King Salman Builds up His Son’s Levers for the Accession
Saudi King Salman is working overtime to buttress his 31-year son, Muhammad bin Salman, so that he will be ready to ascend the throne without opposition when the time comes. Last month, he elevated his son to crown prince after appropriating the title from the unwilling hands of his cousin, Prince Muhammed bin Nayef.
In a significant reshuffle decreed on Thursday, July 20, the king created a new executive body, the Presidency of State Security, as the umbrella for the merger of the national counterterrorism and domestic intelligence services, which were formerly part of Bin Nayef’s domain as Minister of the Interior.
Intelligence chief Abdul Aziz bin Mohammed Al-Howairini was promoted to its head with the rank of minister. The newly anointed Crown Prince has developed friendly ties with US President Donald Trump. As a leading liaison officer between US administration and the royal court, Al-Howairini’s appointment was most likely given the nod from Washington. The new head was also given a new assistant, Abdullah bin Abdulkarim bin Abdul Aziz Al-Essa.
The Interior Minister was therefore stripped not only of his title as Crown Prince, but also of his key powers as Interior Minister. He lost the General Directorate of Investigation, the Special Security Forces, the Special Emergency Forces, the General Security Aviation Command, the General Directorate of Technical Affairs, the National Information Center and all affairs related to combating terrorism and financial probes.
The royal decree cut these departments out of the Interior Ministry and transferred them the new Presidency of State Security.
The most powerful organs of state were thus deposited in the hands of Mohammed Bin Salman, arming him for a smooth transition to the throne. Furthermore, a secret video recently discovered by the Wall Street Journal recorded the king’s statement that the time had come for his son to become king.
That video would serve as Salman’s testament after his death, or attest to his voluntary abdication should he so decide.
That event may be no more than days away, according to some seasoned US and British Saudi pundits. They also reveal that young Bin Salman did not use kid gloves for unseating his cousin as Crown Prince last month. He separated Bin Nayef from his bodyguards and close advisers, confiscated his cell phones and held back his diabetes meds – until his cousin agreed to give up his title and be video-taped swearing an oath of allegiance to the king’s son. The deposed prince is now said to be confined to his palace in Jeddah, guarded by men loyal to his usurper.
Rumors making the rounds in Riyadh claim that the Interior Minister was relieved of his position as heir to the throne because he was unfit to rule due to poor health and addiction to pain killers and other unhealthy substances.
Those rumors have never been verified.
What is known for sure is that the deposed crown prince openly opposed the policies embarked on by the king’s young son, including the turning of the screw on Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in the Yemen civil war and Riyadh’s assertive steps against Iran and the Shiite minorities of Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf.
Bin Nayef stuck to his guns. Two years ago, he led the faction in the royal court which fought against exacerbating tensions with Tehran by the execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, on charges of promoting “foreign meddling” in Saudi Arabia, disobeying its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces.
DEBKA Weekly’s Saudi experts assess as exaggerated the predictions of King Salman’s imminent departure and handover of the scepter to his son. The king and his son have yet to overcome substantial challenges before this can happen:
1. The two rival armed forces – the regular army and the National Guard – would have to be fully amalgamated. The two military arms were maintained as counterweights to guard against either of them attempting a coup d’etat against the king. However, in recent years, the autonomy of the National Guard was whittled down by the Defense Ministry’s gradual takeover of some of its functions. Arms purchases, for instance, are now concentrated in the hands of the Defense Ministry, namely Mohammed Bin Salman. The National Guard’s separate arms purchase authority is defunct.
2. The commander of the National Guard is Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the former king. A formidable obstacle, he would have to be removed before the two military arms are merged. And there is no sign of this happening. He looks like a tougher nut to crack than Bin Nayef. His forcible removal would stir up a major storm in the royal house and shake the kingdom.
3. The king still needs to spread the support for his son’s accession across the kingdom. It would require a wide-ranging reshuffle of district governors and their replacement by figures on whose loyalty Bin Salman can count.
The Saudi monarch therefore still has a hard row to hoe before crowning his son as king without rocking the kingdom or creating mayhem among the thousands of princes who populate the royal court.