The Millennial’s Palace Coup in Saudi Arabia: How Dangerous?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The epic battle in the Trump White House between Jared Kushner, the Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, and Steve Bannon, the alt-NeoNazi White House strategist, is hard to top.

But Saudi Arabia just topped it?

Saudi Arabia just topped it.

King Salman just fired the crown prince and made his son, Muhammad bin Salman, heir apparent.

the new crown prince is a foreign policy adventurer and hard liner who said just last month that there can be no compromise with Iran.

The octogenarian King Salman acceded to the throne in January of 2015. He has made several changes in his cabinet since then, but by last year the two most important figures in it were Muhammad bin Naif, 57, his nephew and the crown prince, and Muhammad bin Salman, 32, his son.

Muhammad bin Naif had become the minister of the interior, a position his father had also filled at one point, and was known as master of the deep state. He had taken the lead in the war on terror in 2003-2006 when al-Qaeda launched a concerted attempt to undermine the kingdom through terrorism. He was known for his iron fist policy and for filling jails with suspects. US CIA director Mike Pompeo recently gave him an award.

Muhammad bin Salman did not have much of a resume before his father made him minister of defense. In spring of 2015 he launched a devastating air war on the Houthi guerrilla group in northwest Yemen believing it was a slam dunk. It is still dragging on with no end in sight. The war has disregarded humanitarian considerations and deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure. At one point after he launched the war, Muhammad bin Salman went off on vacation to the Maldives and US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter couldn’t get hold of him despite the urgency of the situation.

Both men seem to have supported the Yemen War. Muhammad bin Naif had a longer history in the Syrian conflict, but both seem to have backed Salafi jihadis like the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) and the later formation of an alliance of the Freemen of Syria with the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly Nusra).

Muhammad bin Salman was identified in addition with a scheme to cut pensions and benefits for government workers and to begin privatizing the state owned petroleum giant. The king undid the pension and benefits cuts just before making his son the crown prince, and gave him the credit for the change.

It isn’t clear that the two cousins had any strong ideological differences with one another, but they just did not like one another. Muhammad bin Salman seems to be as ambitious as he is sloppy, and wanted to move his cousin out of the way.

Saudi Arabia had been using an agnatic succession model, where the brother of the king is given preference over the son of the king.

The Third Saudi kingdom was founded by Ibn Saud in 1902. He and his ancestors had an alliance with the ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics. He initially only had Najd in the interior, but in 1913 he added Shiite Eastern Arabia (where the oil turned out to be), and in 1924-6 added the Sunni Hejaz on the Red Sea littoral. In 1932 a united Saudi Kingdom was announced. Ibn Saudi died in 1953. One of his many wives, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi, had given him 7 sons, the largest bloc of men eligible for the throne, who tended to support each other vis-a-vis other branches. From the 1930s, Saudi Arabia struck oil and the royal family became fabulously wealthy. Sometimes some members of it have caused scandals with how they have spent it.

Salman is a Sudairi, as are Muhammad bin Naif and Muhammad bin Salman; the latter were the first of Ibn Saud’s grandsons to have a shot a the throne.

Muhammad bin Salman is also the first Millennial (born in 1985) to have the prospect of succeeding to power. His father is advanced in age.

The new crown prince is known to be both reckless and sloppy. His irrational hatred for Iran could well lead to a military confrontation. His Yemen and Syria policies are in tatters. He has fallen out with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is trying to squash the independence of neighboring Qatar. Some European investment firms are afraid he will upset the world’s apple carts so much it will hurt all our retirement accounts.

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Related video:

Bloomberg: “Saudi Arabia Names Mohammed Bin Salman as Crown Prince”

26 Responses

  1. Muhammad bin Salman should keep in mind six things:

    – The greatest sin in all religions, that leads to the worst downfall, is PRIDE. Saudi Arabia is no better than Iran and trying to be the top dog in the middle east by force can easily lead to failure because throughout history virtually all hubris (pride) leads to terrible failure.

    – Wars always bankrupt nations that start wars.

    – Iran has been preparing for a USA invasion for over 35 years and has developed the infrastructure to design and manufacture very excellent, low cost weapons. Any invasion of Iran will be EXTREMELY COSTLY to the invader. BTW – I know of at least two simulations (done in the west) that show the USA being DEFEATED if it attacked Iran so Saudi Arabia will do far worse. The Saudis may also want to think about why Israel has never attacked Iran (the IDF leadership realized that they would lose as much as half their invading aircraft and the 50k missiles pointed at Israel would turn Israel into a pile of rubble)

    – Iran has friends who will gladly help out because it will weaken the USA and Saudi Arabia.

    – Iran’s army has over a million battle-hardened soldiers (more than the USA army and marines) and tens of thousands of very accurate missiles (they just sent two into Syria to great effect).

    – Saudi Arabia is doing the exact opposite to the principals that Sun Tzu wrote several thousand years ago – Principals that have been proven, repeatedly, to be the best to follow.

    In the end I expect the Saudis to very pridefully attack Iran and get their heads handed to them in humiliating defeat because that is just what prideful, arrogant humans do.

    • a Saudi attack on Iran would be the best possible course of action for the people in Saudi Arabia who are not in the royal family.
      KSA would eventually become a republic.

      • If history (and the future) were so simple. Remember Iraq was going to be a democratic republic if only we removed Saddam? There were going to recognize Israel too! Wasn’t the future going to be great!

    • Given his history, I can see how most may assume an escalation through conventional military war, like he did in Yemen, however I believe if he were to indulge in aggression against Iran, it would be mostly through certain Sunni Islamist extremist militant proxies, like how Pakistan used to employ against Indian interests (which Pakistan eventually suffered blowback but learnt little from it), and how Saudi Arabia did in Afghanistan back in the 80’s and does now in Syria.

