Not since the royal power struggle of the 1950s have the rivalries and conflicts within the ruling family of Saudi Arabia burst into public view as they have in the past two weeks.
The British newspaper The Guardian and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius have reported that a senior prince has been circulating letters calling for the removal of King Salman and his controversial son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
Saudis and others from the region attending a conference in Washington on Wednesday confirmed that the news reports were accurate, and said that the existence of at least one of the letters has been known in Saudi Arabia since early September. Putting the dissent in writing ensured that it would become known to outsiders, and in fact that was the writer’s intention, these sources said.
The author has not been publicly identified. But according to a prominent Saudi who said he has seen one of the letters, its content and the exceptional quality of the Arabic prose limited the possibilities. It is probably one of the king’s brothers or half-brothers, the surviving sons of the founder of the modern kingdom, Abdul Aziz al-Saud, Saudi sources said.
Ignatius, who wrote that he has spoken to the author of two of the letters, described him as a “senior prince” who favors replacing Salman with his brother Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, who is 73. Both Salman and Ahmed are members of the so-called Sudairi Seven, the sons of Abdul Aziz’s favorite wife.
For 11 years after Abdul Aziz died in 1953, the ruling al-Saud family was split by the rivalry between his successor, the profligate and incompetent King Saud, and another of his sons, the ascetic and respected Prince Faisal. The power struggle damaged the family’s standing in the eyes of the population and cost the kingdom a decade of economic development before the family finally deposed Saud and sent him into exile. Ever since, the princes have been careful to keep their disagreements within the palace walls because they fear that any crack in the façade of unity could undermine their position.
But trouble has been brewing since Salman became king in January, following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah. Salman, who is 79, designated his nephew, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN), the minister of interior, as crown prince, but he selected one of his sons, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), as deputy crown prince, or next in line for the thrown after Muhammad bin Nayef.
MBN, who is 56, has gained wide respect, and is well regarded in Washington, for his leadership of the kingdom’s struggle against al-Qaeda and other extremists. His selection as crown prince was hailed at the time as marking a smooth transition to the next generation of Saudi rulers, the grandsons of the founder.
The position of MBS, however, is a different story. He is believed to be about 30 years old and could be accepted as deputy crown prince because he presumably would not have followed MBN onto the throne until he was considerably more mature. The issue was that his father also gave him extraordinary power over the kingdom’s affairs: he is minister of defense and chairman of a powerful committee that directs Saudi Arabia’s economic affairs, including oil policy. For a few months last spring he was also chief of the royal court, controlling access to his father.
In a society that equates age with wisdom, bestowing so much power on one so young was bound to stir controversy, especially because MBS had limited formal education and no record of accomplishment, unlike older brothers who have served in the government for years. Most Saudi cabinet officers have doctoral degrees from universities in the United States, but the young prince never studied outside the Saudi Arabia, nor did he ever serve in the armed forces. Yet he quickly became the architect of the Saudi-led multinational intervention into the civil war in neighboring Yemen. The bombing campaign there, now supplemented by ground troops, represents the first time in modern history that Saudi Arabia has deployed its armed forces for a sustained engagement outside its borders.
Saudi Arabia’s young population is deeply into social media, and the royal family seems to be a favorite subject. In particular, a critic known only as Mujtahidd has targeted princes and princesses with tweets about royal failings and allegations of corruption that have attracted a wide following. Mujtahid, however, did not make public the letters calling for the removal of Salman and his son. They appear to have been leaked selectively, in a calculated move to stoke the reported rivalry of MBN and MBS.
President Obama met both princes at a summit meeting of gulf nations at Camp David in May. Afterward, he said that the younger Prince Mohammed “struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart.”
“I think wise beyond his years,” Obama added in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya network.
Saudis who know him and have worked with him, however, describe him as temperamental, headstrong, and petulant. His critics always prefer to remain anonymous, like Mujtahidd, because public criticism of any member of the royal family can result in a long jail term.
The fact that the unhappiness over MBS within the family has come into the open indicates that his rivals feel very strongly about the matter. But it is not clear what they can do about it except hope that the young prince commits some error that makes his position untenable. Under a law promulgated by King Abdullah, a group of senior princes known as the Allegiance Council has the authority to approve or alter the line of succession. As long as he is capable of performing his duties King Salman seems unlikely to convene the council for the purpose of removing his favorite son from that line.
*Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than three decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored six books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.