As the world focused this week on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), and his investment forum, a larger gathering passed almost unnoticed. King Salmán received in his palace of Al Yamama the highest-ranking princes and the ulama of the kingdom. The state news agency did not explain the reason for the appointment; he only said that he had concluded with a prayer. However, no one doubts that, before entrusting themselves to God, the attendees addressed the crisis facing the country due to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In view of the indications that point to the designated successor, what price is the royal family willing to pay? Will it sacrifice or protect the heir?
The management of the crisis by Turkey, where the crime was committed, seems aimed at undermining the credibility of MBS and forcing its replacement. Nothing surprising given the renewed hostility between the heirs of the Ottoman Empire and the Al Saud since the prince came to power. Even in the United States, which considers Saudi Arabia one of its strongholds in the Middle East, veteran lawmakers have called for the replacement of who will become king of the world’s largest oil exporter. But it is possible?
In theory, King Salman could do it. He has already done so twice since he came to the throne (with his half-brother Muqrin in April 2015, and with his nephew Mohamed Bin Nayef, a year later) to clear the way for his son, who is also Minister of Defending. However, things have changed since then. With control of the security apparatus, oil and the sovereign wealth fund in his hands, MBS has become the prince with the most power since the kingdom’s founding in 1932. In Riyadh he also ensures that he controls access to his father, which limits the possibilities for the latter to receive independent information.
The seriousness of what happened at the Istanbul consulate was however difficult to hide. As much as the Saudi media are strictly controlled, the news was on all the satellite channels and the king watches television. The monarch’s decision to send Prince Jaled al-Faisal, governor of Mecca and someone of his highest confidence, to Turkey has been interpreted as the result of concern in the Court.
However, in his first public speech after the outbreak of the crisis, this week at the investment forum, MBS did not seem at all a man burdened by events. He was jovial and full of energy, he even joked and stopped to take selfies with the attendees. If there really is concern among some members of the royal family as some analysts suggest, or it has not affected or disguised very well.
For now, the official line has been to close ranks. “Those who believe that there is going to be a change in the succession are wrong,” Prince Turki told Al Faisal, to The Washington Post, the newspaper Khashoggi wrote in. “The more the crown prince is criticized, the more popular he is within the kingdom,” adds the man who was head of the Saudi secret services (and who had the journalist killed as a press adviser when he was ambassador to London).
Most observers agree that it is “highly unlikely” that MBS will be removed from succession or that its powers will be limited. “Everything is not yet said,” however, says Haizam Amirah Fernández, a researcher at the Elcano Institute. “There are indications that suggest the succession is on the table, such as the statements of veteran senators who have explicitly said that they have to go, or the proliferation of articles that pose the danger of a young man coming to the throne, characterized by his behavior impetuous ”, he explains.
“The bottom line is its reliability and that is what is at stake at the moment”, summarizes Amirah Fernández before recalling that, with his actions (Yemen, Qatar, Khashoggi), MBS has made important “gifts to his rivals” that complicate the United States’ strategy in the region (isolate Iran). “At least a review of ideas is taking place, another thing is how it will materialize,” he concludes.
MBS is here to stay. The king lacks the capacity to replace him; it is under your full control. The royal family cannot do it either because the family council is only a name without real power. MBS is the true king and has all the power in his hand, “says Ali al Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs and very critical of the Saudi regime.
Even if MBS remains, it seems unlikely that it will be able to maintain its international position. “No one is going to want to be related or be seen by his side, he is going to become, especially in Europe, an outcast as he was before [el presidente sudanés] Omar al Bashir ”, assures an Arab analyst who asks for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Hence, some observers have seen an opportunity to obtain Saudi concessions in the Yemen war, or in the isolation of Qatar (which won Turkish support for it). This has been interpreted as the positive reference that MBS made towards that country during its participation in the aforementioned forum, although Qatari officials have avoided commenting on it. “Nothing will change because it does not depend only on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt are also participating in the embargo on Doha,” disagrees the Arab analyst. In his opinion, “Yemen is an easier dossier to get rid of weight.”