03.10.2017 | Trouble brewing for Saudi heir

As Mohammed bin Salman prepares for his ascent, he is facing growing discontent among members of the royal family and ordinary Saudis.

Having cleared the way for his accession to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS as he is known, appears unassailable. Yet there are growing signs of disaffection in the kingdom over his leadership – significantly, within the royal court – which may explain why he has yet to take charge of one of the last institutions of power outside his control, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, SANG, a praetorian guard tasked with safeguarding the House of Saud.

For decades, SANG has acted as a counterbalance between the Sudairi branch of the Al Saud family – whose members include MbS, his father King Salman and the late King Fahd – and the non-Sudairis, notably former King Abdullah whose son, Prince Mutaib, still controls the force.

Rumblings of discontent within the kingdom surfaced early last month when news broke that a number of prominent clerics had been detained because of their lack of support for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. But just as worrying for MbS is disgruntlement within the royal family over his rise to power and public concerns, expressed via social media, with his economic reforms.

MbS, King Salman’s favourite son, quickly assumed sweeping powers after his frail and ageing father appointed him deputy Crown Prince two years ago. He heads the country’s defence forces, determines economic, foreign and social policy, and appears to have acquired greater influence over internal security.

In June’s de facto palace coup, King Salman demoted former heir apparent Mohammed bin Nayef, who was also fired from his post as interior minister.  The ministry was subsequently stripped of important functions, as part of a reform of the security services. The move effectively consolidated the king’s and MbS’s authority over the latter.

In manoeuvring his way to the top, MbS has put a lot of princely noses out of joint. With his father giving him responsibility for much of the day-to-day running of the country, he has sought to remove any challenges to his authority. Princes have been demoted, sacked and passed over in an unprecedented overhaul of the court.

While a number of able young princes and technocrats with strong allegiances to MbS have benefited from the reshuffles, some older royals are understood to feel genuinely worried about the concentration of power, not least because they have seen their sources of income severely squeezed. That is because ministerial positions command high salaries and carry the potential for enrichment through public procurement contracts. 

Loss of influence can have big financial implications. Some royals, whose once powerful fathers have lost their positions or died, are believed to have serious liquidity issues. As they rarely save in good times, princes have difficulty adapting when their circumstances change. Add to that the downturn in the Saudi economy and you have a recipe for dissension in the ranks. 

Since the palace coup the movements of Mohammed bin Nayef are reported to have been restricted – claims denied by the government – and a minor royal who had criticised the demotion of the prince is said to have been detained.

While MbS’s removal seems unlikely, there has been speculation that his apparent reluctance to take over SANG, the only military unit capable of mounting a coup, is a sign that even he may regard this as one step too far. Such a move would deliver the final blow to the balance of power that has maintained order in the kingdom over the last 50 years.   

Though lauded in the West for his attempts to liberalise Saudi society and his much bolder bid to ween the country off its dependence on oil, MbS is taking a gamble with both. Handing women more rights – last week they were granted the right to drive – and introducing other social reforms risks a backlash from ultra-conservatives while the benefits of reforming the economy (assuming this is achieved, and it is a big ‘if’) will take some time to trickle down to ordinary Saudis, already vexed by the erosion of their generous, cradle-to-grave subsidies.

Meanwhile, the country’s finances are not in good shape.  Healthier oil prices are starting to reduce the budget deficit – still $12.4 billion in the second quarter. But the government is showing a reluctance to pay all but the most urgent bills.  State contractors, many on life support, are owed billions of dollars, while abroad debts are mounting: sources report many service providers to Saudi embassies are not being paid, from dentists to security guards.

A recent upwelling of critical Saudi social media posts has focused on the stagnation of the economy, with MbS spoken of in condescending terms. Such criticism is rare, but some Saudis appear to have been emboldened by the austerity measures. 

Online activists last month called for countrywide protests over social issues – including poverty and youth unemployment – but there were no reports of them taking place. In a sign that the authorities were taking the planned demonstrations seriously, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the country’s most senior cleric, urged Saudis not to participate.

That neither MbS nor the king have left the country all summer – not even to attend the G20 summit, membership of which Saudis are immensely proud – betrays a certain nervousness or even vulnerability, particularly with SANG still outside MbS’s control.  His detention of some members of the religious establishment may be intended to consolidate power in advance of his anticipated accession to the throne, but his biggest challenge might come if some aggrieved princes make common cause with dissident Islamic clerics.