dynamic emerge in the modern era, or is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in a place of unassailable supremacy?

Rebranding the Kingdom: Illusion or Reality?

A new wrinkle in the saga of the famous "Salvator Mundi" painting, acquired by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman for a record sum in 2017, shines a revealing light on his character, mirroring the gradual erosion of his own carefully cultivated image.

It's Complicated: The Changing Nature of the US-Saudi Alliance

After the long-awaited release of a US intelligence report into the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration immediately took flak for seeming to give Muhammad bin Salman, named in the report as the man bearing key responsibility, a free pass. Has the White House made its point, or further emboldened the crown prince?

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