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Feature Article
2021-05-11

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?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Beginning in May, rumors swirled that Sultan bin Salman, the well-know former astronaut, had been barred from travelling outside the Kingdom. This was shocking in itself, given that Sultan is as close to the "inner sanctum" as one can get, being the king's son and brother of the crown prince, and an influential behind the scenes player in his own right who often acts as a mediator in family relations. But the mild-mannered prince, unlike more outspoken members of the family, had been an uncritical bystander during the rise of his powerful half-brother Muhammad (known as MbS), and was unlikely to have been the target of retaliation for any perceived opposition. Was there tension beneath the surface, or were the rumors, like so many originating from dubious sources, completely unfounded?

Only a few days later, Sultan found himself appointed as Special Advisor to the king, at the rank of Minister. Either this was pure coincidence (whether the speculation was true or not), or else the king had stepped in and taken the bullseye off Sultan's back. Even if the position of advisor is not particularly significant in terms of political influence, it does mark out a delineation between those elevated to favor, with direct and personal access to the monarch, and all the rest. The message is: Sultan is off limits. If MbS had been suspicious of his sibling, he must now respect the new boundaries.

A similar dynamic has played out before. Another brother of the crown prince, Abd al-Aziz, was thought to have been in the sights of MbS, due to his forthright views on official policy, which diverged from what MbS was championing at the time. Despite Abd al-Aziz being well within his rights to express his views on the Kingdom's use of energy resources (he was in fact Minister of State for Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources), the crown prince would not brook disagreement. Nonetheless, the king made clear that Abd al-Aziz was not to be brushed aside. Though there can be only one heir and crown prince, and MbS was clearly the favorite, still, there is such a thing as getting too big for one's britches. MbS was perceived (by the king, perhaps too late as this had been the prevailing view for some time among the family at large) as being dismissive of all, and unwilling to heed anyone's judgement but his own. In the event, Abd al-Aziz was appointed Minister of Energy in September, 2019, which may again have been purely coincidental, but it did send the unambiguous message that he was very much in royal favor, despite any falling out with the crown prince. In addition, the role formally gives the family direct control over energy policy, whereas the royals had always before tried to keep it at arm's length, even if only for appearance's sake. The fact that Abd al-Aziz oversees the lifeblood of the Kingdom, essentially, gives his portfolio an outsized importance.

The question at the time involved the king - to what extent was Salman still in charge? Did the stamp of approval for the role of Abd al-Aziz mean he wanted to put in place a counterweight to the unexpectedly rapid rise of MbS, being wary of his overweening ambition, or was the background drama really no drama at all, and the rearrangement just a mundane formality? The talk, then as now, was about the king's health - his mental faculties and physical health. If, as some believed, Salman was on his last legs, then MbS was running the show and his father merely a passive observer from his dotage. But if Salman was more in control than sensationalizing western commentators gave him credit for, then he was still able to stamp his authority on matters when needed. Under this scenario, MbS was allowed nearly full reign, but the king watched carefully from the sidelines, intervening only when he thought his son had taken things too far. In that case, Salman's job was to rebalance, without taking away from his son's lustre, before stepping back again.

Related articles: The Bay'ah and Royal Legitimacy: Misguided Ventures or Last Remaining Hope?
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Page 2: leaving the past behind?
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Commentary
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?

The Arab Spring Revisited: The Royal Response

Ten years on from the "Arab Spring", the royal family has solidified its grip on the nation. Increasingly confident in his ability to tamp down dissent, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is more concerned with burnishing his image as a progressive and pleasing his American ally than addressing the concerns of the citizen. In light of the contradictions between a professed desire for reform and the intolerance of dissent, what would be the response to a new round of anti-government sentiment, with the Kingdom in financial straits and pressure from the U.S. and Europe over the suppression of human rights at home?

Shock Therapy: Confronting a New Reality?

Saudi's haste to patch up relations with neighboring Qatar, rush to prosecute dissidents, and a volte-face on oil production cuts all come as U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on January 20. Is the Kingdom's crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, only now realizing the extent to which relations with its American ally will fundamentally change?

Competing Narratives: Changing the Tune or Evolving Chaos?

Ever since Prince Bandar bin Sultan's headline-grabbing interview in which he angrily denounced the Palestinian leadership, speculation has been rife over a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But with Prince Turki al-Faysal's more recent verbal lashing of Israel, assumptions about a coming rapprochement have been consigned to the dustbin. Does the confusion reflect second thoughts about engaging with Israel, or is it a symptom of a broader rift within the royal family?

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