Saudi Arabia: Supremely Protecting MbS

Published on November 2, 2018

As the reverberations continue to play out in the weeks since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, we understand that unprecedented, high stakes moves are underway in Riyadh to protect the embattled Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, paradoxically, by reining in some of his unchecked powers in a partial return to the consensus power sharing previously a hallmark of the Al Saud decision making.

** A new “Supreme Council” or an “elders council” comprising a half dozen senior princes from the other branches of the Saudi Royal Family is likely to be announced by the Crown Prince’s father, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, in the coming days or weeks. We understand the Council will be chaired by the King, who would call on the Council to convene in order to “advise” the Crown Prince on all national affairs, including defense and foreign policy, as well as energy, domestic security, and social and economic policy matters.

** The Supreme Council may include many of the senior princes who were marginalized by the Crown Prince, among the candidates: Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, former Deputy Interior Minister  and a full Sudairy brother of King Salman who recently returned from London, Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the former Crown Prince and Interior Minister, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the Governor of Makkah and the King’s recent emissary to Ankara, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah the former head of the National Guard, and Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, the former Crown Prince, and Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the former defense minister.

** There is even some talk that Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef, the grandson of the former Crown Prince and the current Interior Minister, could be named a Deputy Crown Prince. If it comes about, it too would also mark an important step to rebalance the Al Saud succession beyond just the Al Salmans. There had been speculation the Crown Prince’s younger brother, Prince Khaled bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, would be named deputy crown prince, but we are unsure how seriously it was being considered as it would break the pledge of the King that no new sons of the King would be appointed as future Crown Princes.

** While it is an advisory council only — no formal control of the power ministries or the National Guard is being returned to the other princes — it is a clear effort to rein in the more impulsive, near disastrous decisions by the Crown Prince, which unchecked, not only led to the Khashoggi murder, but the costly war in Yemen, the confrontation with Qatar, the almost bizarre spats with Canada and Germany and the short-lived “arrest” and forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri when he was in Riyadh last summer.

** The check on the Crown Prince’s power, whether the convening of the Council or in a new Deputy Crown Prince, will only be in place as long as King Salman is alive. Once MbS, as he is known, becomes King, he can either disband or ignore the Supreme Council, and likewise in the precedent set by his father in dismissing two previous Crown Princes, MbS would be presumably free to dismiss a Deputy Crown Prince to name his own, unless further checks on his power are phased in while King Salman is still on the throne.

** But the moves are nonetheless an important check on the young Crown Prince, and would appear to be the minimal price demanded by the other senior Al Saud princes for their continued unity to maintain the Royal Family’s absolute rule over the Kingdom. A more drastic, and high risk, move within the Royal Family to seek an audience with the King to demand a new line of succession was apparently never being considered, at least not without a clear signal of support to do so from President Trump.

** We understand, however, that US officials had pressed for some form of reforms at the highest levels of power, along the lines of a Council being created, as an indication the Al Saud would bring the young Crown Prince under greater control to check some of his more impulsive decisions. The US is also still likely to impose additional sanctions, more probably on specific security operatives who will be bearing the brunt of blame for the Khashoggi murder to protect the Crown Prince.

** There may also still be additional sanctions from Congress after next week’s midterm elections, either during a lame duck session in December or in the new congressional session next year. In particular, if the Democrats take the House next week, the sanctions may include legislation limiting or banning US arms sales to Riyadh to steer the Saudis to as rapid a resolution of the Yemen war as possible. The timing and scale of the US sanction threats may also prove to be a factor in the timing to the announcement of the Supreme Council as, in effect, the more pressure from Washington, the more quickly and extensive will the Al Saud reforms come in royal decrees by the King. 

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