Three days ago, we reported that based on various unconfirmed media reports, Saudi King Salman - reeling from a just concluded purge that arrested some of the country's wealthiest and most powerful royals and officials - was set to elevate his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the throne in as little as 48 hours. Speculation peaked when Al-Arabiya tweeted, then quickly deleted, details of the allegedly imminent ascension ceremony.
To be sure, though a transfer of power to the crown prince has long been predicted and expected, especially after a lesser known round of mass arrests targeting well-known Saudi clerics took place in September, last week's events pointed to a final "house cleaning" purge in preparation for bin Salman's likely imminent ascent. After the September arrests against clerics who were largely seen as regime insiders, yet who were mildly critical of the new aggressive stance against Qatar, the WSJ quoted an adviser to the Saudi government as saying, “Mohammed bin Salman is definitely preparing to become king. He wants to tackle the internal debate about him becoming the king and focus on consolidating his power, rather than doing that while being distracted by dissidents.”
During the September crackdown, which is currently receiving little commentary in relation to last weekend's turmoil, over 30 prominent political figures were detained, most of them clerics with large social media followings and broad influence in the Arab world. The WSJ further noted at that time that...
The government has denied an abdication is planned, but several people close to the royal family say preparations have already started. The transfer of power, which several people close to the royal family had expected to occur this month, is likely to take place late this year or early next year, these people say.
At that time, one of the few commentators to rightly point out that this was not fundamentally about rounding up "outsiders" and "oppositionists" was Middle East history professor and expert on Saudi affairs, As'ad AbuKhalil. He predicted the crackdown was part of a broader campaign aimed at regime insiders and prominent voices who threatened push-back against the crown prince's vision for Saudi foreign policy:
Unlike what some in the media are writing on social media, this crackdown is not directed against dissidents. Many of those arrested are loyal propagandists for the Saudi regime. They are being punished not for what they say but for what they are not saying: they are being punished for not being vocal against Qatar and against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Indeed, last week's internal Saudi earthquake which witnessed the detention of about a dozen other princes, as well as the freezing in billions in assets, further confirms AbuKhalil's analysis. Meanwhile, the Crown Prince's path to the throne is now virtually unimpeded: as a reminder, the 32-year-old Prince Mohammed was named heir to the throne in June after replacing his cousin. Last week, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah was also dismissed from his post as head of the National Guard as part of what authorities described as a sweeping anti-corruption drive, reinforcing speculation that the crown prince was on the cusp of becoming king.
In fact, transfer of power from the King to the Royal Prince would be merely a formality at this point: Prince Mohammed already controls almost all levers of government; he oversees defense, oil and economic policies, and - in applying the script of Syriana to real life - has vowed to wean the Saudi economy off its reliance on oil and return to a more moderate form of Islam.
But perhaps the most substantial confirmation that royal succession is indeed in the cards, is the official denial that took place overnight via Bloomberg, which reported that "King Salman isn’t planning to abdicate in favor of his son, a senior Saudi official said, dismissing mounting speculation that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will soon ascend to the throne." Needless to say, if mounting speculation was baseless, Saudi Arabia would simply ignore it.
“There is no possibility whatsoever that the king will abdicate,’’ the official said in response to written questions. Saudi kings usually stay in power even when bad health prevents them from carrying out their job, the official said on condition of anonymity. He noted the example of King Fahd, who stayed on as monarch until his death in 2005 despite being gravely ill in the last few years of his reign.
The denial continued: "Abdication is unthinkable especially since King Salman, 81, enjoys “perfect’’ physical and mental powers, the official said. Those who suggest otherwise “do not understand royal customs and traditions in Saudi Arabia,” the official said." Or, perhaps, they do very well, which is why Riyadh felt the need to issue an official denial.
The irony is that by directly addressing the mounting speculation, the Saudi royal family merely adds credence to it. In a catch 22 described by Graham Griffiths, an analyst at consultancy Control Risks in Dubai, the government will have difficulty credibly denying that speculation “because no one expects them to acknowledge it as a possibility before it happens. As a result, rumor and speculation will continue to abound.”
Additionally, abdication is not unthinkable: as Bloomberg notes, there is one precedent of a Saudi monarch stepping down while still alive.
King Saud bin Abdulaziz abdicated in favor of his brother and heir, Prince Faisal, in the mid-1960s after pressure from ruling family members. The prince had already claimed broad powers to counter a financial crisis that engulfed the kingdom at the time.
In September Eurasia Group said the royal palace was finalizing plans to transfer power allowing “the father to oversee the transition and prevent dissent from other powerful members of the ruling family.”
In any case, while a royal accession may not be imminent, all signs now point to an orderly succession in a few years’ time, discontent with Prince Mohammed’s domestic reform program and foreign policy initiatives “could increase the family’s willingness to challenge him,’’ Griffiths said. Last week's mega purge, which intends to confiscate up to $800 billion in assets from Saudi oligarchs, may be just the catalyst for Prince Mohammed to accelerate his accession plans as the animosity among the kingdom's wealthiest and most powerful is rising fast.