Saudi Arabia’s Game of Thrones
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because when they go off screen, royal manipulations often yield surprises.
The author was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004 and now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The age of monarchs may, in most places, be dead — but the age of palace intrigue remains alive and well in some corners of the world. In Saudi Arabia, a ruler not even a year into his reign is engineering a veritable Shakespearean shake-up in his kingdom.
The 79-year-old monarch, fresh off his first official Washington visit, is beginning a complex strategy game that, from the outside, might look like a mere case of musical chairs. But his juggling of titles belies something larger: King Salman is altering power relationships, playing with inheritance, changing traditional policy structures and essentially redefining who gets access to the Saudi throne in coming decades.
Step one in pulling this off: He moved aside 69-year-old Crown Prince Muqrin — the youngest surviving son of the kingdom’s founder — in favor of 56-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef, a man who, as interior minister, has been at the center of Saudi security policy in the post-9/11 era. The shifts are anything but nominal. Skipping from Muqrin to Nayef, one of the founder’s grandsons, moves power for the first time to the royal family’s third generation — a generation that has been mostly educated abroad and may ultimately be less tradition-bound than their forebears.
But Nayef is not the most novel player here — he is well-known and highly respected in the West for his work on counterterrorism over the past decade, during which he has survived at least four assassination attempts by terrorists. Much lesser known is the king’s choice for deputy crown prince: his youngest son, Mohammed bin Salman, who at about 30 years old (his exact age is unknown) is one of the youngest and least experienced royals to ever hold such a high position. This choice of bin Salman, who accompanied the king to Washington, would not be noteworthy were he simply “in training,” but the king has also piled heavy responsibilities on him, making him defense minister, giving him a new super committee with power over the economy and oil industry, putting him in charge of the royal court (controlling access to the king) and sending him off on sensitive diplomatic missions.
This much power in the hands of a newcomer has startled the Saudi establishment, which is accustomed to long apprenticeships for those who attain a high position. But bin Salman has run aggressively with his mandates, ambitiously involving himself in nearly every aspect of Saudi government. The royal family is very tight-lipped, but the rumor mill and leaks in social media from bloggers with ties to family seniors suggest considerable concern about bin Salman’s limited experience and untested judgment. Exhibit A for many is the Saudi war effort in Yemen, which bin Salman runs and which has drawn criticism for civilian casualties, while also failing to put down rebellion.
So what is at stake for the new generation of Saudi leaders settling into their positions?
All this change comes at a time when the oil-rich Saudis are facing many other challenges, both foreign and domestic. On the foreign front, the Saudis’ overarching worry is their Iranian rival. Tehran, after all, was America’s closest partner in the region before the 1979 Iranian revolution. Saudis now worry that the nuclear agreement with Iran, driven mainly by the U.S., will lead to improved Iran-U.S. relations and move Riyadh into the background — a fear President Obama presumably sought to allay last week when he met with King Salman. And of course, the Saudis also worry about the Islamic State, knowing that it prizes the Mecca holy site inside the kingdom.
Indeed, not even the country’s vast oil wealth is a guarantor of stability, as it cannot insulate them forever from an economic crunch. Even as oil prices sit at a historic low (around $40 a barrel), Saudis cannot turn as confidently to their classic tool — bottlenecking supply — to hike up prices. There are many reasons: Iran wants to start selling as much oil as possible once sanctions are lifted; Iraq is trying to grab more of the market; Venezuela is hurting economically and wants to sell-sell-sell; and U.S. shale production has added a new variable to the equation. This is all to say that these new leaders will likely face stiffer challenges than their elders in maintaining the country’s traditional lifestyle and global (oil-dependent) clout.
These new leaders have some cushion in huge hard currency reserves (about $700 billion) and low debt (less then 2 percent of gross domestic product), although they are drawing it down at a rate that — if low oil prices persist — could leave this particular well dry in a few years. The unavoidable truth is that the kingdom sits at a historic juncture, and in the hands of a new, untested team. It’s a fascinating drama to observe, but it is happening in a region that is already in drama overload.