No calm waters in the Middle East
While we’ve been desperately trying to keep up with the breaking news as it rolls in almost every hour, we woke up on June 21 to see that Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz had deposed his nephew, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in favor of his son Mohammed bin Salman.
Amid all the recent developments, I got the chance to talk to Joseph Bahout, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program who foresaw the advent of a power shift in Saudi Arabia in an article one month ago. I asked him how to read King Salman’s choice to upend the succession and what kind of ramifications Mohammed bin Salman’s anointment as heir to the throne might have in terms of Saudi foreign policy.
“The move was expected, but not now and not so abruptly,” said Bahout.
“On April 22, a large number of royal decrees were promulgated by Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz. These decrees comprised the re-establishment of financial allowances for members of the civil service and military that were initially reduced as part of ‘Saudi Vision 2030,’ the kingdom’s ambitious economic reform program endorsed by then-Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Behind the resumption of the allowances, appointments were made to very sensitive posts, aimed at accelerating the royal succession process and facilitating Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammed bin Salman’s path to the throne,” he said.
Even though the coming of a power shift was expected in Saudi Arabia, why did King Salman decide to take such a step amid the crisis with Qatar and growing confrontation with Iran?
According to Bahout, recent developments, such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May, the U.S. administration’s anti-Iran stance, and the rift with Qatar, might have offered a good climate to remove Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef from his post. Given the rumors about the king’s health, the deterioration of his health condition might also have accelerated the decision to avoid a power struggle after his death.
“Muhammed bin Salman has been the effective ruler for the last two years,” stated Bahout. Indeed, bin Salman has certainly been a key player in the administration. He not only promoted economic reforms, which involved cutting back on lavish subsidies and the partial privatization of the state oil company, Aramco, but he also spearheaded the operation in Yemen. He has been in favor of taking a tougher stance against Iran in the region, including the isolation of Qatar.
“Reaching the Qiblah of the Muslims [Mecca] is a main goal for the Iranian regime. We shall not wait until the battle occurs inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We shall work in order for the battle to be there inside Iran and not inside Saudi Arabia,” said bin Salman in a TV interview back in May.
He is also known to have mentor ties to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the leader of the United Arab Emirates. Bin Salman was welcomed in the White House in March, and two months later the Abu Dhabi crown prince visited Washington. It is claimed that these visits laid the foundation for Trump’s Middle East tour last month. Not so coincidentally, the Qatar crisis broke out upon his return.
Since bin Nayef immediately pledged loyalty to bin Salman, a smooth transition of power seems to be in progress as of now. The leadership of the young and bold bin Salman reflects a change of mentality in Saudi Arabia to boost the country’s image, given his relatively liberal views regarding women’s rights and his efforts to prepare Saudi Arabia for a post-oil environment. Yet in the foreign policy realm, his growing authority implies a further escalation of tension with Iran.
In the main, it is possible to read the recent shift of power in Saudi Arabia as a bid by Riyadh to consolidate power at home in order to project power abroad.