Dynastic crisis in Saudi Arabia

In the last period, a Middle Eastern power has emerged at the center of international attention which, although it has been the undisputed world leader of oil-exporting countries for decades, is governed by a monarchy that appears less and less cohesive and increasingly disoriented by recent international developments.

According to some Turkish reconstructions, Khashoggi – a well-known commentator intimately linked to the royal family, who fell out of favor with the rise of the current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – was killed by emissaries belonging to the Prince’s personal security service, making suspicion of a direct involvement of the latter in the murder. Despite the fuss raised, the Khashoggi affair will not in itself decide the future of the Saudi dynasty. However, it is the symptom of a more serious crisis that grips the country, and which has gone largely unnoticed. The deep roots of this crisis date back to the outbreak of the Arab revolts in 2011 (in addition to residing in an economic and state model that is difficult to sustain in the long run). Traditionally hostile to change – and seen directly threatened by the wave of popular discontent that had swept several regimes in the region – the Saudi monarchy reacted with unusual unscrupulousness.

After repressing internal dissent, it intervened militarily to stifle the uprising in neighboring Bahrain and instead supported the uprising in Syria with money and weapons in order to inflict a blow on Iran, a close ally of Damascus and the main opponent of the Saudis to regional level. With the exception of Syria, Riyadh politically and financially supported the “restoration” of the status quo in the region, which culminated with the arrival in power of General al-Sisi in Egypt, which in the summer of 2013 overthrew the previous government of the Muslim brothers.

However, the unprecedented Saudi regional effort and the subsequent collapse in oil prices have put a strain on the coffers of the kingdom. In 2015 the ascent to the throne of Salman bin Abdulaziz, father of the current crown prince, then laid the foundations for the breaking of the principle of consensus on which the cohesion of the royal family had historically been based. Without valid justification, King Salman excluded two heirs to the throne – Muqrin and Mohammed bin Nayef – from the line of succession, naming his favorite son, in his early thirties, in their place. The newly appointed prince proved impulsive and inexperienced in the management of state affairs. Despite this, the king, old and in a precarious state of health, has concentrated unprecedented powers in his hands, ranging from the economy to defense, making him the de facto sovereign of the Saudi kingdom.

The MBS government (as Mohammed bin Salman is often referred to with reference to the initials of his name) was characterized primarily by the disastrous war in Yemen, which plunged this already poor country into one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, at the same time placing Riyadh in a strategic impasse from which he cannot escape. The young prince then imposed an embargo on neighboring Qatar due to political differences that revolve above all around the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, supported by Doha but seen as a fearsome enemy by the heir to the Saudi throne. In doing so, however, the latter laid the foundations for the disintegration of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an organization that brings together the countries of the Arabian Peninsula with the exception of Yemen.

On the domestic front, MBS, aware of the unsustainability of the Saudi economic model, has launched an ambitious and risky reform program, some of which are already stalled. Not satisfied with the power that his father placed in his hands, he then carried out a raid of princes and businessmen, long held under arrest – and even tortured – in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. The Prince’s reckless moves have caused irremediable fractures within the royal family. However, the fact that he has centralized control of the armed forces and security services in his hands, that his main rivals remain under house arrest and that the traditional Saudi hierarchical culture makes the members of the royal family themselves reluctant to insubordination, makes so that there is no immediate alternative to the government of MBS.

By: Domenico Greco

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