Beset with a host of domestic and external challenges, the House of Saud is on the verge of a precipice.
A major palace intrigue came to light on Oct. 8, when several Saudi websites reported that 79-year-old King Salman Bin Abdulaziz had been admitted to the intensive care unit of the of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, after he was restrained and heavily sedated. The sources said his condition was too unstable for him to be transferred to a hospital in the US as planned.
In Salman’s absence, Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Nayef was said to be in charge of running the government.
That report was just one of many symptoms attesting to the unrest simmering in the House of Saud. One of the many thousands of princes, sons and grandsons of the founding ruler Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, told The Guardian (of London) that the leadership of Salman, who acceded to the throne in January, faced grave questions from the public and the royal family.
The same prince said he had written two letters this month demanding Salman’s ouster.
The coup is real and still underway
“The king is not in a stable condition and in reality the son of the king is ruling the kingdom,” he said. “So, four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious. The public are also pushing this very hard, all kinds of people, tribal leaders,” he added. “They say you have to do this or the country will go to disaster.”
With the exception of DEBKAfile and WorldTribune.com, no news organization in the world carried the report of Salman’s hospitalization. A consensual media blackout appeared to have been drawn down over the condition of ruler of the world’s largest oil exporter. The story was neither confirmed nor denied by any Saudi or other Arab source – as though it was written in invisible ink.
But the debkafile headline – “Saudi King Salman Hospitalized, Palace Coup Suspected” was not too wide of reality.
In a strenuous investigation since Oct. 8, DEBKA Weekly has confirmed that the coup attempt was real and is still underway in the darkest regions of the Saudi royal court.
In view of the seismic effect such a coup would have on the global economy, the US-Iranian nuclear accord, the Syrian civil war and world oil markets, our sources decided it was important to expose the story’s inaccuracies as well as its truths:
False and true
- King Salman was not confined to the Intensive Care Unit of the King Faisal Specialist Intensive in Riyadh.
- He was not restrained and heavily sedated.
- The government in Riyadh is not being administered by Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef
But it is true that:
- The king’s son, Prince Muhammed bin Salman is ruling the kingdom.
- Elements of the royal family and public do question the king’s leadership.
- Palace coup conspirators were planning to move Salman to a US hospital.
- Four or possibly five princes will soon meet to discuss plans for the king’s ouster.
The main hand behind the intrigue is Prince Muqrin
DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive sources in the Persian Gulf and in Washington have also discovered the prime mover behind the intrigue. He is one of the kingdom’s most powerful figures, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who was the right hand of King Abdullah, Salman’s predecessor on the throne.
From 2005 to 2012, Muqrin served as director of Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah, the Saudi Intelligence Agency. Abdullah then appointed him as his special emissary and advisor. In February 2013, he was promoted to second deputy prime minister and, a month later, rose to Deputy Crown Prince – second in line to the throne after Crown Prince Salman.
King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 should have bumped Muqrin up into Salman’s position as Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister, but in April, the new king shunted him aside and replaced him as Crown Prince with Muhammad bin Nayef.
Under Abdullah, Muqrin was the kingpin of Saudi Arabia’s policymaking machine. He was in charge of Riyadh’s relations across the Middle East, and ran the show of his country’s military involvement in Libya and Syria, the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and its orientation on Iran.
Muqrin also held the strings of Riyadh’s special intelligence ties with Washington and Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and intelligence organization, the Mossad.
Three kingly branches at odds with Salman
Mugrin has harbored a deep grudge since his downgrade from the position of crown prince on April 29 and removal from the levers of power. He determined not just to regain his former elevation as crown prince, but to go all the way toward ousting Salman and usurping the throne.
This is not an entirely hopeless pipe dream. He has powerful allies within the royal family.
First and foremost among them is Mohammed bin Nayef, the incumbent crown prince, who is in a fierce competition with the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince and his loyalists are convinced that if he fails to get rid of the king and his son, one way or another, the king and his son will get rid of him and make sure he never attains the throne.
