Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Inside the Turmoil of Change in the House of Saud

| February 5, 2016

Can an audacious young prince make his tradition-bound family bow to his will and force his somnolent society to wake up? With the sweeping powers recently bestowed on 30-year-old Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi royal family, its 30 million subjects and the outside world may soon find out.

For the past two decades Saudi Arabia’s geriatric rulers have steered the kingdom at a glacial pace as if it were an antique car. Given the wheel last year by his father, King Salman, the deputy crown prince has shifted into high gear as the kingdom’s minister of defense, economic czar and ultimate boss of Aramco, the national oil company that bankrolls the kingdom. Not since the 1960s has a prince his age held such power.

For decades the ruling family’s infirm and inattentive older generation has dissipated the House of Saud’s prestige and prosperity. Thuggish neighbors lurk beyond the kingdom’s borders and its longtime protector, the U.S., is courting Iran. Grand reform plans repeatedly have sunk without a trace into the government’s byzantine bureaucracy. And the family fortune, inextricably tied to oil, is in sharp decline.

Nevertheless, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a risk-taker, has rallied much of the country behind him by acting decisively—without deferring to the U.S.—to sever diplomatic ties with Tehran and confront Iranian meddling in Yemen and Syria, to pursue a new 34-nation Islamic coalition against terrorism, and to meet a parade of world leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, to show Washington that Riyadh has options.

As a result, there is a palpable air of anticipation in the kingdom. A growing number of Saudis believe that the deputy crown prince will leapfrog his older cousin, 56-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, to succeed the 80-year-old King Salman. To these Saudis, especially the younger generations, the youthful prince, with his energy and activism, is a leader whose time has come. Some 70% of Saudis are the deputy crown prince’s age or younger. To others, including many in the royal family, he is a whirlwind about to wreak havoc in the kingdom and create more chaos in the region.

What makes this drama so suspenseful is that no one really knows the state of King Salman’s health. Some say he relies on scripts fed to him by the deputy crown prince when meeting with visitors. His son has taken charge of virtually all issues foreign and domestic, sidelining his older cousin, the minister of interior, who deals only with internal security.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef rarely speaks publicly and is seen primarily on billboards showing the ruling trio. He has a long record of keeping terrorists at bay inside the kingdom and is respected by U.S. antiterror authorities—which may be a negative for him now that the Obama administration is seen here as largely abandoning Saudi Arabia for Iran. Those loyal to the crown prince say he is by nature a doer, not a talker, and is waiting for the deputy crown prince to self-destruct. For his part, the young prince tells friends that rumors of rivalry are false and that his older cousin views him as the son he never had.

Yet some in the royal family believe this king and his son are bent on excluding the bulk of the 7,000-member family in favor of only one line. Since 1953, the throne has passed from brother to brother largely by seniority among the 36 sons of the founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud. Some of Mohammed bin Salman’s uncles and cousins insist that the senior members of the family are organizing to meet with the king in the “near future” to ask him to restrain or remove his son.

“Is he a prince? A businessman? Or a politician?” asks one of the king’s octogenarian half brothers. “I don’t know when this play will end. Government is not theater. King Salman needs to open his heart and his mind to his brothers.”

Saudis are glued to rumors and gossip as the family drama plays out. If the king dies without making his succession wishes clear, many believe that the current crown prince’s first act as king would be to remove his young cousin from office.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic agenda is as assertive as his foreign one. With oil prices below $35 a barrel and the government’s revenue down by 50% since 2014, he is overseeing the kingdom’s National Transformation Plan 2020, which promises to reverse the Saudi economy from one dependent on government jobs funded by oil revenue to one led by private-sector growth. This young prince, who only a decade ago planned to earn an M.B.A. and go into business but joined the government instead, is now overseeing the entire Saudi economy.

This would essentially rewrite the social contract whereby Saudis have accepted absolute rule including rigid social strictures in exchange for government-provided jobs, health care and education. If people must create their own prosperity, will their loyalty to the House of Saud hold? It is a risk that has never been taken.

For now, low oil prices and a determined prince promising greater transparency and reform are shaking up the kingdom. Armed with an iPad, he meets regularly with government ministers, each of whom is required to outline and meet specific goals. Ministers long accustomed to short days and job security now find themselves in meetings with the prince at midnight. Three already have been fired.

Some Saudis expect the ambitious transformation plan to be forgotten like all of its predecessors since the 1970s. “Mohammed bin Salman is lucky,” says one skeptic. “As long as there is turmoil in the Middle East and trouble with Iran, the Saudi people fear chaos so they will forget nothing happened with reform. What choice do we have?”

The contrast between that regional chaos and Saudi Arabia’s relative stability as well as the contrast between energetic new leadership and the lethargy of the past are the two best things that the young prince has going for him.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen Elliott.“Inside the Turmoil of Change in the House of Saud.” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2016.

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