Nimr Execution as Rallying-Point for King Salman and His Son’s War Policies
The execution of 47 “terrorists” in one day, including the prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, was unusual – even by Saudi Arabia’s medieval standards of capital and physical punishment for crime. According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources in the Persian Gulf, the event also sharpened, instead of bridging, the deepening divisions among the princely factions of the royal house.
Those sources cannot determine which royal factions favored the Shiite cleric’s execution and which were opposed, but they were reliably informed that it was instigated in the belief that it would unite the top princes behind the policy of intervention in the wars of Yemen, Iraq and Syria, initiated by King Salman and his son Muhammad, who is both Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister.
Support for this policy is flagging, challenged not only by their main rival, the Crown Prince and Deputy Defense Minister Muhammad bin Nayef, but also by the rest of the royal family.
Internal politics were at play here – even more than objective policy considerations.
The king and his favorite son, Mohammed (or MbS, as he is nicknamed) are seen to be conspiring to make the latter heir to the throne, leaping over the incumbent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN). This would break with Saudi royal tradition of never passing the throne from father to son.
Ironically, even though the king and his son make a show of distancing themselves from US policies, the Obama administration appears certain that the conspiracy will succeed and MbS will in fact be the next Saudi king.
This is far from certain, in the view of DEBKA Weekly’s experts on Saudi affairs: They envisage a royal power struggle culminating in a compromise for the orderly accession to the throne of Crown Prince MbN, while his youthful rival, Salman’s son, would be given charge of ruling the kingdom in practice.
This arrangement has precedents.
In the reign of Khalid bin Abdulaziz from 1975 to 1982, his future successor Fahd bin Abdulaziz ran the affairs of the kingdom until he himself ascended the throne in 1982.
However, the factions in opposition to the king and his son also advance strong arguments against their policies.
1. The Yemen civil war initiated by the defense minister has reached a stalemate despite Saudi military intervention. The failure to break through to victory has seriously weakened his position and that of his father, King Salman.
2. The Yemen war is costing the Saudi exchequer an astronomical, $1 billion per month, equal to a whole year’s outlay for the Russian intervention in Syria. With oil prices plummeting to below $30 bpd, Riyadh has had to dip deep into its reserves. In 2015, the Saudis drew some $90-98 billion out of the app, $600 billion total.
The oil kingdom, with little experience of having to count pennies, is aghast at its new situation.
3. The king’s son is drafting a crisis plan for the sale of some 5 percent of Saudi stock in Aramco, the state-owned company that is the world’s largest oil producer and one of the most valuable in the world. The royal family has yet to decide whether the shares will be sold exclusively to Saudis or to foreign investors as well. The possible sale of some of royal-owned lands is also under consideration.
Asked in an interview what would happen if oil prices continued to fall, and the price per barrel barely covered production costs, MbS remarked confidently that what goes down, can also go up.
4. The Islamic State is a growing menace to the kingdom’s security – internally from disaffected young Saudi men and externally from Iraq and Yemen.
5. As the Shiite-Sunni contest builds up, Riyadh sees the two main world powers, America and Russia, tilting towards the Shiite bloc of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizballah versus the Saudi-led lineup of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan.
The whole point of executing Nimr al-Nimr was to provide a rallying point for gathering the key princes and ordinary Saudis around the king’s son and a reminder of the perils awaiting the kingdom in the absence of unity.