The Dummies Guide to understanding the crazy power shuffle that just happened in Saudi Arabia

Very early on Wednesday morning, right in the middle of the last ten days of the sacred month of Ramadan, the Saudi Royal family – which is often erroneously characterised as synonymous with the Islamic caliphate system – got a rude shake up. King Salman, 81, fragile and ailing replaced the crown prince with his own son.

Mohammed bin Nayef, is King Salman’s nephew and in the unbelievably long line of succession to the Saudi Kingdom, was next in line until the King appointed his own son as his replacement while also taking the portfolio he was managing – interior minister – away from him.

The King’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, in addition to being the official crown prince continues to manage his defense minister portfolio as well as the Saudi Vision 2030 – Saudi’s economic plan to diversify away from sole reliance on oil. The Vision 2030 is Prince Salman’s brain child and most promising achievement till date.

Why is King Salman’s move a big deal?

The Saudi Royal system operated on a brother-succeeds-brother system until yesterday morning. To put that in context, yesterday was the first time in history that the Saudi kingdom ascension program would be disrupted since the first ruler of the Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, who died in 1953 laid down the old order. It’s also a huge deal because it’s “only the second time since the kingdom was founded in 1932 that a grandson of Ibn Saud has been named a crown prince, and its potential future king.”

Mohammed Ibn Nayef, 57, who has just been “dethroned” was next in line to King Salman being his nephew and most eligible prince since King Salman’s brother, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud died in June 2012. Also, the post Ibn Nayef held as interior minister up until yesterday morning was his father’s before he died. That post has now gone to Ibn Nayef’s nephew, a younger Abdul Aziz Saud bin Nayef, aged 33. So at least, that’s still in the Nayef family.

Why did King Salman do it?

The simple truth is that he did it because he can. And not my snickering nor anyone else’s can change that. Or maybe he just wanted to prove to all of us “democracy-loving-fools” that a different system works perfectly too.

Okay, seriously…
Everyone expected this to happen. It was simply a matter of when.

Many reports have identified the relationship between King Salman and Mohammed Ibn Salman as that of an aged father and his favourite son. This may be evidenced by the sudden elevation of Ibn Salman’s roles in the Kingdom right after the King ascended the throne in January 2015. He immediately named Ibn Salman the deputy crown prince, minister of defense and secretary general of the Royal Court.

To be completely fair, Mohammed Salman has been his father’s right hand and aide since 2009 when he entered politics after spending several years in the private sector. And Ibn Salman’s resumé is not half as bad. He holds a Bachelors in Law from the King Saud University and has worked as a consultant for the Experts Commission.

As the Chairman for the Economic and Development Affairs Council, Ibn Salman came up with the Saudi Vision 2030 which seeks to diversify the Saudi economy away from relying solely on oil and privatise it while selling off some of the oil giant Saudi ARAMCO and creating a sovereign wealth fund. His blueprint also hopes to create “a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and modernisation as its method.”

He’s not without his fauts though. The New York Times once reported him to have purchased a £452 million yatch from a Russian vodka tycoon, Yuri Scheffler. This was done right before he imposed austerity measures at home amidst dwindling oil prices.

So did King Salman really have to do this?

The truth is that the world is changing and it appears that Saudi Arabia does not want to be left behind. This is evidenced in the Kingdom’s recent allying with the Trump administration in the United States. For years, especially under the Obama administration, ties got strained between the two countries.

It’s most recent tough stance against neighbouring Qatar over allegations of financially sponsoring extremists in their Islamist agenda – Qatar also has great relations with Russia – is another indicator that Saudi is trying to position itself as being on the right side of history in the war against terror.

Last June, Prince Salman was in Silicon Valley meeting with tech heads including Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

All these moves, when taken in the context of Prince Salman’s economic maneuvers are clear indicators of a changing Saudi.

“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius this year. According to himSaudis “don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years, we want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs.”

So a young King for young Saudis?

Probably. It may just explain the whole thing.

This analysis by Elliott Abrams puts things under a little more perspective:

“The CIA World Factbook says the median age in the kingdom is now just 27. And now [with Ibn Salman] the kingdom will have a ruler from those younger generations — for the first time ever.
Third, the Saudi system of brother following brother could only work for one generation — and King Salman was the end of that system. Ibn Saud had 45 sons of whom 36 survived to adulthood, and some of them were clearly ineligible to be king. So, there were a limited number of truly eligible brothers to take the throne from his death in 1953 until now — seven decades. But all those sons of the founder simply had too many sons themselves, and there has been no workable principle for figuring out how to choose a king in the follow-on generation. It looked like the first person in that generation, the grandchildren of the founder, would be MbN [the demoted Nayef who is now 57], but that’s over; it will be MbS [Ibn Salman]. And (again, barring some calamity) he will rule for decades. What may happen by the time the aged MbS leaves the throne in, say, 2070, is that his line will have seized and will thenceforth keep the throne. He might name a son of his as crown prince, and that son could serve for ten or 20 years and be accepted as successor, and the old Saudi system will have changed: The bin Salman line will be the true royal family, and the others will all be on the outs.

This seems like a reasonable way to look at what just happened but it still does not fully explain why Nayef was demoted from his Interior minister role too.

Still, the fact that the role is being kept in the family with Ibn Nayef’s 33 year old cousin taking over and the fact that yesterday’s shuffling was not about only Ibn Salman – ” more posts were granted to a younger generation of princelings” – may actually be proof that this is all about making the next generation of Saudi rulers younger to match the general populace.

But who are we kidding? A Monarch just upended the the royal succession in favour of placing his heir at the centre of power for many years to come and we are wondering and exploring the “whys” and “hows”?

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