Very recently, a playboy son of the current Saudi king, Mohammad bin Salmon, was made crown prince instead of an older relative, Muhammad bin Nayef. The reasons for this change are unclear to me, but as a student of affairs on the Arabian peninsula , I am curious as to the implications of this drastic change in succession within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As the constitutional affairs of this regime are not well-understood among my reading audience, I imagine, the relevance and significance of this change is not something that may appear all that serious on the surface but has serious and unpleasant potential implications. As serious and unpleasant matters are a frequent subject of personal interest when it comes to my writing, I do not expect that what I have to say will be all that surprising even if it is unusual. With that warning, let us begin.
In order to understand the seriousness of change made in the Saudi line of succession with the accession of the king’s thirty-something son, we need to understand the constitutional order of Saudi Arabia. It is commonly thought that Saudi Arabia is a near-absolute monarchy, an immensely repressive regime that strives to balance its oil wealth with a potentially restive population and its reactionary Wahabbi religious base with its obsessive desire for military protection from the United States, but there is actually a constitutional role within this apparently harsh and repressive regime. Since the death of Ibn Saud, whose conquest of the Hejaz made Saudi Arabia a regional power and immensely harmed the power base of the rival Hashemite dynasty which now rules only Jordan, the succession of his throne has largely involved one old man being replaced by a slightly less decrepit old man among his brethren and cousins in the large and prolific royal family. Saudi Arabia’s government has been what I call a gerontocracy, or rule by old people, where there is a certain collegiality and perhaps mild rivalry between competing old people who nonetheless think and act much like each other and view each other in an egalitarian spirit as fellow members of an elite connected by blood and marriage. I am not unfamiliar with institutions that are run like this, and so this has drawn my interest.
Mohammad bin Salmon, the new crown prince, is not old. He is, in fact, younger than I am, and has a reputation for being “Mr. Everything,” clearly the favorite son of his royal father. Having lived in a country with a playboy crown prince whose behavior attracted negative press, this is not necessarily ideal, especially for a country which has for a long time had a close involvement with highly reactionary religious figures who may take a dim view to playboy princes ruling over the house of Saud. Likewise, the substitution of a direct succession between fathers and sons in a nation that has long been ruled by succession within a broader pool of the descendants of Ibn Saud presents problems in that it reduces the cohesion of the royal family at a time when Saudi Arabia is involved in a great deal of external conflict with Iran and its proxies in areas like Qatar and Syria. I do not have gold or silver or camels or women to give the crown prince, but what I do have is some advice: if the new crown prince is not already a student of statecraft, he needs to start now and take it as seriously as he has taken anything in his entire life.
I cannot say this with enough emphasis. He is in a very dangerous position. His rise several dozen if not several hundred places within the Saudi line of succession is likely to have made him many enemies among his relatives. Family cohesion is not helped when obscure branches of the Saudi royal family no longer have any hope in rising to the throne or having their loyalty to the throne rewarded. If a favorite son can grab all of the titles and positions of a longtime royal and rise to the front of the line for power and prestige and honor, then no one’s positions are safe, which is not likely to encourage a great deal of loyalty. Likewise, having a reputation as a playboy prince in a kingdom that has powerful and reactionary clerics who are strongly connected with violence in the nation and abroad is also dangerous and unwise. The House of Saud came to power thanks in large part to the fierce conviction of Wahabbi fighters and clerics, and that debt of honor will be paid in some fashion. This is to say nothing about the restive state of Saudi Arabia in general, whose internal peace is currently bought through largess from oil revenue, and whose rising population puts a high standard of living in some danger. These internal threats and vulnerabilities are compounded by the rising Sunni-Shia tensions that has taken place over the last few years in areas like Bahrain (with a Sunni prince ruling over a majority Shia population), Qatar, Iraq, and Syria. To put the matter baldly, the Crown Prince is stepping into a difficult position where savvy and coalition building and maintaining are of the utmost importance, and he is now seated on an upset apple cart. Does he have the gravitas and competence to handle what he is getting himself into?
As with so much else, only time will tell.
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