For two years, US official experts predicted strongly that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who succeeded Abdullah in January at the age of 79, suffered from dementia and would have a shorter reign than his six predecessors due to his failing faculties. Learned US think tank researchers dismissed him as capable of remembering a conversation for no longer than five minutes before cutting out. This evaluation gained general acceptance in Berlin, Paris and London.
Now, all of a sudden, after barely six months on the throne, he is acclaimed by US intelligence officials as perfectly competent, as well as hard-working, bursting with initiative, and able to keep going at his current speed for another six to eight years. He would therefore still be on the throne when President Barack Obama’s successor ended his term at the White House
DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts, who were skeptical about the original US dismissal of Salman’s capabilities, are also wary about this startling reassessment. They suggest it may be influenced by the new king’s affinity with the branch of the Saudi clergy which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike King Abdullah who persecuted its adherents. This would align Salman with President Obama’s pro-Brotherhood orientation and his preference for a Turkey-Qatar-Saudi bloc over any other Middle East grouping.
(Although a Muslim Brotherhood delegation was invited to visit Washington, the State Department announced last week that US officials would not meet its members after Cairo summoned the US ambassador to express displeasure at the visit.)
Pretexts aplenty for demoting the crown prince in favor of the king’s son
Another motive behind Washington’s warm appreciation of the Saudi king and his prospects may have more to do with a power game afoot within the royal family. It is noted that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, long the US administration’s preferred successor to Salman, is losing ground to the king’s own son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who at the age of 30 has been loaded with honors as Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defense, Chief of the Royal Court and Special Adviser to the King. This week, He was sent on an important mission to Moscow to represent the King in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (See separate item on these talks)
The buzz in court circles these days downgrades Crown Prince MB Nayef. Though indefatigable in combating terrorism, he is said to be overdoing it against foreign extremists and neglecting domestic threats. Clandestine Islamic State cells have consequently mushroomed to the detriment of national security.
Arrests for the attacks staged on Shiite mosques in the Eastern Province on May 22 and 29 were seen as tardy. Responsibility was moreover claimed by the Islamic State’s “Wilayat of Najd,” namely a province established by ISIS in the very heartland of the Saudi national Wahhabi faith.
The criticism leveled against Crown Prince MB Nayef on this score is taken in Washington as a sign that he is on his way out, to make room for the king to anoint his son heir and first in line to the throne.
Other pretexts for his demotion were ready to hand in the Yemen conflict (see separate article), and Riyadh’s failure to curtail the spread of Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, especially Bahrain.
MB Salman is good with young Gulf emirs
Washington is therefore ready to pat the king’s son MB Salman on the head and compliment him on his performance at the Gulf Cooperation Council, where he has formed close ties with the young generation of ruling emirs.
Salman Junior is now best friends with the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and the new Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The Obama administration appears to entertain high hopes of this princely trio being pragmatic enough to bring about an understanding between the GCC and Iran, thereby rounding off the US president’s own success in forging a nuclear deal with Iran.
Crown Prince MB Nayef’s failing influence at the court of Riyadh, less than six months after he was elevated to the position, is not just a matter of policy; it is also personal. None of his offspring are boys, only girls, and moreover, his branch of the family is small and has little influence.