Is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), 32, at the end of his breathtaking career after two years of being showered by his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz with unprecedented powers? That is the rumor going around Riyadh since the crown prince dropped out of sight for a while. He suddenly reappeared on Sunday, Sept. 30 during a three-day visit to Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmand al-Jaber al-Sabah.
A short time before that visit, he received a phone call from President Donald Trump. Its contents were kept under close wraps in Washington. DEBKA Weekly’s sources can report, however, that their conversation covered four vital areas:
- Soaring oil prices. President Trump has taken OPEC – and the Saudis in particular – to severe task on this on a number of occasions, including his speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25. Trump was especially irked to learn from his intelligence sources that MbS and President Vladimir Putin had been working together to boost oil prices on the world markets. He warned the Saudi Crown Prince that by scheming with Putin on this matter, he could sabotage the US sanctions going into effect against Iranian oil sales on Nov. 4. Putin, Trump said, was boosting oil prices to compensate Tehran for the loss of sales and rescue Iran from the sanctions squeeze, which, after all, was a shared US-Saudi interest.
How the prince responded to the US president’s scolding is not known. However, previous US official complaints on that score were greeted by a MbS’ underling with a shrug and the comment that oil prices were not his to determine. This comment, too stoked rumors that a cardinal issue had been taken out of the once omnipotent crown prince’s hands and passed by the king elsewhere.
- The quarrel with Qatar. Trump is also said by our sources to have tackled MbS on the abortive US-Kuwaiti bid to help patch up of the Saudi-UAE quarrel with Qatar. The Kuwaiti emir, who was in Washington in the first week of September, implored Trump to revive US intervention to resolve the quarrel which had split the emirates into two hostile camps.
- The standoff in the Yemen war: Saudi-UAE coalition forces have been battering the strategic western port city of Hodeidah for five months without prying it loose from Iranian-backed Houthi control. This standoff has encouraged the Houthis and Iran to heat their aggression against Bab al-Mandeb straits and Red Sea shipping. On Oct. 1, Houthi forces explosive speed boats were aimed at the Saudi port of Jezan for the first time in four years. Also for the first time, they used standard Iranian Revolutionary Guards Navy tactics for targeting the Saudi Red Sea port. The Saudi Navy later reported intercepting the raiders.
- Patriots moved out of ME: The US President informed the Saudi prince that his administration had decided to transfer some of the Patriot anti-air batteries from Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain to the Far East. Trump knew that this decision would go down badly not just in Saudi Arabia but in Israel as well.
These four issues, pivotal to US Gulf regional policy, were put before Crown Prince Muhammad at a time that Washington was awash with rumors of the prince’s waning influence at the court of his father, King Salman. His ambitious reform plans have gone to pot, along with his dreams of diversifying the Saudi economy after the failure of his Vision 2020 program to raise capital investment by floating five percent of the state-owned Aramco shares. Investors are giving the kingdom a wide berth after his strong-arm tactics against mega tycoons.
In the third week of September, the crown prince’s disappearance from the public eye surfaced in Washington. Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project, reported that Prince Mohammed was becoming aware of the growing enmity “in his own family” to the “drastic steps the young prince took to consolidate his powers” in the kingdom. Fearing for his security, the crown prince has gone AWOL and is “living on the $550 million yacht Serence bought in 2015 and moored in Jeddah.”
His critics may have just as much to fear from the young prince’s ire, say opposition sources. Some are disappearing; other complain of systematic harassment.
A man identified by friends as Essam al-Zamil, a prominent economist who once criticized MbS’s plan to float Aramco shares, has been charged by Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor with joining a terrorist organization and meeting with foreign diplomats. He is accused specifically, according to local media, of membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, communicating with Qatar and inciting protests in the kingdom. His case was revealed this week by the London-based ALQST dedicated to monitoring and documenting “prisoners of conscience.” Zamil is said to have been detained since September 2017 with dozens of intellectuals and clerics opposed to the Crown Prince.
In another case this week, Jamal Khashoggi is described as entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday for routine paper work and not heard of since. Contrary to Prince Muhammad’s much publicized program of reform and change, opposition activists in the kingdom claim that when they promote the rights of women, ethnic minorities or other reforms, they are harassed by the authorities.
Circles close to the royal court suggest that MbS has fallen so far in his father’s favor that the king may be contemplating sacking him as crown prince, next in line to the throne, and replacing him with one of his brothers. So secretive is the House of Saudi about its in-family affairs and intrigues that such rumors take time to confirm. It may be a given, however, that if MbS is dropped as Crown Prince, he will also be stripped of the powerful portfolio of defense minister. His downfall would set off a political earthquake in the kingdom and rumble across the Gulf and the Middle East at large. It would be a smack in the face for President Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who have held him close as an ally and a keystone of their Middle East policies. For that reason, Crown Prince Muhammed’s eclipse would give Iran a huge win for its aspirations by removing its staunchest archfoe in the region.