Middle East

In Saudi Shakeup, Economics Tops Counterterrorism

The new crown prince has an eye to the future, but the old one was a loyal friend of the West.

Start of a beautiful friendship?

Photographer: Mark Wilson

The latest big news out of the Middle East is that Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has ousted the crown prince and installed his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, in that position. While the world waits to see more of the reaction from Saudis and others in the region, a few quick thoughts come to my mind.

QuickTake Saudi Arabia's Strains

First, the news feels stunning because of its significance; if MbS (as the new crown prince is known) becomes king, he will be the first monarch who is not a son of King Abdulaziz al Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's Shake-Up

Yet today’s news is hardly unexpected. Since King Salman elevated MbS to deputy crown prince in 2015, those inside the kingdom and close observers from the outside have debated the odds around various scenarios through which the young prince might eventually come to power. More tangibly, a series of royal decrees in April made a raft of personnel adjustments. Although not really registering on radar screens in the West, these changes weakened the power base of the then-crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef. They seeded loyalists to the younger prince, in many of the regional governor posts across the country.

Second, intentionally or not, the king is sending a message about his -- and therefore the country’s -- priorities in removing Mohammed bin Nayef from all his posts, including minister of interior. That message is that fighting terrorism is not the highest priority of the country, nor maybe even in the top tier. Nayef was rightly recognized and appreciated -- particularly by the U.S. -- for his work fighting terrorism inside and outside the kingdom, and was a key partner of the U.S.

To be fair, Saudi Arabia probably does have bigger and more pressing problems right now, particularly reforming its oil-dominated economy, an effort in which the new crown prince has undisputedly taken the lead, with both vision and energy. However, the U.S. administration should be concerned, particularly given the laser-like focus on counterterrorism cooperation by President Donald Trump during his visit to the kingdom last month.

Finally, this promotion of MbS to crown prince -- while ending much of the speculation around succession for the moment -- is not the last shoe to drop in this saga. In what would be yet another huge departure from past practices, I would put my money on King Salman relinquishing the throne to his son in the next year or two, assuming all goes reasonably well in the interim. (A big if, given that the Saudis are leading an ugly war in Yemen and the effort to isolate Qatar diplomatically and economically only seems to be deepening.)  If so, it would be only the second time that a Saudi king has abdicated the throne; King Saud was forced to do so in 1964 under pressure from the royal family and religious leadership.

On occasion, the age and infirmity of a king has meant that a crown prince has effectively ruled the kingdom. Then-crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was the most important person in the kingdom for years after his brother King Fahd had a stroke in 1995, although Abdullah did not become king until a decade later. But no monarch other than Saud has left the throne in favor of another in the 85 year history of the kingdom.

But don't be surprised if King Salman proves himself different, doing everything he can to ensure that the potentially fraught transition to the next generation of Saudi leaders is not only smooth, but results in the enthronement of his favorite son.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Meghan L. O'Sullivan at Meghan_OSullivan@hks.harvard.edu

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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