What is the significance of the power struggle within the Saudi dynasty?
Last week, in the middle of a war in Yemen, where Saudi troops are engaged in major battles, we witnessed a quiet but significant, not to say unprecedented, coup within the Saudi royal family.
On April 29, king Salman bin Abdulaziz dismissed his half-brother, sitting crown prince Muqrin, and appointed his nephew, former interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, as his replacement. The 55-year-old Nayef is relatively young for the post, in a country where the average age of recent crown princes has been over 70 – Salman had that status in his late 70s. In a single move the king has decided the line of succession for the next few decades, on the same day announcing that his son, Mohammed bin Salman, 30, will become deputy crown prince.
The outgoing crown prince confirmed his departure, but failed to give any explanation for this obvious removal from office. The rumour mill in the Middle East has been claiming that his mother’s humble origins (as a Yemeni slave) had played a part in his downfall. The current holders of power in the Saudi court all come from the Sudairi section of the royal household. They share the same mother, Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, who was the favourite wife of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz.
However, a more credible reason for Muqrin’s dismissal might be the widespread belief that he had doubts about the war in Yemen and believed Saudi forces were getting nowhere. The news came at a time when the Saudi air force is engaged in bombing Houthi rebels, including in the capital, Sana’a. The war is not going well for the Saudis and so far the weeks of air strikes have brought no tangible military success.
In April, Saudi Arabia tried to organise a coalition of Muslim countries to intervene in the war against its southern neighbour. However, a number of Sunni countries refused to join the war effort and on April 10 the Pakistani parliament decided against military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition. So far, apart from the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain) and moral support from general Sissi of Egypt, the only military contingent has come from Senegal. The north African country is planning to send 2,100 troops to join the “international coalition fighting Houthi rebels”.
Although Iran’s claim that Saudi military intervention has been a disaster is just propaganda, the situation on the ground is not great. Last week the Sana’a-based Hisham Omeish, writing on the Al Jazeera website, summed up the mood amongst forces inside Yemen supporting Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Sunni president favoured by Saudi Arabia:
… the coalition’s campaign resulted in the Houthis taking far more hostile and aggressive steps than they ever dared before, expanding into more territories than when the coalition started its operation. The coalition’s blockade of airports and seaports; the collateral damage from the air strikes, both to infrastructure and in terms of civilian casualties; the multiple battlefronts raging across Yemen; and the overall devastating impact of war on the local population, eventually led to the local buy-in rapidly evaporating.
When the coalition announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm and the commencement of a new operation named Restoration of Hope, the vast majority of emotionally and physically drained Yemenis prematurely celebrated. Unfortunately, the air strikes continued, and public dissent grew. The coalition’s lack of a solid plan was now being starkly highlighted against the dangerously erratic and callous military actions. Furthermore, the realities on the ground for ordinary Yemenis have worsened dramatically since the bombing began.1
According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi-led coalition has used US-supplied cluster bombs during recent air raids. United Nations officials in the region have said that between March 26 and April 22 551 civilians, including 31 women and at least 115 children, were killed as a result.
On May 3, news agencies reported the arrival of a special forces contingent in the Yemeni port city of Aden – elite troops deployed to bolster the anti-Houthi forces,2 although Saudi Arabia denied the claims. By May 5 the situation had deteriorated further, with Houthis firing rockets and mortars into Saudi Arabia.
Many have called the current conflict in Yemen a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and there is no doubt that Iran has supported the Houthis. However, in recent weeks the Islamic Republic’s involvement in the conflict has been low-key, partly because of fears of jeopardising the nuclear deal with the P5+1 powers.
In addition to the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s fears about such a deal with Iran, which would ultimately marginalise Riyadh’s influence in Washington, played an important role in last week’s royal appointments. The new appointees all have a record of opposing any deal with Iran – they are all considered hard-liners, at least in this aspect of the kingdom’s foreign policy.
In Saudi Arabia, power has always been determined by age, irrespective of the physical and indeed mental health of the post-holders. King Salman, who is rumoured to be fighting dementia,3 has changed all this, removing his youngest half-brother (apparently with his consent) and appointing a crown prince from the next generation. Hundreds of other princes amongst the 7,000 that form the Saudi royal household would have had seniority over Nayef, the man named as heir to the throne. Of course, at 79 the king might not have long to live and the Iranian press, for one, has been quick to point out that so many changes in a kingdom used to tradition will create uncertainty – one Tehran paper claimed this would mark the beginning of the end of the Al Saud dynasty. Of course, this is wishful thinking. In fact in Yemen Iran is as much of a loser as Saudi Arabia.
