Mohammad bin Salman’s ascent to the second most important position in the kingdom will reinforce Saudi Arabia’s newly assertive foreign policy.
On Wednesday, 21 June, Saudi Arabia and the world woke up to find that a coup of sorts had occurred in Saudi Arabia. The ruling monarch King Salman replaced the incumbent Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the 57-year-old Interior Minister, with his son, the 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Although the matter of elevation of Deputy Crown Prince Salman, or MBS as he is generally called, has been discussed in hushed tones in the corridors of power in Riyadh and in capitals around the world for the last two years, the suddenness with which it came took most observers by surprise.
On ascending the throne in 2015, King Salman had removed the then sitting Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, his half brother, and instead appointed his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, the son of another half brother Nayef bin Abdulaziz as the new Crown Prince. It was for the first time that hierarchy had moved down from the sons of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who ruled the country from 1932 to 1953, to the third generation.
At 81 today, with his indifferent and fragile health, King Salman probably thought it prudent not to lose more time to appoint his son MBS to be the next heir to the throne. For the time being the appointment of MBS as Crown Prince has been accepted and approved by 31 of the 34 princes of the Allegiance Council. Even the deposed prince has vowed allegiance to the new Crown Prince, MBS is now virtually assured of becoming king, possibly for decades after the demise of King Salman.
Who is MBS?
There is no word except “meteoric” to describe the unprecedented rise of MBS in the Saudi hierarchy over the last two years. Till King Salman became the ruler in January 2015, no one within or outside Saudi Arabia had heard of MBS. He was appointed the Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince. Then 28, he lost no time in announcing his arrival on the global stage by launching an all out attack in an optimistically named “Operation Decisive Storm” against Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen. In this operation which has screeched to a stalemate, more than 7,600 people have been killed and 42,000 injured since March 2015, the majority in air strikes by the Saudi-led multinational coalition stitched together by MBS. The conflict and a blockade imposed by the coalition have also triggered a humanitarian disaster, leaving 70% of the population in need of aid.
Besides holding the defence portfolio, MBS also heads the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. He manages the nation’s oil affairs, the principal raison for its clout in global affairs. He is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” that seeks to decrease the country’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. Security issues were never under the control of MBS but here also he slowly chipped away at Prince Nayef’s domain by establishing the national security centre in the royal palace and appointing a close confidant of his as the Director General of the Security Services.
The House of Saud
Although the House of Saud has faced several challenges ever since it was established in 1932 with the ascension of Abdulaziz ibn Saud to the throne, it has been able to weather all of them effectively by staying united and taking decisions in a consensual, collegial manner through discussions and consultations. Recent developments in which several senior princes have been humiliated and sidelined however appear to have frayed the unity of the household at its edges. Elevation of MBS to crown prince could witness some unanticipated rumblings in the Saudi royal household.
The Saudis have in the past pursued a low profile, moderate, conservative, largely behind-the-scenes foreign policy that benefited from economic expansion fueled by soaring oil prices. But all that changed with the ascension of King Salman to the throne. MBS has been the driving force behind the kingdom’s biggest gambles since his father became king: the Saudi-led war in Yemen; the recent campaign to isolate Qatar; and an overhaul of the Saudi economy intended to wean it off its dependence on oil.
MBS’s ascent to the second most important position in the kingdom will reinforce Saudi Arabia’s newly assertive foreign policy throughout the region — especially its aggressive posture toward its chief regional adversary Iran. His consolidation of power could mean greater uncertainty as well as more conflict and instability in the region — he has dismissed any prospect of negotiating with Iran, saying the Islamic Republic seeks to dominate the Muslim world and displace Saudi Arabia from its traditional role as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, where the religion was founded.
Saudi Arabia and Trump
MBS’s ascent also brings the House of Saud closer to the Trump administration. Meeting between MBS and Trump was organised by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner during the former’s visit to Washington DC in March this year. It would appear that agreement on Riyadh becoming the first destination of Trump’sw foreign visit and placement of huge orders for defence equipment by Saudi Arabia on US companies were agreed to during that meeting. Trump appears to have taken a liking to the young prince.
Notwithstanding his strident criticism of Saudi Arabia during campaigning, Trump after assuming office has moved decisively closer to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration’s anti-Iran rhetoric — and its focus on Tehran as the biggest source of instability in the region — are in consonance with the adventurous and belligerent Saudi policy.
The fundamental pillars of US-Saudi alliance comprise of a joint front against Iran and continued purchases of high value sophisticated defence equipment by Saudi Arabia from USA. It is uncertain how long this bonhomie will last. Trump by nature is fickle and mercurial and if there are obstacles or delays in placing ever increasing orders for US munitions by Riyadh, as there might well be because of Saudi stressed financial situation in the coming years, the relationship could rapidly turn sour.
Saudi Arabia faces many internal challenges, ranging from rising youth unemployment, the return of jihadists from Iraq and Syria to growing criticism of House of Saud on domestic social media and simmering restiveness in the Shia-dominated eastern province. The country is also grappling with low oil prices, scarce job opportunities for the kingdom’s youth, declining consumer confidence and intensifying hostilities both with Iran and in its own circle of Sunni Arab states.
Ferment in the Gulf and India
The ferment and churning in the Middle East, including the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, severance of ties by Saudi Arabia and some Arab countries with Qatar etc are likely to have significant implications for India, given that its citizens make up the largest expatriate group in Saudi Arabia (3 million) as well as the region (7-8 million). Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has strengthened India’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Qatar and Israel. This demonstrates a more self-assured approach by India in handling the growing opportunities and challenges in the region.
Because of the large number of workers of Indian origin working in the Middle East, security and stability in the region is of paramount importance for it. Further, the Indian diaspora in the region remits around $35 billion a year. These funds are immensely valuable as they help India manage its current account deficit. Energy is another critical area of engagement. A fifth of India’s oil, and about 65% of gas imports, comes from countries of the Middle East including Iran, Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others.
Uncertainty and volatility in the Middle East region could result in increased insecurity reduced economic activity and stress on the 50% or so of the total inward remittances that India receives from the Gulf.
Any confrontation or uncertainty in the wider Gulf region due to recent developments, including elevation of Mohammad bin Salman as Crown Prince, could engender serious adverse implications for India. Beyond a point, India cannot stay aloof. Given the range, expanse and depth of India’s interests and its rapidly expanding political, economic and strategic profile, sooner or later India will have to get more vigorously engaged in dealing with developments in this crucial region. In the coming years, India will have to adopt a more hands on policy in any security crisis or economic upheaval that may strike the region because its own security, economic well-being, and energy needs are closely interlinked with this region. India enjoys good relations with all countries of the region. That should facilitate India playing a more agile and vigorous role in the region.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).