By Shehab Al Makahleh • Follow @ShehabMakahleh
Without a hint that a GCC-Qatar rift tearing apart the fabric of the regional stability and cooperation resolution is anywhere in sight, ill and aged Saudi king Salman via a royal decree, Wednesday morning declares his 31-year-old son, Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) a new crown prince. Naming of the young crown prince along with a number of other young appointees, completes important leadership shift to a new generation in a country with more than half of population under the age of 25, and a desperate need for social, political and economic reform.
In parallel, the former crown prince, 57-year-old King’s nephew, Mohamed bin Nayef was stripped of all official functions, including the interior minister post where he was in charge of the country’s security and the anti-terrorism efforts.
Although the international media has presented the event as breaking news, currently occupying the media space across the globe, informed sources in Washington and Riyadh say the move was expected, adding that more change is on the way at the top of the Saudi government.
Another important event featuring Saudi royals escaped public attention, due to media occupation with the Riyadh Summit outcomes, the ongoing Saudi-led Qatar crisis, and lastly the new crown prince appointment, and the expectations of the economic and political changes his ascent to the first successor to the Saudi throne would bring to the country, region and globally. The missed event is a brief yet hugely significant Saudi future King’s visit to Russia, China, Japan, France, the UK and the US in the past few months meant to initiate a new phase of the soon-to-be Saudi King’s relationships with these countries, all UNSC members, with the exception of Japan.
During Russian visit last month Bin Salman is believed to have sought Russian support after successfully gaining American backing in terms of his economic and political pursuits in the region ― namely the GCC Iranian- Qatari standoff, and the anti-terrorism efforts in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. In Moscow the just appointed Saudi crown prince was expected to cement several significant agreements with the Russian president, but the visit fell short of expectations, followed soon after with the breakout of Qatar crisis.
There are speculations that Saudis asked Russians to cease their support for Iran, and the Syrian government, but Russians did not warm up to the idea, unlike the Americans, so the visit was abruptly cut short. Such a visit at the beginning of Muslim Holy month of Ramadan last month, on the heels of the Riyadh Summit where Saudis sought to prove to the American president Trump their de facto leadership of the Muslim Sunni world.
As for Mohamed bin Salman, his power and influence both within the Saudi royal family and across the Atlantic has grown significantly in the past few years. As a defense minister, Mohamed bin Salman spearheaded the war on Yemen, and is the chief ideologist of the GCC anti-Qatari campaign.
The young, tremendously ambitious crown prince is also credited with the recent mega-billion arms deal concluded with US president Trump during Riyadh Summit, and the securing of American support for the Sunni collation against Iran.
Bin Salman is also the chief proponent of the ambitious economic reform plan Vision 2030, launched in 2016 with the aim of diversifying and modernizing country’s oil dependent economy.
According to sources close to Israeli military intelligence, the new crown prince has strong links with the Israeli top military, intelligence and political brass and as such plays a key role in US president’s plan for building friendly relations among Arabs and Israel. This link to Israel was made evident through the rekindled crisis with Qatar, when some important figures in the Israeli leadership have joined Saudi condemnation of Qatar and its support for ‘funding and supporting terrorism’ and the Saudi-Israeli common arch-enemy – Iran.
Bin Salman is also known for his mentee relationship with the de facto ruler of the UAE, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed. Both UAE and Saudis seek to curb Iranian and Qatari influence in the region. While the conflict with Iran and Qatar, for most part is presented as the political and ideological in nature ― the two being accused of fomenting and abating extremism and terrorism in the region and beyond ― that storyline is only part of the truth.
It is noteworthy mentioning that Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field and both together and individually represent political and economic rivals to the Saudi regional leadership role. Firstly, Iran is considered key political rival to the Saudi regional dominance, both due to its influence among the region’s Shia Muslims and its growing importance as the energy supplier.
Secondly, Qatar, although insignificant in terms of size of its territory is important as the home to the largest US military base in the region, as well as the key regional and global exporter of the natural gas. Moreover, some of the Qatar’s financial institutions, such as its national bank, are the wealthiest in the region, thus a direct threat to the cash strapped Saudi economy staggering under the weight of protracted low-oil price crisis, augmented by the completely misguided and unwinnable war in Yemen.
Add to the combustible mix a massive amount of money ― which according to some estimates is likely to surpass a trillion dollars ― just poured out of the country’s thinning reserves into the American struggling economy ― Qatar’s cash reserves seem like a perfect gift to the ‘aggressive and ambitious’ Saudi crown prince.
Quite unexpected, coming amid unprecedented diplomatic rift between the two countries, is the congratulatory cable sent by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim to Mohamed Bin Salman upon his high appointment, viewed by some politicians and analysts as an icebreaking attempt to restart soured relations between KSA and Qatar and to open a new page of bilateral relations based on mutual respect rather than on dictatorship of agendas or preset doctrines.
Two big questions now lingering on many analysts’ minds are whether the aging Saudi king will soon step down and hand the mantle to the young son, and whether the son would use the just acquired US weapons and the Sunni support to carry out a blitzkrieg on the small, annoying brotherly Arab nation, or choose a path of peace and reconciliation.
In both cases, young crown prince – soon to be king will be facing two grave dangers – both to his own and the country’s future – one internal and the other external.
Will he be able to consolidate the internal power soon enough to ensure his ambitious reform policy is carried out and the country’s economy put back on the path of growth to quell the likely internal dissent?
Will he be able to curb his own inflamed passions and stop short of another disastrous war campaign, this time against a very different enemy, be it either Qatar or Iran?
Shehab Al Makahleh is the co-founder of Geostrategic Media, terrorism and security expert, political and media advisor.