Regrettably, and with clockwork precision that spanned over five decades, observers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have anticipated its demise and, more precisely, the fall of the Al Sa‘ud from power. Some even believed and continue to hold with frightening precision that the vast country, whose physical size is nearly half that of the continental span of the United States, could be divided into smaller Amirates or Shaykhdoms. At the height of the War for Iraq in 2003, challenged commentators opined that the time was right to split the oil-rich Eastern Province from the rest of the Kingdom, and to rely on the local Shi‘ah population to “manage” the entity for the benefit of oil-consuming nations. Whether such wishful thinking was dangerous was beside the point as several contemplated the brake-up of the country, with the Central Najd region to be entrusted to the Al Sa‘ud under a demented scheme—as long as they would not surrender it to an unfriendly tribe—while the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah would be administered by a putative international Muslim authority that, comically, would enjoy extra-territoriality within an independent nation-state. An even more deranged feature of this brilliant strategic hodgepodge would see the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah fall back under Hashimite administration, whose last rule over the Hijaz ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in 1918. Dismantling the Kingdom was actually taken seriously for a short period of time by rabid antagonists, some equipped with sharp academic rigor, even if the forecasts bordered on the irrelevant. At other times, anti-Saudi writers added fuel to the fire by raising legitimacy questions, the likes of which few societies experienced. Remarkably, and while such prognostications included elements of academic enquiry or even useful strategic evaluations, they bordered on the juvenile with the passing of time and the endurance displayed the Al Sa‘ud. The Kingdom proved its longevity and the Al Sa‘ud affirmed their legitimacy, their breadth to power and, equally important, their fiduciary responsibilities towards a nation that was restored by the founder of the Third Saudi Monarchy in 1932, King ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdul Rahman bin Faysal Al Sa‘ud.
Of course, while nothing is permanent, the ruling Al Sa‘ud family insisted and continues to uphold its survival, an eminently logical endeavor. Furthermore, senior family members were and are determined to survive as well as prosper, which is acclamatory. This is more so in the aftermath of the 2 October 2018 Jamal Khashoggi murder in Istanbul that, understandably, raised several new questions about the Al Sa‘ud. Those are where this study aims to pick-up the story, embark on a fresh assessment in light of recent developments, and test several hypotheses. Without any pretensions of absolute certainty that the Al Sa‘ud will permanently prevail, it is critical to enquire how stable the Government of Saudi Arabia is under King Salman bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, and what are the most likely scenarios for Muhammad bin Salman to succeed his father, precisely to ensure continuity.1 There are many questions that need to be raised to test these hypotheses accurately in order to speculate on what the Kingdom might look like in about a decade, or roughly around 2030. It may be worth repeating that the aim of this work is to offer sound assessments of current leaders’ capabilities to rule the Kingdom for the next few decades without falling into sycophantic praise.
What may be said at the outset with some confidence is that Saudi leaders are resolute to help an increasingly educated and technologically awakened population to “create wealth” and to encourage entrepreneurship. In early 2019, King Salman and his Heir Apparent Muhammad bin Salman, strongly believed that Saudi Arabia deserved a bright future and were steadfast to preserve and protect the nation. If epochal challenges during the past eight decades failed to shake the Al Sa‘ud, and if calamitous events could not unsettle the ruling family to abandon innate responsibilities, chances were excellent that inevitable prospective contests would be handled with the same verve and poise, no matter what critics claimed. This does not mean that Riyadh will not experience socio-economic jolts or that the religious establishment, which is the vital pillar that backs the Al Sa‘ud, will not test the ruling family, or that harmony will always triumph within it. What it means is that Saudi Arabia seldom lacked the required leadership to overcome dares, and while contestations around the sitting monarch and his heir apparent lingered, both men have displayed their mettle as strong trailblazers, individuals who hailed from a long and distinguished line of Al Sa‘ud frontrunners.2
To be sure, critics derided the monarch and his heir apparent, with one observer of the Kingdom going so far as to affirm that Muhammad bin Salman “is not a capable fire-fighter or a tactical statesman.” Elaborating further, the writer maintained that the young official “is confident that, equipped with nothing more than money and unconditional US support, he can surmount any obstacles to his imminent accession. So far he has succeeded in marginalizing his rival cousin MBN [Muhammad Bin Nayif] and enlisting Donald Trump as an ally, albeit temporarily.”3
