King (Malik) Salman bin Abdul Aziz bin al-Saud, 81, has replaced his nephew Mohammad bin Nayef as crown prince with his 31-year-old son Mohammad bin Salman in a manner that reflects, among other things, the unquestionable traditional grip of the House of al-Saud on power in a land known as Saudi Arabia and the incumbent ruler’s desire to strengthen his son’s position amid a grave diplomatic Qatar-Gulf crisis, a deadly civil war in Syria, and the simmering Saudi-Yemen conflict. The prince already wielded huge power, including a highly important portfolio of defence, before he was declared heir on Wednesday. It is interesting to note that when Mohammad bin Nayef became the crown prince two years ago, he was the first member of his generation to rise to the top of the royal family, but now the kingdom is on a path to be led by someone far younger.
The elderly Malik’s action has arguably turned the young crown prince into a de facto ruler of the kingdom, perhaps responding to the hopes of kingdom’s young population, more than half of which is under 25, in times of economic hardships the lower oil prices have caused for the kingdom for the past several years as Mohammad is widely known for his economic and modernization ideas. Although Iran, the principal rival of the kingdom, has described King Salman’s son’s ascent as a “soft coup”, the transition was smooth to say the least. “I am going to rest now. May God help you,” said the former crown prince Mohammad bin Nayef, to which Mohammad bin Salman replied: “May God help you. I will never do without your advice.” Moreover, 31 out of 34 members of Saudi Arabia’s Allegiance Council acted in favour of King Salman’s decision to inject “clarity” into the imperative of heirship since the right to inheritance constitutes the central pillar of a kingdom’s governance architecture; it has more profound meaning in a highly conservative society like Saudi Arabia’s which is strongly characterized by the corporate spirit of asaabiya. This spirit, which was identified by the most important figure in the fields of history and sociology in the Muslim history, Ibne Khaldun, in the 14th century through the study of dynamics of group relationships, and painstakingly explained by great historian Albert Hourani in the 20th century, leads its members to help each other in the time of need and those who share a name share also a belief in a hierarchy of honour: Mohammad bin Salman kissing the hand of his ousted cousin and kneeling in front of the older prince to receive congratulations is a strong case in point.
This major development in the context of the Middle East and Maghreb in general and Saudi Arabia in particular has been preceded by a highly important visit of US President Donald Trump to the kingdom only recently. For the last three decades, the United States and Saudi Arabia have had a very special relationship-through wars, oil crises, and global terrorism. This relationship seems to have found a new meaning after US President Trump’s address to the Riyadh summit which was attended, among others, by prime minister Nawaz Sharif. One must not, however, lose sight of the fact that the Middle East is a region where Russia under Vladimir Putin is strongly competing with the West, notably the US, with a view to expanding its influence. The current Qatar-Gulf diplomatic and economic crisis is among the top challenges faced by the Arab world. This requires a resolution at the earliest because of a variety of reasons. In this context, it is interesting to note that the principal power wielders in Saudi Arabia and Qatar-Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani-are in their 30s. The leadership of these two Arab energy giants are therefore required to come up with some creative and bold ideas to resolve the crisis anytime soon in the larger interest of Ummah in general and the Arab world in particular.