Growing rift emerges between Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his heir

Growing rift emerges between Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his heir Prince Salman as experts predict the crown prince will emerge victorious

  • Experts say there is evidence of a rift between King Salman and Crown Prince
  • Saudi Arabia has been unable to repair damage of murder of Jamal Khashoggi
  • King Salman went alone to recent  EU-League of Arab States summit om Egypt
  • Was noted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was not at official greeting
  • Crown Prince bin Salman’s age means he will inevitably be ‘last one standing’ 

The damage done by the Saudi-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is continuing to prove difficult to wash off for the Kingdom, and it has created a growing rift between King Salman and his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to experts.

The 33-year-old crown prince, known as MbS, had become the public face of the Kingdom following his 2015 ascension to heir to his ageing and increasingly frail father’s throne.

However, recent months has seen a reverse of the King’s voluntary reclusion from public life, and just two weeks ago the Crown Prince found himself sidelined at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt.

Father and son:  The fallout from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has created a rift between King Salman and his heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

It was the King himself, not MbS, who met with British Prime Minister Theresa May during the summit, and when the father returned, the son was absent from the ceremony welcoming him back to Riyadh.

‘While any movements in the Saudi Royal family are difficult to decipher, there is evidence of a rift,’ James Pothecary, security expert for Healix International told MailOnline.   

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‘Going forward, you will continue to see some political movement to keep a careful eye on, but what is going to be interesting is to see which side the rest of the Royal Family come down on.’ 

Unlike European monarchies, the House of Saud is made up of hundreds of princes, with the power of succession drawn across tribal lines, rather than automatically going to the eldest son.

Each branch of the dynasty is consulted before a new King succeeds, but as the Crown Prince is now the de-facto ruler, an attempt to remove him from the equation would potentially have violent consequences. 

No prince: Prime Minister Theresa May and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attending the EU-League of Arab States Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in February

‘When factions in the Royal Family are making calculations on whose side to come down on, they have to be very careful not to choose the wrong side,’ Mr Pothecary says. 

‘King Salman is held in high reverence, but at the same time, he is 83 years old and bin Salman has strong support from the United States.’ 

‘My personal indication is that the King’s age means that in any conflict, bin Salman would take the lead, considering what may happen two or three years down the line.’ 

Dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in October, despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts to argue the contrary, it soon became clear that he had been assassinated by a hit squad which the CIA later reportedly established had been sent by MbS.

This saw the Saudis condemned by world leaders and practically incinerated MbS’s ‘reformation’ efforts – including allowing concerts and letting women drive cars – to make his nation appear more Western and less like the tribal and conservative Muslim state it still very much is. 

Big fans: President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington last March

According to recent reports, the damage to the nation’s reputation, and the reputation of the Saudi royal family, angered King Salman. 

‘There are subtle but important signs of something amiss in the royal palace,’ Bruce Riedel, a director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and 30-year veteran of the CIA, told The Guardian.

‘A healthy crown prince is expected to welcome the king home from a foreign trip [from Egypt], it’s a sign of respect and the continuity of government.’

In December, King Salman ordered a surprise government reshuffle which involved sacking of one of Bin Salman’s closest aides Adel al-Jubeir, and Turki al-Sheikh, a confidant of MbS, was removed as head of the Sports Authority. 

The king’s interventions in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder reflects growing disquiet among some members of the royal court about MbS’s fitness to govern, a number of sources told Reuters earlier this year. 

MbS has implemented a series of high-profile reforms since his father’s accession, including ending a ban on women driving and opening cinemas in the conservative kingdom. But he has also marginalized senior members of the royal family and consolidated control over Saudi’s security and intelligence agencies. 

In an interview last year, Colonel Brian Lees, once the UK’s defence attaché to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, went as far as to say that the Crown Prince’s days as de facto ruler are ‘numbered’ following his disastrous handling of the Khashoggi murder.

‘The Saudis will never admit that MbS (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) was culpable but this does not mean that he is in the clear. I believe that the king will get rid of MbS by replacing him,’ Colonel Lees told Kurdish network Rudaw.

A Saudi source with links to the royal court told Reuters earlier this year that ‘even if he is his favourite son, the king needs to have a comprehensive view for his survival and the survival of the royal family. In the end it will snowball on all of them.’

However, not all experts agree.  

‘The idea of a fight between the King and the Crown Prince is in the imagination of observers who do not understand what is occurring within the kingdom at this time,’ says Dr. Theodore Karasik, a Middle-East/North Africa geopolitics expert and Senior Advisor to Washington-based Gulf State Analytics, told MailOnline.

‘MbS has successfully solidified his position in last few weeks, especially with there being a new head of Saudi Arabian National Guard Forces, plus his outreach in the provinces through various projects in terms of building momentum towards his transition [to the throne].’  

Mr Pothecary adds: ‘I would suggest that whatever conflict is going on, the internal forces supporting cohesion will triumph, and it [the perceived rift] might just be a way to control Bin Salman’s impulses. 

‘There is an overriding priority within the Royal Family to contain any dispute. The survival of the House of Al Saud is the priority, and the family’s ability to contain disagreements between themselves is why they have stayed in power.’

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