Of course, one could disagree with what was quite a strong opinion offered along entirely acceptable academic grounds, though others denigrated Muhammad bin Salman even more, advancing wild speculations that skirted scholarship, even if they failed to add analytic value. Many journalistic reports concocted all sorts of fantasies, offering little in terms of concrete evidence, with even less attention to accuracy. Serge Sur, commenting in a specialized French magazine, described the reforms attributed to Muhammad bin Salman as being hypocritical, insisting that “hypocrisy is not liberty.” Sur added that the Kingdom was little more than a “successful Da‘ish” [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State], which was both wrong and insulting, though illustrative of what passed for analysis by instant experts.4 It was open season on Muhammad bin Salman and just about anything was acceptable to portray him as an incapable buffoon, someone who craved power in the best authoritarian traditions, converging on contradictions, double-standards, and nonchalance. One focused on his “ruthlessness,” repeating an unverified anecdote that saw him threaten a judge who apparently refused to sign off on a questionable transaction. That story then evolved as Muhammad bin Salman allegedly “removed a bullet from his pocket and told [his interlocutor] he had to sign [and] the judge acquiesced but complained to then king Abdullah, who banned Muhammad bin Salman from his court for several months.” Although the author of this scuttlebutt tale failed to provide any evidence to back the phantasmagoric “bullet story,” the fable took on a life of itself, repeated by innocent journalists with even less access to accuracy than the originator of the saga (see Chapter 1). This perspective took on exponential dimensions after the Khashoggi Affair surfaced, as journalists and commentators loaded on Muhammad bin Salman with a vengeance, and attributed guilt even if investigations were under way and not a single court ruling was rendered by the time these lines were composed in late 2018 (see Chapter 4).
Nevertheless, and given the proliferation of such fiction concerning a key country that is embarked on dramatic socio-economic transformations, it is fair to ask whether Saudis will voluntarily abide by the country’s new economic model and whether they will accept whatever permutations are introduced without making stringent political demands that, truth be told, is what preoccupies many observers. Simply stated, a vast majority of Saudi watchers seem persuaded that King Salman’s rule will be a failure, that Heir Apparent Muhammad bin Salman’s accession to rulership will be hotly contested, and the epochal Vision 2030 economic projects will become little more than mirages in the desert.5 To many Western, especially American, journalists and commentators who practice public diplomacy but who economize on analysis, the rise of a new discipline—bashing Saudi Arabia and Muhammad bin Salman—appears to have become a viable activity, though this simply highlights acute biases. These attitudes surfaced in late 2018 rather forcefully, especially after the tragic Khashoggi assassination, even if equally appalling deaths of journalists occurred in numerous countries around the world without eliciting similar uproars. It was revealing that Time Magazine, which designated Jamal Khashoggi as one of its four “Guardians and the War on Truth” in its annual “Person of the Year” issue, chose to publicize the Saudi journalist’s disappearance, but barely touched on equally appalling deaths in Mexico, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.6 Time sided with journalists who took “great risks in [the] pursuit of greater truths,” but it also opined that the “death laid bare the true nature of a smiling prince, the utter absence of morality in the Saudi-U.S. alliance,” both of which redefined hyperbole. The magazine concluded that Muhammad bin Salman was little more that “a tyrant … [who] visited [his fury] upon a man armed only with a pen.”7 To be sure, Jamal Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist, but he was much more than that as discussed in this report. While his murder was sickening, few doubted that focusing on Heir Apparent Muhammad bin Salman—condemning him for allegedly ordering the murder—was a political goldmine to further isolate the Kingdom and embarrass the Al Sa‘ud.
Saudi Arabia is not a democracy but neither is it a theocracy like Iran whose authoritarian features are all too evident. This Kingdom is just that: a monarchy, and King Salman—or Heir Apparent Muhammad bin Salman—is not a dictator like so many of his fellow Arab and/or Muslim counterparts who rule with iron fists or practice retribution. To surmise otherwise is to display acute ignorance of a dynamic society where injustice certainly exists though it pales in comparison with either established republican or democratizing societies. It is an absolute monarchy that cherishes traditions and aims to retain its age-old and amply tested norms that preserved society and ensured its security throughout time. Muhammad bin Salman, who will eventually succeed his father, is an aspiring modernizer who intends to gradually transform his society and place it on a different, and hopefully, more egalitarian footing, even if his chief faults are inexperience and obsessive staff members. Of course, there are not too many optimists around though it is critical to ask whether Saudis would opt for the status quo or ask for, perhaps even demand, genuine political representation from their leaders. As a corollary, it is also vital to assess whether such demands would preserve current conditions, shake the very foundations of the monarchy, or literally transform it inside out.
