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The Palace Coup at the Heart of the Regional Crisis

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz has surprised the world in the historical step of removing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) from his position as the Crown Prince and Minister of Interior in the Kingdom, and appointing his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as Crown Prince who received the allegiance given of the overwhelming majority of Al- Saud Princes. After King Salman’s decision, news spread all over the world illuding to internal conflicts within the ruling family, with rising voices that oppose to the appointment. Will MBS be able to confront potential internal opposition especially from some princes in the ruling family? And will he be able to secure his path to ascend the Saudi royal throne?

King Salman’s Appointments

The decisions taken by King Salman along the appointment of MBS as a crown prince helped in ensuring a smooth and secure transition between Bin Nayef and Bin Salman. Interestingly, most of King Salman’s appointments were focused on princes from the third and fourth generation of Al Saud family. These arrangements will help MBS increase his influence among the young princes and ensure family loyalty in any possible future step to seek the Royal throne. Most of the appointed princes are sons or grandsons of well-known influential princes and previous strong Kings notably King Fahed and King Faysal. The decisions and the appointments included:

Prince Faysal Bin Khaled Bin Faysal Bin Abdul Aziz and Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Turki Bin Faysal Bin Abdul Aziz are both the grandsons of King Faissal, and they were appointed respectively as consultant in the Royal Court with a rank of minister and the Vice Chairman of the General Authority of Sports. Moreover, Prince Turki Bin Mohammad Bin Fahed was also appointed as consultant in the Royal court with a rank of Minister. A possible aim of the appointment may be to satisfy King Fahd’s family.[1] In addition, Prince Bandar Bin Faysal Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz was appointed as the assistant of the Head of Intelligence. Prince Bandar is a member in the allegiance council and his father (Faysal Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz) is currently the Prince of the Riyadh province, which is a very sensitive and important position.

In a bid to neutralize Prince Nayef’s family from potential confrontation with MBS, King Salman appointed Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as the Minister of Interior. The prince was working in the Political Division for six months then as an advisor in the Office of the Minister of Defense (MBS) before the royal decree was issued.[2] This appointment may satisfy Prince Saud Bin Nayef (MBN’s brother and Abdulaziz’s father) to become a future ally for MBS.

MBN Isolation

After developing a strategic relationship with Trump’s administration and dominating the oil and economic portfolio in the Kingdom, MBS is working hard to control the security portfolio. His biggest challenge will remain to take over all the security agencies in Riyadh to ensure that no coup attempt could be made against him.  In the past months, Bin Salman, through his father’s help, has largely succeeded in eliminating all the key players allied to Bin Nayef.

For this, King Salman has created a new National Security Centre (NSC). The role of the national security advisor will be filled by Mohammed bin Salih Alghfaili, who Saudi insiders have already linked to Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle. The NSC is in direct competition with the already existing security body, the Political and Security Council that was headed by Mohammed bin Nayef. [3]

King Salman also appointed Prince Mohammed bin Turki al-Saud as commander of the ground forces and Major Ahmed al-Asiri as deputy chief of the General Intelligence Presidency. The two men are known to be loyal to King Salman and MBS. A report written by the intelligence online journal indicated the close relationship between the two princes and considered Mohammed bin Turki a cornerstone in the power play of MBS.[4] Moreover, King Salman took a decision to detach the General Investigation and Prosecution Department in the Ministry of the Interior, which was supervised by Mohamed Bin Nayif, separating it from the executive branch and making it fully independent and directly linked to the King after changing its name to “Public Prosecution”.

MBS Challenges and Interpretations

Despite the success of Bin Salman in the acquisition of the essential positions in the security agencies, but there are still a lot of challenges that he has to face. It is likely that Mohammed bin Salman will soon try to ascend the throne with the blessing of his father on the pretext of the King’s health. However, this will not happen without Bin Salman’s full control over the power centers in the Interior Ministry and possibly trying to remove or neutralize the current minister of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib Bin Abdullah Al Saud. One of Bin Salman’s options may be to integrate the National Guard into the Saudi army in order to diminish the strong role of the competitor Saudi prince. The leaked news about MBN’s house arrest by his cousin are an indicator on MBS willingness to totally end the presence of MBN in the political and security scene in KSA.

Moving to the regional and international level, the excellent recent relations between bin Salman and bin Zayed may push them to increase pressure on Qatar and try to limit its regional role as much as possible. The removal of Mohammad Bin Nayef, one of the closest Emirs to Qatar, will probably not facilitate the reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha. Bin Salman’s quest to get closer to the US administration, as well as his proximity to Bin Zayed, will contribute to a more hostile policy toward political Islam in the region.

On the Yemeni files, Bin Salman may seek to find a solution to the Yemen crisis. Supporting the UAE’s plan could be one of the most probable solutions giving some sort of independence to the southern part of Yemen and re-giving a role to Saleh’s son in the North. A recent report by the Middle East Eye indicated that Bin Salman met Prince Tahoon Bin Zayed, the brother of Mohammed bin Zayed along with his security chief, and the discussion revolved around the potential of removing Hadi and replacing him with Khaled Bahah, who is close to the Emirates.[5]

Regarding Lebanon, the 3rd Generation of Saudi Princes’ view of Lebanon is certainly different from the first and second generations. It is clear that Lebanon has no longer a nostalgia in the hearts and minds of the Saudi leadership, but rather the relationship is only based on the interests of cost/benefit and part of the regional spectrum. No close relationship was observed between Bin Salman and Hariri similar to the relationship between Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahed and the Lebanese Prime Minister. However, the removal of Mohammad Bin Nayef leave Retired General Ashraf Rifi, the main rising contender of Hariri without a strong ally and improve the latter’s position. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to leave Hariri in a financial collapse.

The young prince will have a difficult mission in the coming days. Resolving the dispute with Qatar, facing the Iranian expansion, ending the complex issue of Yemen, reviving its role in Syria and Lebanon, in addition to implementing its economic plan for Saudi Arabia and confronting the low oil prices, are some of the difficult missions challenges facing MBS in the coming months. The success or failure in this may be a determining factor in his ability to ascend to the Royal Throne.

[1] Al Riyadh Newspaper. (2017). Amer Malak, e3fa2 Al Amir Mohammad Bin Nayef wal Amir Mohammad Bin Salman Waliyan lil 3ahd, translation: Royal Decree: Exemption of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Prince Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince, retrieved from: http://www.alriyadh.com/1604529
[2] Al Arabiya English. (2017). PROFILE: New Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, retrieved from: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2017/06/21/PROFILE-The-new-Saudi-Interior-Minister.html
[3] AFP. (2017). Saudi shake-up strengthens king's powerful son, Al Monitor, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/afp/2017/04/saudi-politics-security-royals-us.html
[4] Intelligence Online. (2017). Fahid bin Turki, Mohammad bin Salman favourite, keeps hand on business, retrieved from: https://www.intelligenceonline.com/international-dealmaking/2017/05/24/fahd-bin-turki-mohammed-bin-salman-favourite-keeps-hand-on-business-interests,108235652-ART
[5] Hearst, D. (2017). Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's prince of chaos, Middle East Eye, retrieved from: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/saudis-prince-chaos-205606563


Ramy Jabbour
Ramy Jabbour
Ramy Jabbour developed an early interest in politics and international relations. He joined Notre Dame University- Louaize in 2010 where he received a degree in International Affairs and Diplomacy with several distinctions and currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Political Science. He has previously worked as an assistant consultant at Macarlea advisory group: a communication and risk consultancy and a project officer at Statistics Lebanon. He is currently the Head of Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform and a researcher at the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies. His research focuses on Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Gulf politics.