      So basically continuing to tie down Iran in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, targeting respective Shia populations, while attacking Iran across borders such as Pakistan, and may include supporting other type of insurgencies like the Iranian Kurds and Sunnis in the Sistan and Baloch province.

      I’m pretty sure when they saw Daesh attack in Tehran, just like Rohrbacher, their hopes went up believing it was possible to hurt Tehran through terrorist attacks and could possibly encourage it.

      Even after 9/11, they probably will just continue to make the whole global Sunni extremist militant problem worse.

  2. A real Trump of an Arab princeling guy, it sounds like.

    The rot in the most fundamental structures of our so-called civilization generally starts from the top. The Yemen war of the last two years has been an especially egregious example of a war that is unnecessary for either parties larger goals of (first) survival and (second) influence/power, and destructive to both the very survival of the victimized party, and to the ruling institutions and the “moral propaganda points” of the aggressive party.

    I’ve been studying Saudi Arabia for a long time. The change from the consensus model of succession decison-making to the autocratic hereditary model — favoring a less than outstanding heir — is HYUUUGE, in Trumpian language. Is Abdul-Aziz’s kingdom about to finally spin apart among the (all very rich and most likely all very self-regarding) princely cousins ???

  3. If the Saudis provoke a war (sorry, not polite like “military confrontation”) with Iran, one wonders how long Trump will allow the US to remain on the sidelines?

    • It depends on whether Trump listens to the military who have already figured out that attacking Iran is a stupid idea.

      Oooops – I forgot, the petulant trump child does not listen to any adult.

      So on with another losing war where the USA wastes a few more trillions of dollars it does not have, because it vastly under-taxes its rich citizens.

      Yes, grab a beverage of choice (preferably one that numbs your brain) and grab an unhealthy snack (it will not matter after the USA loses) and watch the fun on your HDTV.

  4. I wonder what will happen when the old king dies. Could there be a palace coup where more responsible heads remove the young king before he topples the whole thing over? Could the Wahabists see it as an opportunity to grab for power?

    Of course the prince has had a few years to build his support base so he may not go so easily. He is defense minister so he (may?) have the military with him. What about the other armed state organizations such as the police and the spy services?

    The Wahabists must be sitting there waiting for their time to come. How deep is their influence within the state organizations? Have they infiltrated the military? Are there princes who are Wahabist?

    Could the king’s death be the end of the house of Saud?

    • Interesting though experiment. Will the death of Salman [the despot] lead in fairly short order to the dissolution of the kingdom? How long will the Shiite, and oil-rich, East remain loyal should a shooting war break out against Iran?

      I suspect post-Salman [the despot] Saudi Arabia may be as fragile and fractious as post-Saddam Iraq.

      And Ditto to Spyguy’s observations on hubris!

      • As long as the new king pays off his cousins well enough, there will not be coup.

        The Shia minority does not have the military might to break off from KSA. Even though the KSA military is very substandard, it is still better than any Shia minority.

        As for a war with Iran, Iran holds all the cards. If KSA gets too annoying, all Iran as to do is drop a few hundred of their very accurate (and low cost) missiles on the KSA infrastructure (most custom built) and KSA will have zero income. Note that anti-missile systems have an extremely poor record in real world combat.

        • Two can play at the “blow up the infrastructure” game. The Iranians may not want to touch Saudi oil infrastructure because theirs is also vulnerable. Also, a tanker war hurts everybody equally.

        • @my comment – Iran can do a LOT more damage to KSA than KSA can do to Iran.

          Iran has thousands of very capable missiles and a three tier and very deadly air defense network that will make short work of the KSA air-force.

          Whereas KSA has a small number of Chinese DF21C and very bad pilots driving very expensive USA made air toys.

          Iran is NOT a nation to take lightly.

    • there are three separate armies in KSA.
      There is the notional national army; the “White Army” palace guard; and a “Jendarmarie” force.
      They would battle each other if there was any turmoil. The White Army would bring in US Mercenaries and DOD to do their fighting.

    • Of course the princes are Wahhabist, that’s
      the family’s house religion. What you need to know is whether any princes are willing to share power with clerics in the way the latter want.

  5. Secretary of State Mr. Rex W Tillerson said that our policy towards Iran would be regime change; maybe this is the beginning of this ordeal.

    • Attacking Iran will NOT lead to “regime change.”

      Any country that attacks Iran will get its head handed to it in a paper sack.

  6. This move may well see the collapse of Saudi Arabia due to the likelihood of a “family” feud. However, whatever happens, this young man looks like trouble!

  7. The current regime is not the “Third Saudi kingdom.” Abdulaziz did not take the title malik or “king” until he conquered the Hejaz in the 1920s from the Hashemites, where, during WW I, the former Sherif Hussein al-Hashim had taken the title “King of Hejaz.” His sons would be installed by the British as kings of Iraq and Jordan, with a descendant, Abdullah II, still ruling Jordan. Prior to that conquest of Hejaz, Abdulaziz and his ancestors who led the Saudi regimes in the Nejd, bore the title “Emir,” usually translated as “Prince.”

    I am in complete agreement with the substance of the post. I suspect that the move to elevate MbS may have been triggered by the increasingly obvious moves by Tillerson and Mattis to distance the US from the Saudi position on Qatar, where the latter two have become impatient at the unwillingness of the Saudis and Emiratis to articulate their specific demands for the Qataris.

  8. What all the Wahhabis (and everyone in Iran and elsewhere) should remember:
    “Beware of extremism in religion because that was the only thing that destroyed those before you.” –Prophet Muhammad, p.b.u.h.

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