The succession gamble in Saudi Arabia

salman602 Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visiting policemen who were injured when a suicide bomber targeting Islam's holiest site of Mecca blew himself up on June 23 | AFP

In a significant move, on June 21, 2017, the Saudi monarch appointed son Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) as crown prince marking a new era in the history of the ruling al-Saud family. This is for the first time since 1953 that a monarch has elevated his son as crown prince. The new heir apparent first acquired a public office when two weeks before the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, he was made chief of the crown prince court. He was then appointed defence minister when King Salman ascended the throne and three months later was elevated to the position of deputy crown prince. Now, after two years, he has been appointed the heir apparent. His rise has been swift and phenomenal, by Saudi standards, given that most of the earlier Saudi leaders had spent decades in public life before reaching the high offices of king or crown prince. The fact that his elevation came at the cost of two of the senior royals—Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the youngest surviving son of the founding ruler Ibn Saud, who was removed as crown prince in April 2015 and Muhammad bin Nayef (MbN), interior minister since June 2012 who had replaced Muqrin as crown prince—is intriguing for both Saudis and the outside world.

The move to elevate MbS as crown prince was not entirely unexpected though, as speculations about his possible elevation as heir apparent were rife since his appointment as deputy crown prince in April 2015. Regular institutional and governmental reshuffles and appointment of loyal princes and technocrats in key positions had indicated that ground is being prepared for his elevation. The only possible hurdle could have been the lack of consensus within the royal family where age and experience is considered important leadership traits and where there is no dearth of ambitious and capable princes. It is likely that many within the family would not be pleased with their isolation and the rise of MbS. Nevertheless, the smooth nature of transition symbolised by the sight of MbN pledging allegiance to his successor and other princes, clergy and tribal leaders following suit had put all immediate speculations of rifts within the family to rest. Reportedly, a majority of the allegiance council members, 31 out of 34 members of the royal body to oversee succession, supported the elevation of MbS indicating near family consensus.

The young MbS is seen as a dynamic but impulsive leader who has carved out a niche for himself within a short period in public life. He has consolidated power under his father’s patronage and has been projected as the man behind high profile domestic and foreign policy decisions. MbS is considered to be the architect of the mega economic reform plan Vision 2030 that envisages ending dependency on oil and foreign workers while strengthening the private sector. He has also declared intentions to ease some of the social restrictions prevalent in the kingdom and allow public entertainment and spur the tourism sector.

These decisions have made him popular among Saudi youth that see him as a reformer who will work towards improving economy, create employment, and allow a degree of social freedom. At the same time, he supposedly spearheads the Saudi-led war in Yemen, launched the Islamic military alliance to fight terror and is considered the brain behind the decision to isolate Qatar over support to Muslim Brotherhood and proximity to Iran. Inside the kingdom these are seen as bold moves reinforcing Saudi regional influence vis-à-vis Iran, thus adding to his popularity. But international observers see these as desperate actions that can prove counterproductive.

If MbS is to succeed, he will have to confront multiple challenges at both domestic and international fronts. Economic and social reforms will have to be a priority to be in tune with the aspirations of the bulging youth population and to avoid any possible unrest à la the Arab Spring. Simultaneously, the reforms will have to be balanced with expectations of the conservative clergy that continues to hold significant influence and provide religious legitimacy to al-Saud. At the same time, given the regional turmoil, the new crown prince will have to work towards stabilising the situation without compromising on Saudi regional interests. The most important task in that respect is managing tensions with Iran—the regional rival that has gained significant regional influence since 2011. MbS has so far chosen to be confrontational in dealing with Iran and regional affairs but the growing unease and rising tensions might require taking a more pragmatic attitude.

The crown prince needs to take into account the possible domestic, regional and international ramifications of his foreign policy decisions given the geostrategic and geo-economic significance of Saudi Arabia. Any instability in the Persian Gulf will adversely affect global oil and natural gas supplies with wider international implications. Moreover, being the prime target for the jihadis who wish to take control of the two sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina to enhance their legitimacy, Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of the war against terror. Any domestic or regional instability will strengthen the jihadi groups who thrive amidst violence as evident from the situations in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. India, too, will be badly affected by any possible instability given its strategic interests and strong relations with Saudi Arabia and its dependence on the Gulf for its energy security and due to the presence of nearly 8.5 million Indians expatriates in the region.

It is too early to assess the efficacy of the move to elevate MbS as crown prince. His success or failure depends on the ability to deliver economic reforms and manage regional tensions. All indications reveal royal unity and domestic popularity of the move increasing the pressure on the new crown prince to fulfil the expectations his quick rise has generated among the Saudis. Given the geostrategic significance of the kingdom, the international community including India will expect the Saudi heir apparent to not only keep the domestic situation intact but also work towards peaceful resolution of regional tensions and conflicts.

Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow in Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi

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