Muqrin’s allies include the scions of another branch of the sprawling royal family, sons of the late King Faisal. It is led by Prince Saud bin Faisal, long-serving foreign minister until early 2015, and his brother Prince Turki bin Faisal who was head of the Saudi General Intelligence in the 1990s and is a perennial pretender to the throne.
They also number prominent members of the Sudairi branch of the royal family, from which sprang another former monarch. It is led by Prince Khaled bin Sultan who was deputy defense minister for many years and a high-ranking commander in the Saudi military. Another is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who as ambassador to Washington for decades was the architect of the special relations between the two countries.
Bandar was more recently appointed director of Saudi intelligence services and then National Security Advisor to the late King Abdullah. He is credited with forging the subsequent rapprochement with Moscow and ironically distancing the kingdom from Washington, where he was at home for many years.
A restive princely elite rather than an organized conspiracy
This branch also numbers Prince Mutaib, son of the late Abdullah, who has so far kept his job as commander of the powerful Saudi National Guard.
Another important anti-Salman figure is Khalid al-Tuwaijri, chef de bureau of two kings – Khaled and Abdullah. Salman removed him from all his high posts soon after acceding to the throne. Tuwaijri was a highly competent government official with an unparalleled web of connections in Riyadh’s ruling establishment. Salman sacked him for fear that his high influence would undermine his own.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the king’s opponents have not quite ganged up against him so far. The disaffected princes have not banded to together for a concerted bid to topple Salman. It is more a case of a powerful and broad elite within the royal house watching eagle-eyed for any sign of weakness the king or his son may exhibit, as an opening to be exploited for their removal.
One example would be the failure of the Saudi intervention in the Yemen war, the king’s son initiated for defeating the pro-Iranian Houthi uprising. The anti-Salman princes held back their criticism so long as the young prince was able to muster a broad Arab coalition to fight along with the Saudi military and start marching on the capital Sanaa. But since that advance has faltered and Sanaa remains out of reach, public grumbles within the kingdom are growing more vocal.
Washington favors the anti-Salman opposition
The princely opposition has also gained the sympathy of some US intelligence circles and certain influential politicians in Washington, who are convinced that putting Mugrin on the throne would be more advantageous to US Middle East interests than Salman and son, who are perceived as anti-American.
Washington was the original source of the rumors that Salman suffered from dementia, two years before he ascended the throne, claiming that his memory was so defective that he could not remember what he heard after a few minutes. The same sources depicted his son as unfit to rule, with a nature that was impatient and short-tempered.
These reports were intended to discredit the competence of King Salman and his son to be rulers of the oil kingdom.
The story put about on Oct. 8 was not therefore the start of a palace revolution, but part of an early stage in its progression. It was released seemingly as part of a plot to force the king’s abdication by putting him on a plane to the US and placing him under indefinite restraint in a hospital, after having him diagnosed as unstable and liable to self-harm.
Since that plan apparently fell apart, a fall-back measure was devised to confine him under heavy sedation in the ICU of King Faisal Specialist Hospital. That plan also fell through.
Lingering internal disaffection imperils Saudi crown
Still, the plotters remained confident enough to trumpet their next step, namely a conclave of princely opponents to the king. Last week, a prince who chose to stay anonymous published an open letter calling for the top princes of the realm to be summoned into emergency session..
”We [have] got closer and closer to the fall of the state and the loss of power," the open letter said. “We appeal to all the sons of King Abdulaziz – from the eldest Prince Bandar to the youngest Prince Muqrin – to summon an emergency meeting with all the family to discuss the situation and do everything that is needed to save the country."
The letter was said to be signed by "a descendant of the King Abdulaziz of the House of Saud."
Circles in the West and the Middle East may have succeeded in blocking publication of the ongoing palace intrigue, but they failed to stamp out the opposition against King Salman and his son. At the moment, there are many signs that the opposition is potent enough to have a major impact on the future of the House of Saud.