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Saudi Arabia: A Time for a Ruthless Reckoning

By: Fouad al-Ibrahim for Al-Akhbar English -

The new king takes revenge from his predecessor. This, briefly, describes what secretly transpired in Saudi Arabia on January 24, signaling a resurgence of the Sudairi clan which is working to restore its power and liquidate the legacy of King Abdullah. The late king was buried yesterday leaving his son Mutab to head a faction overshadowed by the new crown prince, Muqrin, who appears weak without internal or external support.

It appears that Salman’s revenge is a dish best served hot, instantly and not so subtly.Announcing King Abdullah’s death was timed in a way to ensure the news would pass quietly in the dead of night while people are sleeping. So, the king’s passing did not garner the usual press coverage. The swift changes happened faster than observers had anticipated and the royal decrees issued by the new king distracted many from the event itself. Even reflecting on Abdullah’s death might have been cut short. Does this entail a sign from the new king? Perhaps.
King Salman’s agenda was certainly attention-grabbing. He quickly opened a Twitter account, under the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” and wrote his first tweet, asking God to help him serve his people and fulfill their hopes. Before his predecessor’s body was laid to rest, he issued in an unprecedented fashion a series of royal orders appointing his son Mohammed bin Salman as defense minister and head of the royal court, his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef deputy crown prince in addition to his position as interior minister, and removed Khalid al-Tuwaijri from his position as head of the royal court and royal guard. It is expected that more appointments and exemptions will emerge in the coming days.

Naturally, the king’s decrees were not a spur-of-the-moment decision. They were planned, awaiting Abdullah’s death, and issued successively thus revealing a deep rift between the two ruling factions (Abdullah’s faction and the Sudairis). Detecting such a rift would not have been possible without the counter decrees issued by King Abdullah over a decade ago in an effort to undermine the Sudairi clan. Today, the new king is trying to mend the cracks that befell the Sudairi faction by issuing new royal decrees, discharging certain people from their posts and bringing in others.

Salman began his reign by liquidating Abdullah’s legacy. The initial indicators suggest that he is playing a destructive role but doing so promptly to take charge of the reins of the state without trouble or pressure and transform it into a pure Sudairi state, or even pure Salmani state, if need be.

It is like a chess game but played at a rapid pace. The new king had built-up grievances with King Abdullah that were simmering, he was waiting for this moment to pounce quickly. It appears that Salman’s revenge is a dish best served hot, instantly and not so subtly. He did not even wait till the end of his predecessor’s burial ceremony to declare a swift reckoning against King Abdullah’s faction.

It is important to note that Salman did not depart one bit from the terms of engagement that existed under his predecessor’s reign. Therefore, one can say that Salman does not belong to the pre-Abdullah era, rather, he is Abdullah’s legitimate heir in terms of the policies and methods he utilized in this struggle. He did not even deviate from Abdullah’s approach in terms of dealing with his adversaries. The new king is using the same mechanisms created by the previous king to exclude his rivals. He might even resort to the Allegiance Council established by King Abdullah to avoid appointing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef deputy crown prince (before eventually agreeing with him on dividing the posts between them) in order to reshape political power. He might even exempt Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the new crown prince, from his post and bring back Ahmed bin Abdulaziz (the former interior minister) through the same mechanism. He might have to build new alliances which would give weight to marginalized factions whose role would gain prominence because the Sudairis and the Abdullah faction need them in this struggle over power now and in the future.

In any case, the new king is facing a burdensome legacy of discord and changes but he will take on the task of liquidating this legacy quickly and decisively.

It feels as though we are witnessing an open battle of differences between the factions whose scope no one yet knows.The king’s decisions affirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the struggle between the competing factions within the royal family is not marginal or transient. Perhaps Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz’s statement yesterday, suggesting that disagreements within the family may lead to its collapse, reveals a serious side of this struggle. Contrary to what the decree appointing Mohammed bin Nayef deputy crown prince stated: “After examining what was presented to the Allegiance Council members about choosing His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud deputy crown prince and receiving majority support...,” Prince Talal said the Allegiance Council was not called to determine the succession and the family council has not met in months.
Other princes discussed the discord within the royal family on social networking sites. For the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, princes from the House of Saud come out publicly and talked transparently to the press about their differences. Therefore, focusing on Tuwaijri, King Abdullah’s advisor, appears more of a guise to cover up the real discord among the princes.

Before King Abdullah’s death, disagreements within the House of Saud were discussed in the media and the virtual world. After the king’s death and subsequent appointment and exemption decrees issued by the new king, it feels as though we are witnessing an open battle of differences between the factions whose scope no one yet knows.

Reaction to the new king’s orders do not bode well for the Sudairi clan. One of King Abdulaziz’s sons is still alive and he is more deserving of the deputy crown prince position based on the traditional criteria for succession. Bypassing him will affect the new king’s relationship with his brothers who are being deliberately excluded and are not considered in the new appointments. The Sudairis are losing the sympathy they garnered in the past as a result of King Abdullah’s royal decrees deemed as unfair towards them because of similar decrees issued by the new king who, as it turns out, is no better than his predecessor in his tendency to exclude and push out princes from other factions.

