While his health and even sanity have been in doubt for years, fresh rumors are spreading that King Salman of Saudi Arabia’s physical condition has further deteriorated. According to Saudi sources cited by Oil Price, Salman’s health will likely forced him to abdicate the throne in the next few months.
Though it was long believed that Mohammed bin Nayef, the king’s nephew and the country’s Minister of the Interior, would assume the throne, bin Nayef’s sudden ouster as Saudi Crown Prince during Ramadan definitively changed that, with King Salman’s son and the current Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, now positioned to take control.
Bin Nayef’s ouster was initially reported by international media as having gone “smoothly.” However, it soon emerged that bin Salman had planned the entire affair and that the former Crown Prince, following his acquiescence of the title, was essentially under house arrest. Since then, rumblings have emerged that many in the Saudi royal family, which has long been guided by deference to elders and group consensus, are none too happy with the sudden turn of events in the normally stable kingdom.
Now, with King Salman on vacation in Morocco for an entire month, the ambitious Crown Prince has been left in charge, promising a taste of things to come for the oil-rich kingdom. Already, speculators are stating that the kingdom’s balance of power is “on a knife-edge.”
One such indication that there is trouble brewing within the royal family is the King’s recent string of drastic policy changes that stripped the Interior Ministry, formerly headed by bin Nayef, of many of its key mandates, including counter-terrorism.
These functions have now been transferred to a new entity called the Presidency of State Security, which is under the direct command of the King, who also serves as Prime Minister. A royal decree further stated that “whatever concerns the security of the state, including civil and military personnel, budgets, documents, and information will also be transferred to the new authority.” According to experts, the overhaul of security services indicated there still exists opposition to bin Salman’s position as Crown Prince.
It is highly probable that this mass concentration of authority under the king and the essential gutting of the Interior Ministry was orchestrated by bin Salman himself, much like bin Nayef’s ouster. Given that King Salman’s suspected dementia has led the Crown Prince to “practically” administer the entire kingdom, bin Salman’s now-elevated position makes it highly likely that such efforts were intended to reduce opposition to his forthcoming rule and consolidate his power.
A warhawk ascends to the throne
While speculation is rife over how bin Salman is set to manage domestic affairs, there seems to be little disagreement over bin Salman’s likely handling of key foreign policy issues, considering his tenure as Defense Minister has shown his penchant for war, as well as his hotheadedness.
It was bin Salman, after all, who began the Saudi’s atrocious war in Yemen and oversaw its military’s use of force against civilian infrastructure and gatherings. Since it began in 2015, the war has claimed the lives of over 10,000 civilians and has brought Yemen to the brink of collapse. In addition, the Saudi’s repeated bombings of hospitals and its blockade of aid and medicine have caused the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history to spread through Yemen.
Despite the increasingly dire situation in Yemen, bin Salman stated in May that he was in no hurry to end the conflict, saying “time is in our favor,” later adding that Saudi troops were planning to wait for the rebels “to tire out.”
In addition, bin Salman has caused great discomfort with the Saudis’ foreign allies by orchestrating a diplomatic crisis with Qatar. The diplomatic row put the United States, a major foreign ally of the Saudis, in an uncomfortable situation as it sought to repair the rift between the two influential Gulf state monarchies. The United States has been tepid in its embrace of bin Salman, largely due to the fact that his predecessor as Crown Prince, bin Nayef, was highly regarded by U.S. counterterrorism officials and was seen as a close ally of the U.S. in the region.
The move was likely orchestrated to pressure Qatar to end support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which bin Salman despises, as well as its support of Hezbollah, a consolation from bin Salman to Israel. Indeed, bin Salman has been hailed as a “dream come true” for Israel and has pushed to normalize relations between the Saudi kingdom and the apartheid state in recent months.
In addition, the Saudis have also demanded that Qatar end all contact with Iran, speaking to bin Salman’s aggressive brinkmanship with the Islamic Republic. Prior to becoming Crown Prince, bin Salman had said that dialogue with Iran, i.e. a diplomatic solution to disagreements, was “impossible” and has hinted at a Saudi pre-emptive strike against Iran, stating that “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”
While bin Salman has publicly stated that he will not push for war with Iran since he became Crown Prince, Iran doesn’t seem so sure. After bin Salman’s hawkish comments on Iran, the Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated that “If the Saudis do anything ignorant, we will leave no area untouched except Mecca and Medina.” Then, after terror attacks targeted the heart of Tehran a month later in early June, Iran’s intelligence community accused Saudi Arabia of involvement, vowing revenge. The Islamic State, a terrorist organization known to be directly funded by the Saudi kingdom, took credit for the attack in Tehran.
Some experts agree with Iran’s concern that bin Salman’s growing power will lead to more war, not less. For instance, Shirleen Hunter, professor of political science at Georgetown University, believes that bin Salman’s appointment and forthcoming ascension to the throne “means that Saudi Arabia’s hardline approach towards the war in Yemen as well towards Iran will continue.” In an interview with the Tehran Times, she added that “relations with Iran, in particular, could seriously deteriorate as Bin Salman might increase destabilizing efforts inside Iran.”
Coupled with rising domestic dissent and economic damage resulting from the artificial manipulation of oil prices and the high cost of the war in Yemen, bin Salman – though eager to gain power – will likely find himself in a perfect storm. Though many young Saudis see bin Salman as a potential reformer, his history of warmongering and making rash decisions suggests that he is set to unravel the power balance that has allowed the Saudi kingdom to maintain its influence in the Middle East for so long.