Princes behaving badly

The House of Saud isn’t just beset by princes getting busted for drug possession in foreign airports; there’s also apparently at least one Saudi prince talking out of school about King Salman, according to The Guardian’s Hugh Miles:

A senior Saudi prince has launched an unprecedented call for change in the country’s leadership, as it faces its biggest challenge in years in the form of war, plummeting oil prices and criticism of its management of Mecca, scene of last week’s hajj tragedy.

The prince, one of the grandsons of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, has told the Guardian that there is disquiet among the royal family – and among the wider public – at the leadership of King Salman, who acceded the throne in January.

The prince, who is not named for security reasons, wrote two letters earlier this month calling for the king to be removed.

The anonymous prince told Miles that Salman isn’t really running the country; decisions are instead being made by Salman’s son, Muhammad, the Deputy Crown Prince and thus number 2 in the line of succession. This wouldn’t be entirely out of left field; Salman is a couple of months away from turning 80, and there were rumors that he was suffering from some kind of dementia, or had possibly had a stroke, even before he became king, though the Saudi government of course denies that. If this is true, it doesn’t bode well for Crown Prince Muhammad b. Nayef, the guy standing between Muhammad b. Salman and the throne once King Salman is no longer with us. It seems that recent events, from the early, ineffective stage of the kingdom’s Yemen intervention (which was Muhammad b. Salman’s operation) to the two disasters that attended this year’s Hajj (the death toll from the Mina stampede is up to 2223, by the way), have led to some grumbling by the princes that things in Riyadh are not being well-managed.

According to The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the prince who wrote the letters is calling for the removal of the king and both crown princes, with Salman being replaced by his younger full brother, Ahmed b. Abdulaziz, who most recently was the kingdom’s Interior Minister for a few months in 2012. This is interesting, in that it wouldn’t take the throne out of the hands of the so-called “Sudairi Seven,” something you might think the non-Sudairi Saudi princes might support. What this uneasiness, if there really is any, probably does reflect is some reluctance on the part of the older generation of Saudi royals, the sons of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz al-Saud (d. 1953), to cede power to the next generation, Abdulaziz’s grandsons. The letters are supposedly quite well-written in formal Arabic, which suggests (though certainly doesn’t prove) that the writer is from the older generation.

There’s also undoubtedly a good deal of unhappiness specifically over the high station to which Salman has promoted his son, who is only 30, has few notable accomplishments on his resume, and yet has been made Defense Minister, head of the royal court, and the heir apparent to the heir apparent:

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.

This is an interesting story even though it hasn’t risen beyond the level of “unconfirmed scuttlebutt” yet. Public dissension within the Saudi family is exceedingly rare, and given how involved the kingdom is in all of the region’s various trouble spots at the moment, any hint of political intrigue in Riyadh is potentially a big deal.

Muhammad b. Salman, who may be part of the cause of this soap opera-ish tale, meeting with John Kerry in May (Wikimedia | US State Department)

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