Some members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and business elite have expressed frustration with the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman following the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure last month. As Trump fate goes because of his impeachment, so goes MbS fate. Are Saudi Royals engineering a coup against MbS?
MbS leadership has sparked concern among several prominent branches of the ruling Al Saud family. They cited the prince’s ability to defend and lead the world’s largest oil exporter. One senior diplomat and five sources with ties to the royals and business elite told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The attack has also fanned discontent among elite circles who believe the crown prince is a real dictator. Many have not forgotten the shakedown he exercised against them in 2017 when he locked some 200 princes and businessmen in a hotel and would not let go of them until they let go of the fortunes they legally made. Many were tortured at the hands of MbS right-hand man Saud al-Qahtani.
The crown prince nonetheless has staunch supporters. A Saudi source within circles loyal to the crown prince said:
The latest events won’t affect him personally as a potential ruler because he is trying to stop the Iranian expansion in the region. This is a patriotic issue, and so he won’t be in danger, at least as long as the father lives.
At stake is political stability in the world’s largest oil exporter. The crown prince is officially next in line to the throne to his 83-year-old father, King Salman, and is de facto ruler of the country. He has vowed to transform the kingdom into a modern state.
The 34-year-old crown prince, who is popular among young Saudis, has received praise at home for easing social restrictions in the conservative Muslim kingdom, granting women more rights and pledging to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. But state control of the media and a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom make it difficult to gauge levels of genuine enthusiasm domestically.
Should MbS fall, it is hard to imagine Saudi Arabia turning the clock on the new liberalization laws MbS implemented.
INCOMPETENT AS DEFENSE MINISTER
The September 14 attack set ablaze two of state oil giant Saudi Aramco’s plants. It initially knocked out half of the kingdom’s oil production — 5% of global oil output. Saudi Arabia has said Iran was responsible, an assessment that U.S. officials share.
Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, told Reuters:
The magnitude of these attacks is not lost on the population, nor is the fact that he (the crown prince) is the minister of defense and his brother is deputy defense minister, and yet arguably the country has suffered its largest attack ever and on the crown jewels. There’s a diminishing confidence in his ability to secure the country – and that’s a consequence of his policies.
MbS oversees foreign, security and defense policy.
The attack has fueled resentment that has simmered since the crown prince came to power two years ago, sweeping aside rivals to the throne and arresting hundreds of the kingdom’s most prominent figures on corruption allegations.
MbS has seen his reputation overseas suffer from a costly war in Yemen against the Iran-aligned Houthi group that has killed tens of thousands of people and triggered a humanitarian crisis. He also came under international criticism over the murder a year ago of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has said the crown prince ordered.
Agents of the Saudi government murdered Khashoggi. Many believe, however, that no Saudi agent would dare act on his own in the tightly-controlled environment in the kingdom.
Some Saudi elite say the crown prince’s efforts to consolidate control have hurt the kingdom. One source close to government circles said MbS has installed officials who were generally less experienced than previously.
MbS ousted Mohammad bin Nayef as crown prince and interior minister two years ago. The former crown prince had nearly two decades of experience in senior roles in the ministry, which was responsible for domestic policing and intelligence. MbS named a 33-year-old cousin as a replacement, after placing key areas of intelligence and counter-terrorism under the royal court’s purview.
The crown prince also removed Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who had overseen or effectively commanded the kingdom’s elite internal security force, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, since 1996. The prince was ultimately replaced at the end of last year by then-32-year-old Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, who had been deputy governor of Mecca for less than two years and before that in private business.
Saudi insiders and Western diplomats say the family is unlikely to oppose MbS while the king remains alive. Trump impeachment is helping them speak out because the U.S. President is a staunch supporter of MbS. MbS is King Salman’s favorite son. The monarch has delegated most responsibilities of rule to his son but still presides over weekly cabinet meetings and receives foreign dignitaries.
ARE SAUDI ROYALS ENGINEERING A COUP AGAINST MBS?
Regardless of the king’s future, the insiders and diplomats say, a challenge to MbS’s authority could be difficult given his hold on the internal security structure. But with more royals siding against him, it is hard to see MbS survive after his father’s death. Already Trump’s impeachment has encouraged his critics to openly voice their concerns against him.
Some royals view 77-year-old Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s only surviving full brother, as a possible alternative. Ahmed has the support of the family, the security apparatus and some Western powers (i.e. CIA). Are Saudi Royals engineering a coup against MbS?
One prominent businessman said:
They are all looking at Ahmed to see what he does. The family continues to think he is the only one who can save them.
There is no evidence Prince Ahmed is willing to play that role yet, which is a sign of al-Saud patience. Prince Ahmed has largely kept a low profile since returning to Riyadh in October 2018 after 2-1/2 months abroad. He was one of only three people on the Allegiance Council, made up of the ruling family’s senior members, who opposed MbS becoming crown prince in 2017, two Saudi sources said at the time.
Reuters couldn’t reach Ahmed for comment. One of the five sources with ties to Saudi elite said that Prince Ahmed’s position on whether he will challenge MbS is that he “will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Reuters contributed to this article.