The things we (might) do for our kids

Deputy Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman (left) and Crown Prince Muhammad b. Nayef (right) (via)

I don’t like to traffic in conspiracies or thinly-sourced material, although I admit this isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about so I’ve probably trafficked in them on a few occasions around here. But as I spend an unfortunate amount of time on Twitter (hey, my #brand isn’t going to build itself, you know), I inevitably encounter conspiracy and speculation on a disturbingly regular basis. And when one particular theory starts cropping up over and over gain, and it has to do with the stuff I usually write about, AND it actually kind of makes some sense, I figure it’s worth at least a mention on the blog here.

In this case, I’m talking about a piece written last Wednesday by Ali Al Ahmed, head of the DC-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. To say the least, it’s a bit of a pot-stirrer:

Saudi King Salman Al-Saud plans to abdicate his throne and install his son Mohammed as king, multiple highly-placed sources told the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

Mohamed bin Salman is the current deputy crown prince, second in-line to the throne, and defense minister.

King Salman, 80, has been making the rounds visiting his brothers seeking support for the move that will also remove the current crown prince and American favorite, the hardline Mohammed bin Naif from his positions as the crown prince and the minister of interior.

According to sources familiar with the proceedings, Salman told his brothers that the stability of the Saudi monarchy requires a change of the succession from lateral or diagonal lines to a vertical order under which the king hands power to his most eligible son.

Given how potentially big this story is and the fact that it rests on anonymous “multiple highly-placed sources,” I want to say that, as far as I know, Ali Al Ahmed is a credible analyst and reporter. He’s the guy who discovered the video of WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl’s execution online in 2002, for example, and he regularly gets booked on network news programs and writes for major media outlets. Obviously none of that is definitive proof of his credibility, and even credible analysts get fed bad info, but there’s nothing in his background that immediately screams “discredited” to me.

On the other hand, Al Ahmed is an admitted Saudi critic, so he’s got some skin in the game that may affect his objectivity. Plus, the story includes this bizarre line about Muhammad b. Nayef that strays very close to tin foil hat territory:

The sources said the king referred to the Jordanian monarchy that changed its succession order to eliminate transfer of power between brothers and moved it to a vertical succession order. Bin Naif has two daughters and no male children due to his purported cocaine habit which affected his fertility. Mohamed bin Salman has two daughters and two sons, Salman and Mashoor.

I have no idea if Muhammad b. Nayef has a cocaine habit. It’s certainly possible that he does, although I have never before heard or read anything to that effect. And research suggests that cocaine does affect male fertility, so maybe he stopped having kids after those two daughters because he couldn’t have any more. But a charge like this probably warrants more than being tossed into another story as an “oh, by the way” interjection. Let’s see some evidence of the guy’s alleged coke problem, you know? And, geez, if Muhammad b. Nayef has been doing enough blow that it’s affected his fertility, isn’t that a pretty good reason for replacing him as heir apparent all by itself? How did he rise to the level of crown prince in the first place, if that’s really true?

What helps this particular story is the fact that, anonymous sources and weird quick digressions into people’s supposed drug habits aside, it makes some sense. It’s obvious that Salman would like to see his son succeed him–otherwise, why take the risky and unorthodox step of naming him, at the age of ~29 in a ruling family whose median age is probably somewhere north of 328, as deputy crown prince? Salman, as well as anybody, knows that if Muhammad b. Nayef becomes king he could easily have Muhammad b. Salman replaced as crown prince, so that whole “deputy crown prince” designation is ultimately no guarantee of anything. There have already reportedly been rumblings from within the Saudi family about Muhammad b. Salman’s rapid rise to power despite his youth, inexperience, and (lack of) accomplishments. German intelligence has cited Muhammad b. Salman and his desire to succeed his father as a key factor in Saudi Arabia’s increasingly active and destabilizing role in the region, and specifically in their decision to intervene so forcefully in Yemen.

But Muhammad b. Salman’s succession probably wouldn’t be popular among the rest of the Saudi family for a number of reasons. His age is one. The fear of what will happen to all the other branches of the family if they switch to a vertical (father-to-son) method of succession is another. Muhammad b. Salman’s less-than-sterling handling of the Yemen war is yet another. It will be far easier, obviously, for King Salman to manage the succession in favor of Muhammad b. Salman if he’s still alive when it happens–Salman is no doubt watching how nicely the Hamad-to-Tamim transition has gone down in Qatar, although Qatar doesn’t have anywhere near the potential for a major succession dispute that the Saudis have. And despite, or maybe because of, the turmoil Saudi Arabia is in right now, between Yemen, Syria, ISIS, and the whole conflagration with Iran, it might actually be easier to arrange a succession right now, when Salman and his son may be able to suppress dissent with an appeal for familial and national unity in the face of external threats.

All this assumes, of course, that Salman is really the one running the kingdom. There have been rumors for a few years now, which I want to stress are wholly unsubstantiated, that he’s suffering from dementia. Again there’s never been any actual proof offered of this, but he is 80, so even under perfect conditions his faculties may not be what they once were. If Salman is being handled, perhaps by his son or people close to his son, that might also suggest that some kind of abdication scenario could be in the works.

Still, this would be a very fraught situation, if it actually came to pass. Muhammad b. Nayef, even if he is on drugs, is a powerful figure within Saudi Arabia, and it’s almost inconceivable that he would just quietly acquiesce to being passed over. He’s also very popular in Washington, where he’s seen as someone who shares America’s priorities (more focus on fighting al-Qaeda and ISIS, less on fighting Iran) more than Salman or Muhammad b. Salman. Not that the Saudis really care at this point what Washington has to say about anything, let alone something as sensitive as the royal succession, but it’s still something to consider.

Bottom line, I think this scenario is a long-shot. But it’s intriguing to consider the possibility, and if it happened it would certainly shake up the region.

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