New Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent was only a matter of time. The “boy,” who will mark his 32nd birthday in August, has been leading the country de facto anyway. He already calls the shots on foreign policy. Many expect that in the not-too-distant future, King Salman, who is ill, will step down and hand the scepter to his son.
Bin Salman has been undergoing training for the throne since Salman’s coronation two and a half years ago, both through foreign missions carried out on behalf of his father, and also through the war in Yemen that – as defense minister – he planned and carried out (albeit not particularly successfully).
Before the new crown prince’s advent, his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, had been in charge of relationships with Washington, especially with the CIA. In short order, Nayef was pushed out and the Americans understood exactly who the strong man in town was.
Bin Salman became the contact not only between the kingdom and Washington, but also with Russia: the new heir met with President Vladimir Putin several times to coordinate policy on Syria and Iran.
Until now, Mohammed bin Salman has been good news for Israel and the United States, as his firm anti-Iranian positions make him an important partner – and not only in the struggle against Iran. Bin Salman agrees with America on the need to thwart Russian influence in the region; to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria; and to act firmly against ISIS and other radical organizations, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hezbollah. During the last two years, several Arab websites have reported that bin Salman also met with top Israelis.
According to these reports, one such meeting took place in Eilat in 2015; another on the margins of the Arab summit in Jordan this March, and there are regular meetings between Saudi and Israeli officers in the joint war room where Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States coordinate. What is not yet known is to what extent Bin Salman can and might want to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan, and whether he can turn around relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In a series of tweets this week, the Saudi blogger known as “Mujtahidd” revealed a “plot” by Crown Prince bin Salman and the heir to the Abu Dhabi throne, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to stage a coup in Qatar.
Mujtahidd – many of whose tweets have proven accurate, and who apparently relies on whispers from the Saudi Arabia monarchial court – wrote, among other things, that the two heirs intended to send Blackwater mercenaries (of Iraqi notoriety) to Qatar, together with forces from the UAE, to seize the government. After that, somebody from the ruling Al-Thani family who would be loyal to them would be appointed. Thusly, according to Mujtahidd, the two thought to reduce the crisis and bend Qatar to Saudi Arabia’s will. Based on these tweets, it was the United States that pressed, indirectly, to torpedo the notion.
By the way, this information has not been verified, and there is no certainty that these tweets rely on any actual fact. But what is unquestionable is the depth of relations between the two young heirs, a relationship that has created an axis of youth confident of the global mission – or at least Arab mission – placed on their shoulders, and confident that none but them are suited to run the Middle East.
This is a new generation that includes the ruler of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, 37. It is a generation that came late to the Gulf states, having been predated by youthful leaders in Morocco, Jordan and Syria.
Arab leaders like Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and King Abdullah have felt the whip of Saudi foreign relations. Both have been lashed over their “behavior” – and they were punished, too. Saudi Arabia cut off the oil supply to Egypt six months ago because of Cairo’s support for the Russian proposal on Syria, and because what Saudi Arabia felt was Egypt’s retreat from the proposal to return the Sanafir and Tiran islands in the Red Sea to it. Saudi Arabia also suspended aid to Jordan until recently because Jordan refused to let Gulf forces operate from its territory against Syrian forces.
But the hardest blow was suffered, of course, by Qatar, which was declared non grata by the Gulf nations, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, which turned the terrestrial and aerial blockade of the Gulf state into an economic one.
The new crown prince was the living spirit behind all these decisions, which required no more than a formal nod from his father.
The appointment, which has passed without opposition so far, and with the overwhelming support of the Allegiance Council (which, under the constitution, has the power to approve the appointment of heirs) is not expected to cause any new jolts in the kingdom.
Potential opponents have already been “summoned for a chat” in the king’s court. The new interior minister, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, is another youngster, just 34, and is very close to Mohammed bin Salman. From now on, he will be the one responsible for managing the struggle against internal terrorism. He will also be the crown prince’s partner in oppressing subversion.
To gratify the subjects ahead of the change, King Salman announced the extension of Id al-Fitr (to mark the end of Ramadan) by another week. He also returned all the financial emoluments that were recently taken away from government and army officials. A pay raise is a time-honored way of maintaining quiet calm in the Saudi kingdom.