Saudi Arabia Facing New Challenges? Put a Young Man in Charge

Saudi Arabia has entered a period of unusual danger from internal as well as external threats. The man apparently in charge of overcoming these threats appears ill equipped to do so.

Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud became King of Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2015. The 79 year old Monarch is reported to suffer from dementia and has had a stroke, both of which have been denied by the Royal Court. But he uses a walking stick and reportedly looks puzzled during meetings with foreigners. In mid-May, King Salman failed to attend a summit meeting of Gulf leaders in Washington and Camp David hosted by President Obama. In his place he sent the new Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, and the new Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, his sixth son from his third wife.

Who actually runs the Kingdom is not clear but increasingly it appears to be that son.

King Salman has appointed Muhammad bin Salman to crucial positions besides Deputy Crown Prince. These include chief of the Royal Court, Minister of Defense, Chairman of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company and economic czar with power to oversee the entire Saudi economy.

The concentration of such power outside the King himself is unprecedented. In the hands of Muhammad bin Salman, the concentration is shocking. The new Saudi power center is somewhere between 29 and 35 years of age. His only job has been adviser to his father, starting when his father became Deputy Crown Prince in 2011. Otherwise he followed the customary royal’s path of dabbling in stocks and real estate.

As chief of the Court, MbS controls access to his father and relates his father’s wishes to the outside world. What comes from the King and what, from the son is not anymore entirely clear.

As Minister of Defense (the youngest in the world), MbS has been in charge of the Saudi war in Yemen. He launched Saudi bombing of Yemen’s Houthi rebels in March of 2015, bombing that continues despite the declaration, by the Saudis, of a ceasefire. Much of Yemen has been decimated but the Houthis remain the dominant political force. Exactly what MbS thinks can be accomplished by bombing alone is unclear. But whatever he thinks, bombing is unlikely to restore non-Houthi forces to power.

The Houthis are Zaidis, an eighth century Yemeni outgrowth of Shia Islam. Their banner carries the slogan: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The amount of material aid they have received from Iran is unclear. But Ayatollah Khamene’i recently declared that some “inexperienced and young leaders in Saudi” were provoking trouble. The Saudis clearly see the Houthis as an arm of Iranian imperialism in the peninsula.

This past week, MbS returned from Moscow where he held discussions with President Putin to seek Russia’s support for Saudi’s hard line on the Houthis. Whether or not discussions were also held on Russian support for Syria’s Assad is unknown.

But as economic czar, MbS also led discussions on oil issues. The possibility of a trade-off with the Saudi’s reducing oil production, thereby raising prices and with them the Russian economy in return for Russian diplomatic support for the Saudi war was undoubtedly on the agenda.

MbS was also appointed Deputy Crown Prince by his father. He is second in line to the throne after the King’s full nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef. MbN is Saudi’s Minister of Interior and controls internal security. MbS controls the Kingdom’s armed forces. Succession is in the hands of the security chiefs.

That appears to be an especially important development as ISIS has targeted Saudi Arabia. The late King Abdullah branded ISIS a terrorist group and joined the U.S. led coalition targeting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called for attacks on the Kingdom. In mid-May, two suicide bombers attacked Shiites in Saudi’s Eastern Province. The first targeted a Shia mosque, killing 21 worshippers and the second, another mosque, killing 4.

Saudi Shiites have long been aggrieved at severe discrimination by the Royals. Within the Kingdom, Shiites have been seen as idol worshippers and not true Muslims. More recently, the Shiites have been seen as agents of Iran. Attacks from ISIS attempt to inflame those tensions to bring chaos to Saudi Arabia.

At this moment of danger, the affairs of Saudi Arabia appear to be ever more in the hands of a young man with no meaningful experience. Draw your own conclusions.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus at the Booth School of Business at The University of Chicago.