So who is Mohammed bin Nayef, the new crown prince? For many years he has held the post of interior minister and has been in close contact with US security forces. Because of his role dealing with ‘counter-terrorism’, his nickname in the Middle East is “America’s favourite Saudi”. He is credited with championing the so-called rehabilitation programme, Saudi Arabia’s well-publicised policy of ‘re-educating’ captured al Qa’eda members, including former prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay. Nayef is also credited with winning the war against al Qa’eda in Yemen, albeit with the help of US drones.
Nayef’s father was a reactionary even by Saudi standards, nicknamed the ‘black prince’. He was an advocate of Wahhabism, with a low opinion of fellow Arabs:
At an infamous meeting in February 2011, with the region erupting and the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia toppling, prince Nayef summoned the leading Saudi editors and columnists to a Riyadh dinner. In an extended tirade, he dismissed the Tunisians as basically French, and those in Cairo as louche urbanites, while arguing that the Saudis remained bedrock Arabs who held their traditional political system in high esteem, according to several accounts.4
The Saudi king’s second appointment – nominating his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince – has created more resentment. Previously a political unknown, he now holds the post of minister of defence, the youngest in the world to hold such a post, and so is in charge of the Saudi intervention in Yemen. This has led to accusations of nepotism – no other Saudi king has promoted his immediate family at the expense of older, higher-ranking princes. Both appointments are resented by other fractions of the Saudi royal family.
There were other changes in the government. King Salman removed the powerful Saud bin Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, who had worked for 40 years with successive US administrations and, according to the bourgeois press, was one of the world’s most powerful voices in international affairs.
The former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, was named as Saud’s replacement. Unlike holders of most other ministerial posts, Adel al-Jubeir, is not a member of the royal family – his meteoric rise is due primarily to his strong anti-Iran stance. In 2011, while he was the ambassador to Washington, the US administration charged an Iranian-American car salesman with plotting to assassinate him.
Some in Saudi royal circles have voiced their frustration with Washington’s foreign policy, blaming successive administrations for the disintegration of Iraq. In particular they round on Barack Obama for his failure to intervene militarily in Syria in 2013. The new team will look for allies amongst neoconservative Republicans, as well as pro-Israel Democrats, to consolidate its position as the main US regional ally, at a time when the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran is causing hysteria in Riyadh. Of course, Saudi fears of a US-Iran rapprochement are premature. Even if Iran and P5+1 succeed in signing a final deal, the two countries will remain regional adversaries for many years to come. Last week, for instance, Iran and the US were sabre-rattling over shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.
Two weeks ago the US and Saudi Arabia threatened to board a flotilla of Iranian cargo and naval ships, accusing the Iranians of carrying weapons for the Houthi rebels. The ships were forced to change course to avoid a confrontation. Obama then asked the navy top brass to send a US aircraft-carrier to Yemen. In retaliation, Iranian naval forces seized a cargo ship, the Maersk Tigris, flying the flag of the Marshall Islands. They forced its crew to steer towards the island of Qeshm. The ship’s last port of call was Jeddah. The US navy responded by escorting all US-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. All this is adding to the tension in the strategic waterways used for the transport of one-fifth of the world’s oil flows.
In addition Iran-US relations remain tense over Syria. The Obama administration is persevering with plans for regime change in Syria, in alliance with Saudi Arabia, the emirates of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey, even though this policy involves tacit support for former al Qa’eda affiliates. Between them Islamic State and Al Nasr (the jihadi group supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey with tacit US support) control swathes of Syria. US troops stationed in Turkey are also engaged in training the Syrian opposition, including al Nasr. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies in the Lebanese Hezbollah continue to support the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad.
Yet another UN-sponsored conference is currently taking place, aimed at finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. As with Libya and Iraq, there is only one essential precondition for any solution to the conflict: an end to foreign intervention both by Iran and by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries. The civilian population in Syria and now in Yemen have suffered enough in proxy wars.
The changes in the Saudi court make the prospects for a resolution of the conflicts in the Middle East less likely.