Clearly, the struggle over power is primarily between Abdullah and Salman while the other princes either play supporting roles or are divided between winners and losers, depending on the type and nature of the royal decrees.

Three of the Sudairis are still alive. The new King Salman, Prince Ahmed (a former interior minister) and Prince Abdulrahman bin Abdulaziz (who is not a contender for any position).

The most prominent figures within the Sudairi clan have died. Fahd bin Abdulaziz (2005), Sultan bin Abdulaziz (2011) and Nayef bin Abdulaziz (2012). It is highly likely that Ahmed will return to power because he enjoys a special position within the Sudairi clan and has a good relationship with some of the tribes allied with the House of Saud.

There are those who believe he is more deserving to be crown prince than his half-brother Muqrin. As such the scenario of exempting Muqrin from the post is still possible and it might be done for one reason or another, especially after the death of his only supporter. It does not appear that the decision to exempt Muqrin will be met by rejection from within the royal family where he enjoys neither popularity nor influence. The best choice, of course, would be to force him to withdraw in favor of Prince Ahmed. Such a move would represent a suitable way to remove Muqrin and an honorable return for Ahmed.

Muqrin’s position in the order of succession will remain a subject of an open debate in Saudi Arabia for a while because it is not possible for him to stay without a serious alliance in the family. His reliance on Prince Mutab and the current national guard minister is not enough to face off against the other factions including the Sudairi clan led by Prince Salman. Some might argue that removing Muqrin,for whatever reason and under any pretext, amounts to a declaration of war on Mutab and his brothers because it might deprive them of power forever. If withdrawing is inevitable from the standpoint of Mutab’s faction, then the alternative would not be Ahmed. Mutab would be more deserving. Any arrangements in Saudi Arabia that do not take into considerations Mutab’s right in the succession will set off a conflict between the factions.

The new king is not on friendly terms with his crown prince Muqrin who feels that Salman treats him with disrespect for many reasons, including the fact that he is the son of a concubine and the fact that King Abdullah’s faction took advantage of him to get Mutab bin Abdullah to the throne. Appointing Muqrin crown prince was obligatory for the new king based on royal order No. A/86 issued 10 months ago which stipulates appointing Muqrin crown prince in the event the post becomes vacant. At the time, observers understood that the royal order is not just a about the struggle for power between the factions but also paves the way for Mutab to ascend to the throne through Muqrin, the next king after Salman. Political and media sources say that Prince Salman has Alzheimers, in addition to a heart condition and geriatric diseases, which raise the hopes of the Mutab faction.

The chances of Mohammed bin Nayef in Washington seemed better due to the close ties he enjoys with US decision makersSalman’s decision to remove Tuwaijri from his post as head of the royal court and royal guard and as secretary of the Allegiance Council was expected well before announcing the king’s death. The media attack launched against Tuwaijri by supporters of the Sudairi faction on social networking sites in the past few months suggested that a vengeful decision awaited the man the second his master, King Abdullah, died.
Prince Mutab, minister of the national guard since 2013, will face serious challenges after the return of the Sudairis to power. Salman’s decrees are nothing if not a clear and serious message to the main rival faction and other factions that he will exercise his full authority granted to him by the the Basic Law (issued in March 1992) which gives the king absolute powers to appoint and discharge from posts.

Prince Mutab tried to build a special relationship with Washington in the hope of enhancing the chances of his ascension to power. He increased his visits to the capitals of states allied with Saudi Arabia in order to gain support for himself in the future of the throne.

However, the chances of Mohammed bin Nayef in Washington seemed better due to the close ties he enjoys with US decision makers that he worked on during his father’s reign through security agreements with Washington. These include four strategic agreements in 2007 granting the US unprecedented influence in the history of Saudi Arabia whereby the latter is subject almost entirely to US sovereignty through surveillance and tracking systems that affect all people living in Saudi Arabia.

Before Abdullah’s death, there was behind-the-scene talks that Mohammed bin Nayef was not interested in ascending to the throne because he has no male heirs which cuts off his struggle for power. But appointing him as deputy crown prince makes him a potential heir to the throne.

Nine Arab leaders attend the funeral

Nine Arab presidents and kings attended Abdullah’s funeral while ten were absent. The reason for the absence of four out of the ten is not clear. The reasons behind the absence of the rest varied ranging from strikes in their countries to bad weather conditions, illness, hostility with the kingdom and time constraints due to their presence at international events.

The attending presidents and kings are: Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Emir of Kuwait Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, King of Bahrain Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Djiboutan President Ismail Omar Guelleh, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Iraqi President Fouad Maasoum, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud and Mauritanian President Mohammed Ould Abdulaziz.

The 10 absent presidents and kings were: King of Morocco Mohammed VI (whose country’s customs do not allow the king to attend weddings and funerals overseas), Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (who arrives in Riyadh today), Algeria’s President Abdulaziz Bouteflika (due to his illness), Emirati president Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (visiting Riyadh today), Jordanian King Abdullah II, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Yemeni President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Comoros President Ikililou Dhoinine, while the presidents of Lebanon and Libya were absent because of the vacancy in their executive branches.
*The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the center's editorial policy.

Written by The Levant