The “strongman” of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), has been striving for 16 months to turn the country’s absolute monarchy into a one-man rule and felt in the process no restraint in fulfilling this thrust for power. However, this cult of personality at home along with the image of a “reformer” abroad that MBS meticulously cultivated for nearly two years has now reached a tipping point. Since the murder of Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, MBS has become a liability for the Saudi monarchy. His amassing of power is coming back to haunt him to the extent that no one believes that the killing of Khashoggi could have been sanctioned without MBS’ approval.
Saudi King Salman has been grooming his son since 2009 when as Governor of Riyadh he appointed him as special adviser. Salman, who has often in the past found himself playing a reconciliatory role among the estimated 4,000 ambitious al-Saoud princes, knew more than anyone else that his son would need to consolidate power to succeed him. First, King Salman streamlined the bureaucracy by eliminating sub-cabinets that once allowed princes to hold key portfolios. Between January 2015 and May 2017, Salman built his rule on two power pillars: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister and chair of the Council for Political and Security Affairs, and MBS as defence minister and chair of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. The tensions grew between the two as MBS became more assertive, as bin Nayef was not ready to cede power to a much younger prince.
Al-Saud monarchy has always maintained a balance of power among influential princes, however, King Salman and MBS have altered this hierarchy that served the political system’s stability for decades, despite its deficiencies and lack of transparency. MBS became the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia because he disabled the two major checks on his power by eliminating his rivals in the monarchy establishment and muting any US restrictions on his policies.
The US has typically managed the rivalry between Saudi princes and restrained, when needed, any Saudi policies that might undermine US interests. The open channel between MBS and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has allowed MBS to circumvent the establishment in Washington that preferred bin Nayif and his aggressive approach to counterterrorism. This open channel with the White House enabled MBS to remove bin Nayif in June 2017 before rounding up last November the traditional Saudi establishment in the Ritz Carlton hotel and detaining Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
These bold political moves would not have occurred if the White House was not indulgent or even permissive. The young Saudi prince was testing the limits and gradually presumed that if he has Trump’s support nothing can restrain him. The establishment in Washington believes that Kushner and MBS are bypassing the traditional routes of US policymaking, and the Saudi ruling family sees Trump as favouring a younger prince and disregarding the delicate balance of the house of Al-Saud. These dynamics are damaging US-Saudi relations in the long term. The Saudi monarchy should have long-term contingency plans if Trump is voted out of office in the presidential elections in two years, as the next president will probably be less lenient towards Saudi policies.
Moreover, the concern in the US and beyond is: If MBS managed to make all these moves in his early thirties, what might come next if he becomes king? Who would keep his power in check? Personalising Saudi rule is unprecedented and carries risks for the monarchy, as the Khashoggi murder made it abundantly clear.
The two major power players who empowered MBS, King Salman and President Trump, continue to have his back, but the Saudi crown prince has become increasingly secluded in the past weeks. MBS created a culture of fear among his rivals, and if his grip on power is not weakened or the Khashoggi murder passes without accountability, this fear will dominate Saudi politics for decades to come. MBS will no doubt fight back, he has too many enemies to leave power and potentially face a backlash.
King Salman is indeed facing a dilemma, if not a pivotal moment in his monarchy. His key aides are asserting their power at least in managing the Khashoggi portfolio. However, Salman, if he indeed continues to pull strings, is showing no signs of letting go of his son’s ambitions. The Saudi King pushed out key MBS advisers to relieve his son from any criminal or political liability, while simultaneously tasking him with reforming the intelligence agency in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder. He will hold on to his son until he feels the Salman dynasty is in danger under Western pressure, which might prompt him to select his other son Khaled as crown prince, as Le Figaro has reported. However, even with Prince Khaled as the next king, MBS might retain influence in the bureaucracy, which necessitates a crown prince from outside the Salman branch to prevent their dominance of Saudi politics.
What keeps MBS politically safe is that his father remains alive. If King Salman were to die tomorrow, the political knives will be out against MBS in the house of al-Saud and abroad. But even if MBS manages to survive this political earthquake and keep control of all these portfolios, he will always be associated with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It will be a stain he will find very hard to remove from his political reputation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.