Table of Contents
A Note on Transliteration
Ch 1. Succession and Primogeniture
King Salman Changes the Succession Mechanism
Muhammad bin Nayif as Heir Apparent
Muhammad bin Salman as Heir Apparent
Ch 2. The Quest for Consolidation
Potential Remedies and Economic Transformations
The Vital Role of the Religious Establishment
A Necessary Update of the Kingdom’s Legal Conundrum
Ch 3. Regional and Global Trials
Ties with the United States of America: The Obama Terms
Ties with the United States of America: The Donald Trump Juggernaut
“Together We Prevail”
Relations After the Khashoggi Affair
Ties with Russia
Ties with Asian Powers
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan
The Republic of India
The People’s Republic of China
The Republic of Korea
Ties with Europe
Relations with the United Kingdom
Relations with France
Ties with the Arab World
Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring
The GCC and the Qatar Crisis
The GCC Defense Challenge
The War for Yemen
Ties with Iran and the Threat from the Revolution
Ch 4. The Consequences of the Khashoggi Affair
Disturbing Developments that Targeted Saudi Arabia
Objective Muhammad bin Salman
2 October 2018
The Khashoggi Assassination
The Mysterious Khashoggi
Ch 5. Succession in Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi Affair
The Initial Aftermath
Focus on Muhammad bin Salman Before 2 October 2018
Fallout of Recent Events on Succession Matters
Succession after the Khashoggi Affair
The Evolving Aftermath
Ch 6. Succession and Rule
King Salman’s Rule and Leadership Preferences
Muhammad bin Salman Becoming King
Muhammad bin Salman Appoints Heir
Speculation on Rule until 2030
The views expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not reflect those of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
- 1. The name of Heir Apparent Muhammad bin Salman is often abbreviated to MBS or MbS though this chronicle will refrain from doing so (save for direct quotations in various sources). As the bulk of this study was written in late 2018 and, therefore, before the more recent controversies, “MBS” is also rejected for being a crass acronym. Now that journalists refer to the heir apparent as “Mr. Bone-Saw,” there is an even better reason to avoid ugly and largely insulting appellations, since they mean very little in the context of the ruling Al Sa‘ud family.
- 2. Among the many strategic analyses that advance these notions, the reader may consult Guillaume Fourmont-Dainville, Géopolitique de l’Arabie Saoudite: La Guerre Intérieure, Paris: Ellipses, 2005, pp. 139-143; and Fatiha Dazi-Héni, L’Arabie Saoudite en 100 Questions, Paris: Tallandier, 2017, pp. 106-120. Critical studies on the Kingdom, Salman bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz and his son, started to fill library shelves. See, for example, Ardavan Amir-Aslani, Arabie Saoudite: de l’influence à la décadence, Paris: Éditions de l’Archipel, 2017; Neil Partrick, ed., Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation, London: I. B. Tauris, 2018; Ellen R. Wald, Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power, New York: Pegasus Books, 2018; David Cowan, The Coming Economic Implosion of Saudi Arabia: A Behavioral Perspective, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018; Madawi Al-Rasheed, ed., Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia, London: Hurst & Company, 2018; and Christine Ockrent, Le prince mystère de l’Arabie: Mohammed ben Salman, les mirages d’un pouvoir absolu, Paris: Robert Laffont, 2018.
- 3. Madawi Al-Rasheed, “King Salman and His Son: Winning the USA, Loosing the Rest,” in Al-Rasheed, Salman’s Legacy, Ibid., pp. 235-250; the quotation is on p.249.
- 4. Serge Sur, “L’Âme de l’Islam, le Corps du Roi, les Fruits du Pétrole,” Questions Internationales, Number 89, January-February 2018, pp.4-11.
- 5. “A Prince Fails to Charm: Saudi Arabia’s Economic Reforms are not Attracting Investors. Or Creating Jobs,” The Economist 429:9123, 22 December 2018, pp. 48-49, at https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/12/22/saudi-arabias-economic-reforms-are-not-attracting-investors..
- 6. Karl Vick, “The Guardians and the War on Truth,” Time [2018 Person of the Year], 192: 27-28, 24-31 December 2018, pp. 32-67. To its credit, Time carried the pictures of 52 journalists who either died over their work or were murdered as of 10 December 2018 without, however, assigning guilt to leaders in various countries. See also Associated Press, “Journalist Death Toll: Retaliation Killings Nearly Double in 2018,” The Guardian, 19 December 2018, at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/dec/19/journalists-death-toll-nearly-doubles-in-2018..
- 7. Time, Ibid., pp. 35, 40, 43.